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Your upcoming fund appeal letter can be as long as it needs to be
By Rick's StraightTalk / January 25, 2016

I recently completed a stimulating three-year effort with a 100-year-old college. I forget exactly how I got the job, but the Director of Advancement wanted a new approach for fundraising letters to parents and alumni.

My son Leo, at the time, was beginning his freshman year at a prestigious and absurdly expensive college (thankfully with generous scholarship). He followed immediately after my daughter Zoe, who finished college in Canada, whose dollar had risen 20% over the four years, a double whammy of a tuition increase.

Yet both colleges merrily sent fundraising letters to the kids’ mom and me mere weeks after we wrote hefty tuition checks, urging us to give more.

Did I have suggestions what my new client could do with its fundraising letters? You bet!

Happily, the college’s Director of Advancement said a fresh approach was just what the college needed. I was hired.

Writing to alumni about their powerful four-year experiences

Actually, most of the 150 or so letters I wrote were to alumni. The college’s previous letters featured major improvements to the campus, the difficulty of holding down tuition, special services for students, and the need to keep growing.

“Who cares?” I asked, in my typically sensitive way. “Most alumni aren’t interested in this stuff; they aren’t planning to be students again.” In fact, for most of its existence the college had been all male, taught almost exclusively by priests, and comprised of predominantly low income and commuter students. What did they care about flashy new dorms, expensive study abroad programs, and international recruitment?

I started by asking everyone I knew whether they gave to their alma maters. Most didn’t. And the few that did gave three reasons for doing so, in pretty much this order:

  1. They had a great time and made lifelong friends there
  2. They felt obligated to give and/or giving was useful to their networking
  3. They were really grateful; they felt their college gave them an important foundation for their eventual success.

Armed with those responses, I recommended to my “handlers” that we test (always test!) very detailed letters, reminding the alumni of their specific years at the college, evoking maximum nostalgia.

Once I got approval, I pored over the college’s yearbooks learning every bit of trivia I could about each class’ four years. Who was the class president (and the class clown)? Where was the senior prom held? Which student plays were performed? Who were the popular professors? Where were the favorite drinking holes? What were the peculiar traditions? What was the most-hated cafeteria food? How did the basketball team do?

I augmented the on-campus news by researching their four years of Academy Award-winning movies, the hit parades, and the major political events (for that rare student who was paying attention to the outside world). I also threw in the price of postage stamps and a gallon of gas.

It was only after I painted a rich picture reminding them of their four magical years at the college that I asked, essentially, “Please make it possible for others to carry on your tradition.”

Even though I had no history with the college, I was smitten. I was able to write to the classes who went away to World War II in the 1940s, and to the women who fought for their place on campus in the 1970s. I wrote to the alumni who experienced (me too) the political upheaval on campus during Vietnam. I suffered with them when students died in a dorm fire and celebrated when they won championships.

The letters were as long as they had to be

The letters were long – generally three or four pages. They had to be. For one thing, I was telling the story of the student’s life over four years. Second, I needed time to engage and embrace the reader. I was never worried about length, because the letter was virtually all about the alum. Bless their souls, the development staff and alumni office (said they) loved the letters.

Heck, I might have even given to my alma mater once over the past 41 years if I got a letter like mine instead of the usual “We’re building this, we’re building that” requests. (My lack of giving has never stopped Mega U from tracking me down every time I move.)

But the college’s big kahuna wanted a one-page letter

During the second year (after an apparently successful first year), just as a batch of new letters were to be approved, my contact called to tell me that a muckety-muck a couple levels above her (we’re talking college bureaucracy here) said, simply, fundraising letters can’t be more than one page, one and half max.


Okay, I get it. Most letters from nonprofits stink. They’re boring, weak, unimaginative, trite, and say nothing. Heck, in those cases, even one page is too much, especially if there is no value added; they are only ever asking for money. That’s what we expect, and that’s why we usually throw away direct mail without even opening the envelope (read my eblast “Open my (fundraising) letter, please”).

But people still read interminable New Yorker articles, letters from their children and grandchildren, The New York Times, and sports stories. For good reason: they’re wonderful.

He was wrong, and the experts agree with me

I had already done the work and I was going to get paid; it was my heart that was broken (formerly known as “it’s the principle of the thing”), so I queried the fundraising experts on the web.

Virtually everyone – dozens and dozens of smarter folks than me – agreed. A longer letter is better, necessary, and essential. Two to four pages are ideal length.

The go-to expert of fundraising letters, Mal Warwick, states

Write as long a letter as you need to make the case for your offer.
Not everyone will read every word you write, but some recipients will do so, no matter how long your letter. Others will scan your copy for the information that interests them the most.
To be certain you push their hot buttons, use every strong argument you can devise for your readers to send you money now. And to spell out every argument may mean writing a very long letter.

Kimberly Reynolds, author of Fundraising Success, says:

Longer letters do better. You can address all concerns and potential concerns. There are different kinds of readers; long letters are OK for all of them:
- Those that throw unopened envelope away - the length of letter is irrelevant.
- Those that read only beginning and ending - the length of letter is irrelevant.
- Skimmers can pick up more points from a longer letter
- Passionate readers love long letters

Jeff Brooks of TrueSense Marketing told Guidestar

In surveys and focus groups, donors often complain about long fundraising messages. They say exactly what you or I would say: "I don't have time to read something that long. Why don't they get to the point?"
That's what they say. But in real life, donors respond more often to long messages.

Check for yourself: just do an Internet search for “best fundraising letter length”.

The future may be different, but people with wealth still read

Will reading a lot of words on paper change with the continued unfolding of the Digital Age and the dwindling of people’s attention span? Possibly and probably. But today, right now, the people who are still giving money are in their 60s and literate (and women), and they belong to book clubs.

In fact, for what it’s worth, the MediaCT 2012 Mendelsohn Affluent Survey claims that 82% of those with annual household income of $100,000 or more are reading more, not fewer, print publications.

So go ahead, write that fantastic letter to your current and would-be donors for the upcoming holiday season. Be passionate, compelling, donor-centric, and convincing. Make your case. Let the length take care of itself.

The best place to look for samples

He’s probably tired of my singing his praises, but here goes. Tom Ahern is not only a great copywriter, he’s a remarkably generous soul. He shares a whole page of sample annual appeals on his website, some that he’s produced, some that he’s marked up. Check them out before you start your appeal.

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