Making Your Appeals More Donor

Making Your Appeals More Donor Centered

March 29, 2017

There are many articles, blogs and books that outline ways to create compelling appeals through persuasive content and strong storytelling. Without a doubt, it is important to construct a clear case for supporting your organization’s work, but by focusing the bulk of your attention on a traditional appeal narrative, you are likely missing opportunities to engage donors in the way they want to be engaged.

We know that giving is a psychological response. We also know that behaviorally, human beings like to be able to draw lines between ourselves and the things we impact, and that we tend to care more deeply about things we feel impact us more directly, or vice versa. There is a wealth of emerging data and discussion among fundraisers on the efficacy of shifting toward more donor-centered fundraising approaches. Using this knowledge and data in the context of appeals has the potential to completely transform the way in which your organization communicates to its donor base, and can result in both increased gifts and greater donor engagement overall.

The following are tips to help you start making the shift toward a more donor-centered appeal. If you are gearing up for a spring appeal, you can also download this example of how to update a traditional donor appeal letter and make it more donor-centered.

Examine Donor Demographics

Before you begin constructing your appeal, take some time to analyze your donor demographics. While it is unrealistic for most organizations to write individually personalized appeal letters for each donor, your donor base should not be treated like a monolith and should be segmented for targeted communications whenever possible. We know more than ever about generational giving behaviors and patterns, so segmenting your appeal by age/generation could be a good tactic to try first. Looking at restricted gifts to segment your appeal is also a good tactic to consider—for instance, if one third of your donors give unrestricted gifts, and two thirds give to two specific programs, consider these three groups as three different audiences. Donor geography, family status (i.e. parents of small children, parents of adults or no children), or non-fundraising engagement (i.e. participates in advocacy campaigns, volunteers) can also inform appeal segmentation.

Map Out Audience, Messaging & Channels

Once you’ve established how you plan to segment your appeal, you will need to develop a clear plan for messaging and channels, specific to each audience segment. Messaging for each segment should include a high level case for support and a call to action. Channels should be thoughtfully selected for each segment and data-driven. For instance, if you know the majority of your millennial donors give in response to online appeals, do not waste your time crafting a hard copy appeal letter to be sent by snail mail. This is also a good time to consider whether or not you want to use A/B testing within certain segments, and also whether or not you want to follow up with an email appeal to donors receiving hard copy appeals.

Overhaul Narrative & Format

Does your current appeal format follow the “Intro→ Information About Your Organization→ Ask” format? If you’re moving toward more donor-centered appeals, you must be willing to depart from this to a degree. At every turn, you will want to consider how the narrative speaks to the donor about their relationship with your organization’s impact. This does not mean crafting a story about your organization’s work that you feel will resonate with a specific audience. This means directly calling out how a donor/donor group has impacted the beneficiaries of your organization. The more you are willing to do this, the more it will fundamentally change your narrative—for instance, in favor of a story about your organization’s work, consider a story about how a donor or volunteer’s contributions have impacted your beneficiaries. It seems counterintuitive at first, but the less you write about how your organization does its work and more about how the donor is achieving impact, the more donor-centered your appeal will become.

In specific regard to a more donor-centered format, there are two key elements to consider: first, donor demographics should inform the format (i.e. ratio of photos to text, font size, age/race/gender representation in photos), and second, it should be as easy as possible for the donor to make their gift, whether it be through a prominently placed donation “button” in an email appeal, or a pre-filled remit on a hard copy appeal.

Use Variable Data

Whenever possible, use variable data to personalize your appeals. At minimum, you should be personalizing appeal letters for standard letter fields, like salutations—“Dear Friend” and “Dear Supporter” are not donor-centered and should not be used in an appeal. Additionally, depending on the hygiene and comprehensiveness of your donor data, variable data can also be used to populate ask strings for suggested gifts based on last gift amount, can reference previous restricted gifts, or cumulative giving. Really, the sky (and the willingness of your in-house team or mail/print-house) is the limit for using variable data!

Extra Personalization for Major Donors

If there are major donors who receive your appeals by mail or email rather than being solicited in person, plan to write highly personalized appeal letters to your top ten donors. You can anchor the appeal in the same messaging/format for their donor segment, while weaving in personal details about the donor’s relationship with your organization and the impact they’ve made. For all other major donors, or if you don’t have the capacity to write individual letters for your top ten major donors, you should ensure that each letter or email is hand signed or directly emailed by senior leadership from your organization, preferably the executive director or a board member, and that they include a handwritten note or line that directly references their appreciation for the donor’s support. In addition to creating a more personalized appeal, involving senior leaders and board members in the appeal process can be excellent opportunity to foster a stronger culture of philanthropy within your organization.

Miquette Thompson, CFRE is a guest blogger for LiveImpact, and has been working with the Bay Area nonprofit community for over a decade in both fundraising and direct services. Miquette is a graduate of University of San Francisco’s Master of Nonprofit Administration program, and has dedicated her career to supporting organizations that serve marginalized communities.


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