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Effective Fundraising Letters Are About People Not Projects

Have you ever met a donor who liked funding infrastructure? I have. Once. When I served as Director of Development for a national non-profit, my organization needed a new heating and ventilation system for the national office. The cost was around $75,000, as I recall.

The executive director approached one of our major donors, a businessman who was also a faithful supporter, and asked if he would like to partner with us. The donor promptly wrote a cheque for the full amount. Later on, that same donor made a commitment to pay for the parking lot to be re-paved, a renovation that would cost over $25,000.

That donor was the exception. Most donors do not get excited about paying for sheet metal ducts or fresh asphalt. Donors give to people, not programs. Donors dont send donations by mail to support a mission statement. They dont respond to appeals because of your vision statement. Or simply because your general fund is depleted. And they are not (with rare exceptions) inspired to pay for electrical bills, staples, travel costs and plumbing repairs. Donors are people. And people give to people, usually to help people.

This basic fundraising truth means that you must state your organizational needs in human terms whenever possible. You must translate your case for support from non-profit-speak into flesh and blood. Donors want to know how their gift will help the people that you serve.

This fundraising truth still applies even if you do not serve people. If your non-profit promotes nuclear arms disarmament, for example, your donors want to know how their gift will end nuclear weapons testing. If you are an animal-rights charity, your donors want to know how their financial gift will rescue animals from laboratory experiments.

How to say people, not programs

If you are raising funds for a specific project that aims to help a particular people group (children, seniors, single mothers, children with cerebral palsy), then your job is straightforward. Ask yourself these questions:

1. What is my clients need?
2. What do we presently lack to meet that need?
3. How will my client benefit if we meet that need?

Here is an example. Imagine that your non-profit organization in South Africa runs an orphanage for children whose parents have died from AIDS. The children are suffering from dysentery because the local water supply is contaminated. Your solution is to drill a well. You need $50,000.

You could send an appeal letter to your supporters, asking for $50,000. Mistake.

You could send an appeal letter to your supporters, asking for $50,000 for a new well. Another mistake.

Remember, people give to people to help people. Your donors want to help orphans, not drill a well. Drilling the well will help the orphans, but your ask needs to concentrate on the orphans. Heres how you would answer the above three questions.

Q. What is my clients need?
A. To avoid deadly dysentery.

Q. What do we presently lack to meet that need?
A. A well that supplies fresh water.

Q. How will my clients benefit if we meet that need?

A. Live rather than die an excruciating death. Continue enjoying the benefits of full-time schooling. Continue to reach their potential physically, socially and emotionally. Avoid many medical complications later in life. Be productive members of society in a few years. Be able to help others. You get the idea.

Your job now is to ask for funds to drill the well so that the children will benefit in those ways listed. Dont just ask for money for a well. Thats just a project. Dont show a photo of the well in its packing crate. Show how the donors gift will help the children you serve. Thats the people.

What about the general fund ask?

The greatest challenge in this area is when you are requesting funds for your general fund and not for a tangible project, when you cannot describe any specific benefits that are tied to a particular initiative. In these cases, you still need to describe your need in human terms, and you do this by showing your donors the view from 10,000 feet instead of 10 feet..

Lets say you need to raise money by mail for your general fund, to pay for salaries, administration, office supplies, postage–all the things that are needed to run a non-profit. The view from 10 feet says you need to raise $20,000 this quarter to meet general fund expenses or youre in trouble with your board. But the view from 10,000 feet says you need to raise $20,000 to continue meeting the needs of the people you serve.

So instead of saying this:

Please donate to our general fund.”

You say this:

Please send a gift today to our Sequoia Senders Fund. From this fund we draw the monies needed to promote our service to environmentalists at large, train teams, send them overseas, and handle all the tasks involved in getting those volunteers onto the field and back again in a way that promotes responsible forestry practices, encourages and equips local activists, and blesses the volunteer who goes.

See the difference? The fund is no longer a general fun but a fund set aside to accomplish the goals of the organization. It serves the same purpose, it just has a more compelling name. This ask is worded in such a way that it covers every office expense from paper to payroll, yet in a way likely to inspire and motivate donors.

Your role as a writer of effective fundraising letters is to always be looking for the human interest story that lies beneath your immediate financial needs. Capture that, and youll capture the hearts and minds of your donors.

2005 Sharpe Copy Inc. You may reprint this article online and in print provided the links remain live and the content remains unaltered (including the “About the author” message).

About the author
Alan Sharpe is a professional fundraising letter writer who helps non-profits raise funds, build relationships and retain loyal donors using creative fundraising letters. Learn more about his services, view free sample fundraising letters, and sign up for free weekly tips like this at

2005 Sharpe Copy Inc.

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