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Tom Ahern, President, Ahern Communications, Ink.
How I wrote a fundraising letter that doubled the previous results
I agreed to write a fundraising letter for an organization I knew pretty well.
They were in a tough spot.
People in the community didn’t know enough about what this org did (they were a mental health clinic) and why they were important.
The trouble was patient privacy.
They hadn’t been actively collecting client success stories because of confidentiality concerns so there was little in the way of storytelling to work with.
In the past their fundraising letters had talked about mental health statistics: X% of kids suffer depression. Y% of them will drop out of high school. Suicide is the Z leading cause of death among teens and young adults.
Those numbers are important, but they didn’t paint the real picture of what the counselors were doing – and what the donor support was going to.
People give because of how you make them feel.
The clinic I was writing for was saving lives.
I’d spent many hours learning about their work while working with them on a case statement. I knew the struggles they went through - the ED holding a meeting in a file storage room once because his office was needed for an emergency client session.
But that kind of thing doesn’t translate well on paper.
To really understand the impact the counselors made you had to see for yourself. And that’s impossible. You can’t let people sit in on therapy sessions. They can’t read the intake reports.
So, I told the readers a story.
“Imagine Cody, only seven years old - a little boy. Abandoned by his parents and so deeply wounded that he is afraid to let anyone else get close.”
Cody was a real kid. He could have been one of a dozen, with just enough detail changed to prevent any identification.
So, the reader was asked to imagine (and consequently picture in their mind) a young child, abandoned and afraid. This is the kind of image that breaks hearts. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do.
I made sure to include a note I’d found in their files that said: “Thank you for showing me that life is worth living.”
The note and the story about Cody painted a picture for the reader. Now they can see how important the work is.
They were literally saving lives.
But impact isn’t enough. People also must like you.
People give to people (and places) they like.
I had an advantage here.
The executive director had a reputation in the community and among the donors for being an engaging speaker.
People knew him, and liked him. Many people gave just because he was the ED.
But again, the clinic wasn’t using it. His personality didn’t shine through in the previous letters.
I had him sign the letter.
He would be the one speaking to the donors. And he would open his heart to them:
“You see, I'm writing to you today to ask you for help.
Our numbers tell me that this year I'm going to have to tell Cody that we can't help him. We wish him well, but we simply can't afford to help him.
I can't accept that. I can't accept that a small child, his life ripped apart through no fault of his own, should have his future decided by a few numbers on a budget sheet.”
As it turned out, their donors couldn’t accept it either…
Good fundraising should shake things up.
I might have taken things just a bit too far.
The ED received several calls and one very concerned visitor. “What’s going on? Are things really that bad?”
He assured her things were ok, but that these were the kinds of things her money was put to. The more money they raised, the more people they could help.
Imagine, a letter stirring up your emotions to the point where you get in your car and drive to the place to see for yourself just how dire things are!
That’s the power of emotion. A fundraising letter should make your donors feel. It should make them react.
And react they did!
My letter doubled the returns over the previous year.
Part of this was from new donors. Part of it was existing donors giving more.
But would it backfire? Having learned that the ED wasn’t personally telling young children to go away, would they go back to their previous donation level in the future?
Well, I wrote the letter for them again the following year.
And the returns went up again. Not as impressively as the first year, but they beat my first letter by another 30%!
These were donors who were engaged in the mission.
My letter hadn’t told them anything they didn’t know. But it reminded them of the most important stuff before asking them for money.
And that made all the difference.
“We were very fortunate to have Andy write our spring appeal. It was a great success and we experienced a 466% increase over the previous year! Andy is absolutely wonderful to work with – knowledgeable, helpful and talented. I highly recommend him.”
Vickie Patterson, Development Director, American Foundation of Counseling Services
"Andy did excellent work for the Neville Public Museum. He wrote our year-end annual appeal in 2012. His expert writing garnered almost 100% more results (donations) than the previous year. Plus, he is a joy to work with!! I highly recommend Andy."
Mauree Childress, Director of Development and Marketing, Neville Public Museum
“Andy was instrumental in helping me write an Annual Appeal that was hugely successful! We received many gifts, of which 80% were first time donors. In addition, through this appeal, we received an anonymous donation of $40,000 - another first time donor! Andy is great to work with, and obviously, knows his stuff!”
Connie Greenawald, Executive Director, CASA of Brown County
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