Using letters to ask for money, whether on a mass scale or in one-to-one personal appeals, requires reflecting on the psychology of letter-reading. Keep in mind the following three premises before you even begin to write:
1. When reading, watching TV or a movie, listening to a lecture, or even to a lesser extent listening to someone they care about, adults subconsciously go back and forth between two questions. The first question is, "So what?" If this question is answered satisfactorily, they move on to the next question, which is, "Now what?" This seesaw is a strong screening device for filtering out trivia, boring details, and rhetoric.
To be sure, what is trivial or boring to one person may be profound or life saving to another, so the answers to these questions will vary somewhat from person to person. However, details about when your organization was founded or the permutations of your organizational structure may not pass the "So what?" test, and the myriad problems that led to your current budget deficit will only bring on a fit of "Now what?" questioning.
As you write your letter, imagine your reader asking at the end of each sentence, "So what? What does this have to do with me, my problems, or the people I care about?" If the sentence stands up under that scrutiny, then read the next sentence while asking, "Now what?" Does this sentence offer a solution, provide more information, create confidence in the group?
2. People have very short attention spans, particularly for the written word. A person should be able to read every sentence in your letter in six to fifteen seconds. Each sentence must be informative or provocative enough to merit using the next six to fifteen seconds to read the next sentence.
3. More than anything else, people love to read about themselves. This is partly because of the first point- the “so what”-“now what” questions. "What does this have to do with me?" is an underlying question. But it also reflects a desire to be treated personally. The reader of a fundraising letter wonders, "Do you know or care anything about me?" "Why do you think I would be interested in this?" "Will giving your group money make me happier or give me status, or relieve my guilt?" "Did you notice that I helped before?"
Therefore, the letter should refer to the reader at least twice as often and up to four times as often as it refers to the organization sending it. To do this requires drawing the reader into the cause by saying, "You may have read," "I'm sure you join me in feeling,” “ If you are like me, you care deeply about..." When writing to solicit another gift or a renewal from someone who is already a donor, use even more references to what they have done. "You helped us in the past." "Your gift of $50 meant a great deal to us last year." "I want you to know that we rely on people like you - you are the backbone of our organization."
Of course, in the case of a form letter, the person receiving it knows it is not directed to him or her; but at a less conscious level, there is a belief that he or she is being addressed personally. It seems our subconscious cannot tell fact from fantasy and believes everything to be real. (That's why dreams seem very real, and why affirmations work, and how you can make a child smarter or more graceful by telling her that she is that.)
Work with those three premises as you write your letter. Notice letters that you read and try to figure out why you take the time to read them. Notice also what parts of the letter you read, and why. As a consumer of individual fundraising letters, you are not so different from the people you will be writing to, so you already have some expertise about what makes a good appeal.
There is a saying in fundraising, "People buy with their heart first, and then their head."
Abridged from a longer article "The Fundraising Letter" which can be read at http://www.grassrootsfundraising.org/magazine/feature23_5.pdf
Kim Klein is publisher of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal. 1-888-458-8588 3781 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94611