What not to do in a fundraising appeal

So just today I got an email from an organization that I admire very much. They do great work supporting a cause I care a lot about and they are a lynchpin of their community. Their email was a request for funding, a relatively small but not insignificant amount of money, and a fairly deadline for reaching their fundraising goal. I thought about giving a few dollars to help them out, but first I asked a few questions.

The first question I wanted to know was, “Well, why do you need the money?” They state up front that they are facing an operating deficit. Okay, that makes sense, but why? Was it a failure to raise funds? Did one of your major donors not give this year? Is membership down? Or was it poor budgeting and financial management on your end? What happened that you have this shortfall? Because your answer may influence my willingness to give, particularly if it pertains to questions about how you manage the organization.

Secondly, what’s the urgency? Why now? And then I saw a qualifier I hope I never see in any other fundraising appeal: “nothing life-threatening.” Now, this is 100% true: this is an arts organization and no one will die if they drop a few programs or services. But still, why are you downplaying the importance and urgency of this appeal? Granted, hyping up the urgency isn’t going to help either, but why are you reminding your potential donors that they don’t really have to give? They even state that the shortfall is only 3% of their budget. Stop downplaying your need!

To their credit, they do point out that they will have to cut programs and services if they do not meet their gap. Okay, so now I’m concerned again. What programs and services? How will I be affected? How will other constituents be affected? Unfortunately, they list out the major services they provide as a reminder of the things they do, but it’s not clear that they will cut these programs (the foundations of their organization) or what if any changes they will make to them. What are the consequences of not giving? Again, why is this important and why is it urgent?

Finally, what are the benefits of giving? They point out that if we help them meet their goal then they will start the next fiscal year on sound footing. Okay… But what’s in it for me? I know it sounds selfish, but compelling fundraising appeals frame things from the perspective of the recipient, not the sender. Because this organization wasn’t clear about how any cuts will affect me, I also don’t know how meeting this small, non-life-threatening gap is going to benefit me or make any difference for the things I care about.

So, let’s recap a few important lessons to learn from this appeal:

  1. Always state the need up front.
  2. Make it clear why this need is important and urgent.
  3. Don’t downplay the important and urgency of your appeal.
  4. Be specific and concrete when talking about the need and the consequences.
  5. State the benefits (or costs) to the donor as it relates to what they care about.

How do you write fundraising appeals? What are some best practices you’ve encountered? What are some things to avoid doing when writing an appeal?


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