Direct Mail

How to Write Letters Donors Will Read

Every year, donors receive a tidal wave of appeals in their mailboxes and inboxes. If you’re writing one of those appeals, you need to find a way to cut through the noise and make your message stand out. The last thing you want is for your donor’s eyes to glaze over after reading the first sentence of your appeal. Here are some ways to prevent that from happening.

Avoid jargon. Be on the lookout for words and phrases that are common to your organization but difficult for the average person to understand. It might be obvious to you what terms like “food insecurity” and “capacity-building” mean, but won’t be as clear to your reader. Jargon will make your letter feel more like an academic paper than a note from a real person. Double check your copy for any insider words and replace them with something more relatable.

Get to the point. You only have a few seconds to grab your reader’s attention. Don’t waste paragraphs beating around the bush or bragging about what your organization has accomplished lately. Start out by stating the problem you’re trying to solve—and quickly follow that by showing how the reader can help.

Don’t hide behind vague words and euphemisms. What will your donor’s gift do? “Change the world,” “Give hope,” “Build a better future” and “Foster civil society” are all lovely sentiments . . . but they’re not concrete enough. Your organization is doing good in a very specific way—show how you stand out! Whether it’s building a new hospital wing or providing meals for the homeless, show how your donor’s generosity will make a tangible difference.

Keep things short and sweet. Avoid lengthy, run-on sentences and large paragraphs. In a letter, break your text into paragraphs of five lines or less. You can use bullet points for lists or to highlight especially important information that you want the reader to notice. You can also use ellipses to break up particularly long sentences.

Now is not the time to flaunt your literary skills. You may have an impressive vocabulary, a perfect grasp of grammar rules, or an uncanny ability to write elegant prose. Guess what? Your reader doesn’t care. What she wants is a warm, personal letter that speaks directly to her heart. The last thing you want is to sound like you’re writing a college essay. This doesn’t mean your copy can be sloppy or full of spelling mistakes, but you should keep the text as conversational as possible. A warm, friendly, and urgent tone works best. Use the first person, and try to keep your writing at around a sixth-grade level.

Make a direct ask. If your reader skims through your letter and still isn’t sure what you want her to do, you need to be more direct in your ask. Your call-to-action should be crystal clear. “Make a gift,” “donate,” and “give” are all good words to use when making an ask.

By writing clear, simple, and direct copy, you’ll grab your reader’s attention—a precious commodity! Taking the red pen to your writing can be difficult, but it will make your message much more compelling.

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