Some Thoughts on Improving the Annual Fundraising Letter

By Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D.

I sat in a meeting last week where a development director described her strategy for the annual mailing. Except there really was no strategy or maybe it was just the fact that a template letter would be sent once again as in prior years. The model letter she showed us was a page and a half and it did tell a nice story. It was also personalized. That was a good thing. I thought the letter was rather long although I am told from experts on letter writing that length leads to gifts. I did not read to the end of it so I do not know if it was signed by a real person. Hopefully, it was. I wondered how many of these letters would end up in the basket and how much those would cost in wasted resources. I also asked myself if there might be a better way to increase giving notwithstanding that I understood that the annual letter was sacrosanct and would definitely be used because end of year fundraising was always done that way by this organization.

Prior to describing this annual letter strategy, the development director reported on the giving history of the institution. Of the 5,000 person mailing list, less than 10% actually made donations. And yet the template letter was still the modus operandi notwithstanding the fact that historically she had just reported that it did not work in terms of attracting and maybe even keeping gifts.

I understand that we are going to continue to use the annual letter. It is in our fundraising DNA; but how about if we really think strategically in relation to this development tool. I have written about improving this component of fundraising in the past (“Someone Has Been Reading My Articles – or Maybe Not!” December 14, 2017), and while this time I thought about this organization in particular, I recognized that my suggestions might pertain to any number of other not for profit institutions that depend on the end of year mailing.

In order to improve results, I would recommend to development staff the following. Take your mailing list and divide it into three groups – those who have never given, those who give periodically but maybe not last year or the year before, and those who have regularly contributed.

Think about each of the three groups in terms of how they might be inspired to give for the first time or continue their support and even increase it. The ones who have never donated should receive a letter indicating something like “we recognize that you believe in our mission and the work that we do but have not contributed to our NAME OF ORGANIZATION but hopefully, the situation below will compel you to do so this year.” And then describe need and impact of funds.

For those people who contribute periodically, note that fact in the first paragraph. “Dear So and so: We thank you so much for your past contributions and we hope that you will be compelled to help again when you read how your money helps us achieve our goals.” And then write about the situation as above.

Not only should all letters be personalized but all signatures should be original no matter who the names are that appear at the bottom of the letter. Give everyone in the organization a stack of letters to sign so that they are reminded how difficult it is to raise funds but make sure that if a woman is the signatory, then women sign the letters and vice versa. It’s very easy to see when the gender and hand writing don’t match and that will definitely take away from the impact of the personal signature!

In terms of the last group, those who have given continuously, apply the donor pyramid and select specific fundraising tools for contributors at each level on the pyramid keeping in mind that the goals are to maintain the support of these individuals and to increase the size of their respective gifts.

For those who are ongoing donors, but maybe not at the highest levels of the pyramid, thank them once again for their constant contributions and tell them how the money continues to be needed and used. The case for support remains the same in each letter; it is the introduction that changes based on the past giving history of the individual. Also, in this case, ask the person whose name appears as the signatory (executive or development director, board president or member or combination) to actually sign the letter. This indicates to the recipient that her gift is especially important and ensures that the signatory understands his or her role in development, too.

For those donors at the top of the pyramid, do not use the annual letter at all. Make telephone calls or schedule personal visits. This is a place where the board or other staff members can be helpful even those who are somewhat hesitant to “ask.” These are easy conversations since the recipients of the calls are already generous supporters and knowledgeable, hopefully, about what is occurring in the organization and the impact of their gifts. Thank these contributors profusely for past support.

Ask them why they contribute, how fundraising can be improved from their perspective, and how else they may want to participate in the organization. Have some ideas in relation to real possibilities for involvement so that you can make suggestions or stimulate conversations. Another purpose of the calls is to get to know these people and provide them with opportunities to become more committed to the organization.

In January take a look at the results. Compare them to last year. And then don’t wait to the fall of next year to start the entire process once again. Think about it in advance. Consider other strategies for getting prospects in the door and keeping those who are already donating. Determine what works and what doesn’t and eliminate the latter as opposed to repeating it year after year because that is the way it was always done. And when a letter is used in the model described above, the template component describing the case remains the same. What is different is what comes before and after – in other words, how it is framed.

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is a fund development consultant and the author of The Donor Lifecycle Map: A Model for Fundraising Success (Charity Channel Press, 2017). She also wrote Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising, (Wiley, 2014). For more information, visit: