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When Writing Your Fundraising Annual Appeal, Remember... It's All About The Story!

May 9, 2008
When approaching development writing, whether it's for a grant proposal, an annual appeal, a brochure, or an online appeal, the secret is to always keep in mind your donor. As Terry Axelrod, founder of the Benevon method of building lifelong donors, notes, an organization's "emotional hook" is critical to fundraising success.

What is an "emotional hook?" Consider the two following recent annual appeal letters (names have been changed):

Dear UniversitySchool Alumni & Friends:

The UniversitySchool began this academic year with 576 new students - all promising, all enthusiastic, and most willing to shoulder tremendous debt in pursuit of a University graduate education. Costs for one year of study at UniversitySchool now total $56,850, including tuition, fees, and expenses.

The financial aid we offer is frequently the deciding factor in whether these students come to UniversitySchool or choose another institution. We must remain competitive with our peers - schools with much larger endowments who can offer more generous financial aid packages.

Giving to the Annual Fund at UniversitySchool really makes a difference. The Annual Fund helped the School to provide a landmark amount of $4.2 million in fellowships for 86% of the best and brightest students this year. With your support we can provide even more next year.

Blah, blah, blah."

Now, if you're still with me after that uninspiring tome, read the following:

Dear Pamela (personalized):

Somewhere along the way Robyn lost her voice. She had it when she was born. She cried and laughed, and when she started talking, you could hardly get her to stop. She had a voice when she was jumping rope or playing hide 'n seek.

Then it was gone. Too much feeling like a "have not." Too much nothing to do. Too much nobody home. Too much empty lots. Too much waiting for failure. Too much and too little.

Too often, people without money feel like they are nobodies, with nothing to say, and it won't make a difference even if they did. Some people look for their voice with fists. Some look for their voice with guns. Some look in bottles.

We help people rediscover their voice in art. Their art. And with their voice comes power."

Do you see the difference?

Yet, appeal letter #1 is more the standard, accepted letter you're likely to receive. Statistics, not stories. And no doubt it gets donors. But there's no "emotional hook," there's nothing to make you care. I'm betting that you wanted to read on in letter #2. You wanted to find out more about this organization. Frankly I wanted to find out about Robyn and how this organization changed her life. If letter #2 had provided a story about a real individual, rather than a composite, it would have been even more effective.

Your organization's stories are all around you. They are in the thank you cards your program receives, the messages on the machine in your office, in emails, conversations, and in speeches at recognition events. If your program isn't in the habit of collecting testimonials, make it a top priority! Actively seek them out by sending surveys to your clients and donors. Get in the habit of keeping a tape recorder handy, and set up a comment page on your website.

When it comes to development writing, break the rules. And remember, it's ALL ABOUT THE STORY.
About the Author
Pamela has worked in the nonprofit arena since 1995. Since 2003 she has had her own private consultancy, assisting nonprofit organizations with proposal development, prospect research, annual appeal strategies and communication planning. Pamela is the author of "Five Days to Foundation Grants" and publishes a weekly blog, "Towards Effective Nonprofit Writing" - http://writegrantproposals.blogspot.com/.
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