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How to write an appeal letter

An appeal letter can generate welcome funds for non-profits. However, the average reader will only spend two seconds reading such a letter before deciding whether to reply or to bin it. Crafting a good appeal letter takes perseverance and creativity. This recipe may help increase the amount you raise.

Serves – most voluntary organisations

Preparation – knowledge on the amount you want to raise and the purpose

Time taken – approximately 2 weeks

Photo courtesy of Flickr
Photo courtesy of Flickr









  • Mailing list
  • Letter
  • Matching response device
  • Insert
  • Teaser copy


1.   Take your mailing list and:

  1. Update it constantly. Wrong information wastes funds and can cause embarrassment or upset, putting off potential donors and damaging your organisation’s image!
  2. Keep it warm. Keep your mailing list warm and interested; don’t send out an appeal letter cold if you can avoid it. For those who have signed up for them, send out regular newsletters which don’t ask for money but keep them enthralled by the exciting things you are doing to support your cause. Be sure to send them in the way they want them, some will prefer post, others email etc. Quarterly newsletters are about the right frequency unless recipients have specifically asked for more. Too much information may put them off altogether.  It is not a good idea to send newsletters to those that haven’t signed up for them, they will probably get binned.
  3. You may want to send out an appeal letter more than once a year, depending on the nature of the appeal, but again take care not to overdo it and cause irritation.
  4. Scrutinise your list and divide it into segments, for example current members, previous donors, large donors, potential donors, other personal and professional contacts, one-time visitors, students, people who have benefited from your organisation’s services. Hopefully you will have enough information to do this. For each segment you will need to vary the content of the letter slightly, for example for those who have already interacted with your organisation you should acknowledge this fact in the introduction – i.e. “Having previously made a kind donation to ….. we know how much you value our work”.

2.    In drafting your letter, bear in mind the following:

  • Highlight or underline your most important points. The reader will be skimming this. What do you want them to know? (Answer: That you are successful now and their gift will make your organisation even better.)
  • Create a sense of urgency, but not a crisis. Donors want to feel needed, but no one likes to try to save a sinking ship. If there’s a funding crisis, don’t mention it. Make sure to have time limits on your appeal by which time people have to contribute. A sense of urgency compels action, otherwise respondents may put your letter to one side with good intentions then not get round to doing anything.
  • Use storytelling – Open with a compelling story which is likely to excite emotions in the reader. Make it personal. A story about one item or person is more interesting than a story about an entire institution or 1,000 people. Address only one subject, generally what the generosity of donors has allowed you to accomplish and why you need them to give again.
  • Keep it simple and direct – erudite prose might be pretty, but it won’t raise a penny if it doesn’t move your audience to respond. Don’t give too much information. When the letter is “newsy,” it distracts from the purpose of the letter. News is for newsletters.
  • Choose a theme and repeat it several times. It might seem that repetition would make the letter boring, but people don’t read an appeal letter from first word to last.
  • Consistency. If you can, remind the recipient of the things they like, things they value, that are similar to idea behind your cause. For example: “Have you ever had a pet? (Allow the person to bring up memories of their favourite pet…). Well, we’re raising money for the XYZ Stray Dogs Trust to… ” People like to be consistent with other things they have said or done in their lives.  This should be considered in your letter if you are to returning to people who have contributed in the past, you can mention their previous donation to reignite that compassion.
  • Authority. Donations will be further encouraged if you can reference some other, well known and knowledgeable person who has already endorsed your project or organisation.
  •  Social Proof. People like to follow suit. In your letter if you can refer to the success of previous appeals -e.g. how many have contributed and how much – this may improve your return.
  •  Don’t beg. Ensure your letter has no uncomfortable tone, including signs of “begging,” or emotional blackmail. These sorts of things backfire. Think of the request as an opportunity for the recipient to be part of your exciting project. Don’t “urge” — suggest and involve!
  •  Ask recipients to give a specific amount, even if it’s a range. This is called the Ask. If they’ve given before, don’t be afraid to ask for more. You can’t get £100 from a £25 donor unless you ask. Consider personalising the letter to thank them for the exact amount of their past gift and suggest a new — and higher — one.
  • Add a P.S. The P.S. in your letter should not be an afterthought. Many people will read the PS first – is the most often read part of an appeal letter. “A well written postscript can substantially boost the response to your letter; it is like a signpost that convinces the scanner to read the entire letter, because there’s something of interest in it for them. It should contain “The Ask” (how much you want them to give) and a restatement of your appeal. Tell your donor exactly what to do, when to do it, how much to give, and how to use the reply device
  • Read your letter as your donor will. Skim. Let your eyes fall on the highlighted portions and the P.S. Those are the parts of the letter the average reader will see. Is your case compelling in those sections? If not, time for a rewrite. Test new letters against previously successful letters to find flaws and gems in your approach. You could consider sending test letters to people on your list in order to gauge their responses.

3.  With your letter, consider using:

  •  A matching response device. Create a response device that matches the look, tone and ask of the letter. A response device is a remittance envelope or card that the donor returns with their check. Since the response device is often filed away with bills for payment later, it often gets separated from the letter. Make sure your message is duplicated on the response, which will remind the donor why they filed it away with the bills in the first place!
  • An insert. Create an insert that emphasizes or supplements the information contained in the Ask. This is a great place to use graphics and colour. Many different kinds of inserts can work, as long as it adds to the content of the letter. The idea of the insert is to give the reader another perspective on your organisation or project. A photo essay about the project mentioned in the letter or a note from a well-known supporter are good examples of successful inserts. Be creative. Try using different sizes, colours or textures of paper for the insert. Make sure it’s appealing and connected to the letter.
  • Teaser copy. Teaser copy exists to encourage the respondent to open the envelope. If your respondents are not expecting your letter it may help if the name of your organisation is emblazoned on the envelope, even reference to the appeal and what it will achieve. Avoid crass statements.