5 Rules to Get Year-End Appeals Read

envelope icon in a blue speech bubble

This guest post is by Claire Axelrad, nonprofit coach and consultant. 

The end of the year will be here before you know it! Working on your year-end appeal?

Around this time of year, it’s common for me to hear one or more of the following — not just from newbies to the profession, but also from seasoned pros:

  • I’m struggling with copy. Just wish it could be more inspiring.
  • I wish I knew some tricks to get more folks to open our envelope (or e-mail).
  • I’d like to leverage our appeal with e-mail and social media, but don’t know where to start.
  • Wish I knew how to make our call to action more urgent.

If these statements sound familiar, don’t worry.  You’re not alone.

Crafting fundraising appeals and end-of-year campaigns is not rocket science, but there are some secrets to success. Here are five that I swear by:

1. Mailing list!

Even the best copy in the world won’t raise money if you don’t have the right recipients targeted. When it comes to assuring fundraising success, apply the Pareto Rule. Spend 80% of your time building your lists (snail mail and e-mail); 20% writing copy and designing your package. ACTION TIP: Begin with folks closest to you and ask for names (donors; past donors; board and committee members; staff; event attendees; volunteers; parents of students, alumni, families of patients, purchasers of programs, friends of board members and volunteers; subscribers to your newsletter etc.)

2. Get it opened.

Your letter is useless if the envelope gets tossed. Your envelope must persuade folks not to toss it. ACTION TIPS: (1) it’s hard for folks to resist a mysterious plain envelope.No identifying logo or name. Just a return address (and place where volunteers adding notes can handwrite their own name).  Note: the post office won’t allow this unless you mail first-class, use it for renewal and warm prospecting letters; not direct mail acquisition; (2) a brightly colored envelope stands out; (3) an oversized envelope is another trick to get folks to take notice; since it requires extra postage, which can backfire, use metered postage so it’s less noticeable; (4) a teaser works when done right. It must arouse curiosity (e.g. ask a question or start a story).

3. Begin with the P.S. 

This is the “Boardwalk” and “Park Place” of your letter! 90% read the P.S. first. ACTION TIP: Write your letter; then take a good look at it, pull out your most important message and move it to the P.S.

4. Make it readable.

Don’t hurt your readers’ eyes or get their brains twisted in a knot! They don’t have time to bother with that, so they won’t have time to bother with you.  ACTION TIPS: (1) Use a serif font; (2)Bump up the font size toat least 14 –boomers are aging; (3) Use short paragraphs - no more than five lines; break them up with one-liners; (4)make judicious use of subheads, boldface, italics and underline to emphasize key points.

5. Make it reader-centric.

Your job is to invite your reader to join you in something that will make them feel amazing. Don’t make it about you. Make it about their experience. ACTION TIPS: (1) “You” rather than “I” or “We”;(2) cross out the ego-centric stuff;(3) no jargon;(4) write like you talk; read it out loud and if it feels stilted, change it. Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules.

Want more pointers on year-end fundraising success? Please mark your calendars and join us September 10th and 17th for two Foundation Center webinars with fundraising expert Claire Axelrad. Register here for Anatomy of a Successful Fundraising Appeal Letter and Your Year-End Fundraising Checklist.


CLAIRE AXELRAD, JD, CFRE, is a sought-after coach and consultant and was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. She brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of Clairification. For help with major donors, check out her upcoming Master Class Series + Clinic.