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Write to Invite: 5 Secrets to Inspire Action on Your Nonprofit Appeal

You want to raise money with your year-end appeal, right?

Guess what?

However you feel when you sit down to write is how your readers will feel when they sit down to read.

Feeling anxious? Unprepared? Bored?

Your feelings come through in your writing.

So… first put a smile on your face! Think about what inspires you about your mission. What are you passionate about? What drew you here and keeps you here?

Passion is contagious.

You can do this – it’s just like talking to a friend about how important your cause is.

Yup.  Your donor is your friend.

Talk to them exactly that way.

Becoming a writer is about being conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. – Ann Lamott

TIP 1:             Look at your last appeal; does it sound like you know who you’re writing to? If not, you’re likely writing on auto-pilot, talking at your donor rather than to them. You’re likely writing about what you care about, not what they care about. You’re writing unconscious.

5 Key Secrets + 16 Sweet Tips to Nonprofit Year-End Appeal Success

1. Know Your Audience

This should be a no-brainer. How can you write to someone if you know nothing about their interests?

The fundamental secret that underlies all donor-centric fundraising is this: show your donor you know them.

How do you get to know them?

The best way is not to assume or guess.

Begin with facts in your database (age, gender, geography, profession, gift designation).

Then think about what else you’d like to know about them in order to make them a compelling fundraising offer they won’t be able to refuse.


Would it help to know something about their interests?  Their values? Their initial reason for connecting with you?

TIP 2:             Create a mailed survey or pick up the phone to get answers to your questions. Design questions so you can better understand your donors’ values. All philanthropy is based on a value-for-value exchange.

  • Don’t ask too many questions or you’ll depress response.
  • Ask a mix of questions to collect demographic and psychographic data.
  • Ask open-ended questions to get qualitative information.
  • Why did you first give here?
  • Why do you continue giving here?
  • What do you like most about what we do?
  • What do you like most about the information you receive in our newsletter/blog?

TIP 3:             Create personas. This summarizes the characteristics of your key audience members so you can picture them. “Suzy Soccer Mom.”  “Bob Business Entrepreneur.” “Wanda Widow.” Personas help you create a mental picture of the folks you’re writing to. You may also find that different segments (e.g., monthly donors; major donors; online donors) have distinct traits, and you may therefore want to approach them differently.

2. Use Your Audience’s Words

When you mirror people’s own language, they’re able to see themselves in what you do.

If you do it right, they’ll see the person they want to be. Your hero!

Use what you know about your audience from survey questions or phone conversations. Look for phrases or statements that tend to recur.

When I worked for a comprehensive social services agency, the words we commonly heard when we asked folks to select an adjective to describe us were “caring,” “compassionate,” “community” and “necessary.”

One of my clients, a theater company, found that the most common comments in Yelp reviews were “quality” and “intimate.”

What great ways to position the uniqueness of these missions and what terrific words to use in fundraising appeals, donation landing pages, newsletters, blogs and social media!

When we write without thinking about or using our donors’ words, we tend towards braggadocio. We use lots of data to boast about how many people we serve, how we’re the biggest and best, and so forth.

TIP 4:             Draw words that will resonate with your supporters from surveys, thank you letters, phone calls, events and daily conversations. Keep a notebook at your desk, and every time you realize you’re hearing a word repeatedly, add it to the list.  This helps you to be conscious of what’s already in your donor’s head, enabling you to make your copy more relatable.

3. Create a Sense of Urgency

Your donor needs a reason to give NOW, and to give to YOU rather than someone else.

Put your appeal into a current context. What’s happening in the world that’s top of mind for your donors?

Sprinkle the sense of urgency throughout your letter. Don’t wait until your final call to action to say “Please give today.”  The “why” should begin your appeal, and then permeate all through your writing.

TIP 5:             Save appeals you receive that move you to action. Why did it work? Was there a sense of urgency? How did they create that urgency?

TIP 6:             Try one of these urgent calls to action:

  • Your gift will be doubled if you give before [deadline]
  • Our doors will close unless we hear from you before [deadline]
  • Someone is killed by gun violence every minute. Please give NOW.
  • The cold of winter is upon us. Please get people into a warm shelter TODAY.

TIP 7:             Put your urgent reason to give in your P.S. It’s one of the first things people read, and will capture their attention, drawing them in to read the rest of the letter.

4. Make it Easy to Comprehend and Digest

Write at a 6th-grade level.

People today are challenged for time. They skim. Short words and paragraphs make skimming possible.

TIP 8:             Use the Flesh-Kincaid test (you can find this in your Word program). Write colloquially (i.e., how you would talk). Read your letter out loud, and take out anything over which your tongue trips. It’s okay to use contractions, one-word sentences, and to begin sentences with conjunctions. That’s what we do when we talk.

TIP 9:             Dictate your appeal by using the voice tool on your computer or cell phone.

TIP 10:           Use simple design. Plenty of white space. Indented paragraphs. Headlines, sub-heads, underlines and bullets. Compelling photos that tell a story.

TIP 11:           A picture is worth 1000 words. Look at the photos you’ve used in past appeals. Do they stand on their own? Do they stand on their own once you add a brief caption?  If not, find something better.

TIP 12:           Re-read your letter. How might you add headlines, subheads and bullets to break up the text and make it more readable.  Now look at how you might make judicious use of bold face, italics and underlines to call out important text.  I like to consider my letter to be a series of smaller letters. If folks read only the headlines and subheads, they’ll get the gist. If they read only the boldface, they’ll get the gist. If they read only what’s underlined, they’ll get the gist.  Since you never really know what parts of the letter your reader will read, it’s good to hedge your bets and repeat your core message more than once.

5. Overcome Writer’s Block

Sometimes you sit down at your desk and your mind goes blank.  You just can’t get started.  What to do to overcome this?

TIP 13:           Talk to someone else about what you want to say before you sit down to write.

TIP 14:           Find a quiet space where you can be uninterrupted.

TIP 15:           Vanessa Chase Lockshin says “Fill up your inspiration cup.” If it’s been a while since you visited your programs, get out in the field before you sit down to write. Go through some old files of thank you letters from clients (ask your program staff). Rewatch some of your own video stories.

6. Communicate for Understanding by Avoiding Jargon

It takes a lot of awareness — and practice — to avoid falling into the jargon pit. It’s important that you so so, however, as jargon stops folks dead in their tracks. When people have little time to read your letter, they’re not going to keep reading if you make them struggle. Acronyms are bad. Annoying words are bad.

TIP 16:           Always ask:

  1. Is there a more simple word?
  2. Is there a word that has more impact?
  3. Is there a word that’s more specific?
  4. If I took this word out, would the meaning be just as clear? More clear?
  5. Does this word unnecessarily (or stereotypically) categorize someone?


I hope you won’t simply read this article and delete it. Print it out, put an asterisk next to a few of the items that resonate with you, and commit to doing something new that will improve your writing.

Better yet, join me and Network for Good for the Get Ready for Year-End Virtual Conference on November 14th. I’ll be offering a special, free webinar: How to Create a Fundraising Offer Your Donor Can’t Refuse. Make sure to register so you receive access to the recording if you can’t join us live. This will be useful whether you’re a seasoned pro or are writing your first appeal. You’ll get 21 actionable tips to really rock this year’s appeal!

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