November 6

5 Ways You Can Upgrade Your Fundraising Appeal Letter


During my nearly 30 years in higher ed marketing, fundraising appeal letters have been the bedrock of alumni and donor development.

They’re especially relevant as we inch closer to the end of 2023.

That’s because about 30% of nonprofit donations happen during the month of December alone.

So hopefully, your advancement office has already set its sights on the “giving season.” Here are 5 things they can do to knock that EOY fundraising appeal letter out of the park.

1. Use Real-World Stories to Specify Real-World Problems

One of the biggest mistakes I see colleges and universities make in their fundraising appeal letters is when they paint problems with a broad brush.

Your potential givers already understand that your school has pain points that their money could solve.

What potential donors really want is a clear and concise explanation of how — and who — their gift is helping.

You may not plan to use their money to help build a new basketball arena, but your target audience doesn’t know what they don’t know. That’s why you need to use specific real-world examples of how their contribution can help solve a problem they care about.

For example, their gift isn’t going to end war or natural disasters. However, it could support someone who’s been drastically affected by one of those calamities, like Columbia University’s Scholarship for Displaced Students program.

Here’s an excerpt from that program’s page that could translate really well to a fundraising appeal letter:

“As the first-ever Columbia-wide scholarship and the world’s first scholarship of its kind, this program will commit up to $6 million in support, per cohort, for up to 30 students each year…

Across its first two cohorts, the Scholarship has now supported 53 students from 24 countries attending 14 schools.”

By injecting genuine student and faculty stories into your letters, your readers will be more inclined to justify an emotional decision with a rational choice.

2. Identify the Hero of Your Fundraising Appeal Letter

So we’ve established that storytelling is a core part of higher ed philanthropy, and every good story has a hero.

Now while I’m sure your school can point out plenty of heroic feats throughout its history, what you really want to do is highlight how your readers have helped make those moments possible.

Make your alumni and potential donors the heroes of your fundraising appeal letter.

Anytime you get the urge to use “I” or “we,” take that as an opportunity to pivot to “you.”

A donor-centric letter focuses on their accomplishments and their concerns. By targeting what motivates them to give, you’ll bridge an emotional connection with your audience.

3. Personalize Your Letter for a Generational Audience

In order to target your donors’ motivations, you first have to understand what they are.

In 2022, I spoke with Bill Stanczykiewicz, Senior Assistant Dean for External Relations and Director of the Fundraising School at IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy on The Higher Ed Marketer.

Bill had this to say about how his school approached personalization:

“We could have 10 people who supported our college or university. But that means we could have 10 very different reasons for their gift. Maybe one is an alum, maybe another one is a parent of a student who graduated, maybe one is a business leader who relies on the college for the next round of employees — there are all sorts of reasons why people give. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all.”

Now, perhaps your school doesn’t have the resources to segment your audience down to every minute detail. That’s okay! You can still appeal to their inclinations through a readily available defining trait — their age.

Craft a Fundraising Appeal Letter for the Appropriate Generation

You may have seen a similar table to this one here around generational differences in core values:







Pay particular attention to the “Value” and “Traits” tables.

For example, you’ll see that older donors resonate with qualities like “traditional” and “loyalty.” However, millennials are more concerned with “diversity” and “innovation.”

Your fundraising appeal letter should echo your recipient’s experiences and expectations.

So speak to the attributes they care about!

4. Incorporate Your Donors’ Desires in Your Call to Action

Once you’ve crafted a story that resonates with your audience, you need to give them a compelling call to action — but not necessarily in that order.

Give your reader a clear call to action early in your fundraising appeal letter.

Otherwise, they may lose interest while you’re listing all the problems you want their help solving.

Lead with practical solutions that speak to your alumni and donors and instill a sense of urgency.

Let’s revisit our generational audience talking point for some examples:

  • Baby boomers: “Help rekindle your alma mater’s legacy! Contribute X to the endowment fund and secure X University’s future.”
  • Gen X: “Support the entrepreneurs of tomorrow! Give X to help fuel our community’s Small Business Partnerships.”
  • Millennials: “Tomorrow’s technology is right around the corner! You have the power to make it the status quo for tomorrow’s computer science students.”

5. Keep It Reader-Friendly

Remember, you’re writing these letters for a general professional audience.

Your donors and alumni have a lot going on in their lives, too. Most of them don’t have time to dig into a jargon-filled manifesto.

Maintain a personal and conversational tone that is concise and appealing to the busy reader.

Ensure your fundraising appeal letters are skimmable. Stick to the topic at hand and only give them as much information as they absolutely need.

Emphasize keywords and phrases with bolded fonts.

Insert new paragraphs and subheaders when appropriate.

The goal is getting your readers to understand you in as little time as possible, so it never hurts to ask some colleagues for honest feedback on your content’s digestibility.

What Story Will Your Fundraising Appeal Letter Tell?

Like any captivating story, your appeal letter should strike a balance between a compelling narrative and an emotional connection with the reader.

But in this case, the hero — your donor — is the one holding the purse strings.

As higher ed marketers, it’s our job to help our Development teams tell those stories.

We’d love to help you write them! If you’d like to learn more about how you can expand the reach of your fundraising appeal letters, reach out to me.

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Featured image by Volodymyr via Adobe Stock

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