Dani Robbins

Unappealing Annual Appeal Letters

In Resource Development on November 3, 2013 at 8:27 am

The annual year end appeal time is upon us! Development staff are sharpening their pencils (keyboards?) so they can craft a letter that will engage donors and encourage gifts to support the programs their agencies provide. This seems like a good time to list out the unappealing and unsupportable things I have seen mentioned in letters over the years.

Last year, I got a letter that said the task in front of us was “insurmountable” and asked for a donation. There is no point in me (or you) sending money to an organization that is facing an insurmountable task. If the task is really insurmountable, how will my donation impact it?  If my donation will not impact it– and obviously it will not since that is the definition of insurmountable- why would I give?

I want to impact issues I care about with my donation. I want surmountable tasks that the agencies I support have a plan to address. Tell me that plan and I am far more likely to write a check. Tell me that you are not up to the challenge and I am far less likely.

I have received requests from agencies asking for money to fill a budget gap. Please do not write in your annual appeal that you have a budget gap and need my donation to fill the gap. I don’t want to fill the gap. There are donors that you can go to in your hour of need to help you meet your budget or stay out of the red but most of them will not be asks you make in writing.

Donating to a sinking ship feels like throwing good money after bad. Only your most dedicated donors will consider doing that. Saying your ship is sinking encourages people to question your leadership. Why have you not met your budget? Are there issues of fiscal impropriety? There may not be, but why open the door and invite those questions? Some agencies have shortfalls for good reasons. In those cases, illustrate the reasons and build your case for support – in person. Donors that you need to save your sinking ship should always be asked in person.

Annual appeal letters are intended to request support from potentially new donors and smaller yet consistent investors who you know and love but who may not have the capacity or the level of engagement required to meet your individual ask threshold, which will vary by agency.

People give to people. Often, they give based on who asked them. Annual appeal letters are a great opportunity to ask a respected community leader to chair the committee and sign the letter and also to have board members, as possible, write notes in the margin.

Donors will support your agency for a variety of reasons but the ones most paramount are gifts given to make the world a better place and to impact the issues the donor cares about. Please frame your letter accordingly; make it about the world and the issues not your agency and its needs.

In closing, I will share that the most recent unappealing annual appeal letter I have received was from a university I did not attend. The letter, based on wholly inaccurate information, ended with snide remark. It said “Don’t you want to help someone the way someone helped you?” Now you might have noticed that I did not attend that university so it’s also safe for you to assume that I did not get a scholarship to not attend that university.  So I wondered “help me do what, exactly?

I use the story to illustrate two points. The first point is this: don’t guilt. Guilt is a terrible way to raise money. It may get you a onetime minimal donation but will not build engagement and will certainly not build multiple gifts at increasing levels over the years. If the initial engagement method is flawed, you are building a foundation in the sand.

The second point is this: get your facts straight. It’s unlikely that every person they sent that letter to actually received a scholarship from that university. Unless you’re going to crosscheck every letter you send against every scholarship you’ve given, it’s better to come up with a broad message that will encourage people to support your organization, without assuming that they got something in return.

The moral of the story is this: know your donors. If the university had, they would know I didn’t go to their school on scholarship … or at all.

What is your best advice for annual appeal letters?  What’s the letter you still remember shaking your head when you received? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

 

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