5 Elements of Effective Fundraising Appeals

Fundraising Appeals

For many nonprofits, the fundraising appeal provides the backbone for year-end, fiscal year-end, and annual campaigns. The appeal, often a direct mail letter or e-blast, frames the most important concepts surrounding your nonprofit and encourages donors to join the cause.

Because an appeal is so essential, fundraisers must begin with a solid foundation for this fundraising strategy. Follow these five elements of effective fundraising appeals as a useful template for all of your upcoming appeals.

Open with a Story

How have you typically begun your fundraising appeal?

  • Do you thank the donors first for helping you achieve the goal last year? Whoops! This is not a stewardship letter! Donors need to be properly and thoroughly thanked before being asked again!
  • Do you describe what the organization accomplished recently? Nope! Donors need a separate annual report or other outreach to wrap up previous projects.
  • Is the opening line filled with statistics about the need in your community? While these are undeniably relevant, consider reworking them later into your appeal.

The problem with these opening lines is they may not earn the donor’s attention and engage them to finish the entire appeal. Or they try to accomplish too many parts of the Donor Cultivation Cycle simultaneously, which can make the appeal feel rushed and donors left uninformed.

Nonprofit storytelling delivers a potent and compelling introduction for any fundraising appeal. Donors want to know how their involvement is necessary to improve conditions around a cause they care about, before learning bland statistics or hearing about yesterday’s news.

The best way to inspire donors to participate is by illustrating true philanthropic needs of real people and real situations. Capture a story that is relevant to your fundraiser and empowering to the subject of the story.

Example: Dolly came to Old Cat Love last year, plucked from the to-be-euthanized list. As a 12-year-old cat needing dental work, Dolly was seen as an undesirable pet. But because of the monthly donor program at Old Cat Love, funds were available to save Dolly and fix her teeth. She was adopted in December 2018 and now enjoys a spacious catio overlooking a six-acre ranch. Dolly is a very affectionate cat and always sleeps under the covers with her new family.

Show How the Money is Spent

Competition for philanthropic dollars is higher than ever before. Therefore, nonprofits must provide a more compelling case for support than someone on a convenient, viral crowdfunding site, asking for donations for their sick pet.

One of the best ways to stand apart is by being transparent about how the money is spent. Break down specific donation amounts that reflect the actual costs to deliver programs and services.


  • It costs $250 each day to support a camper on scholarship.
  • Our new facility will incur a monthly electricity bill of $5,000.
  • Renting a piano for our concerts costs $1,200 per performance.

Including these actual figures helps build trust between the organization and donor. Donors will feel more comfortable making an investment because the nonprofit has publicly declared how it will be spent. It also provides valuable education to those most interested in your cause. Many donors may not realize how expensive it is to run a nonprofit!

Include a Direct Call to Action

The story you choose should allude to a call to action. In the example above, donors are getting primed to consider the idea of becoming a member of the monthly donor program.

However don’t forget to include a direct call to action in your appeal. Consider phrases like:

  • Make a recurring monthly gift today to help older cats like Dolly …
  • Join our camper sponsorship with a gift of $250 …
  • Help us reduce our electricity cost by donating to our solar panel project …

Smart fundraisers know never to include a thank you or other unrelated and inefficient information in a fundraising appeal. A direct call to action removes all doubt to the purpose of your appeal and makes a compelling request.

It is a lot for one sentence to conquer, so use active verbs. I actually revised the first one to better illustrate this point! Instead of leaving it at my first attempt (“Please consider”), I changed the sentence to “Make”.  Do you think this made a difference? Contact me at caitlin@bequests.com.

Choose the Right Messenger

An appeal involves one compelling voice communicating to the potential donor why a nonprofit deserves their support. But whose voice do you choose?

There are a few options for potential messengers for the appeal, or who would appear on the “from” line.

  • Staff (Executive Director, Director of Development)
  • Volunteers (Board President, other board members, key volunteers)
  • Fellow Donor
  • Program Participant

How Do You Choose?

Ultimately the messenger you choose depends on your audience. Do you have a more traditionally-structured nonprofit? An annual appeal signed by the board president or executive director may be the best fit.

Is one of the values of your organization leadership development? Consider recruiting a program participant to write an appeal letter. Discover if a value that you share with your donors can be displayed through the appeal.

Major gift campaigns often benefit from featuring a fellow major donor. If the person lending their voice to your appeal is particularly influential in your community, it may encourage their familiars to explore your organization too.

Personalize! Personalize! Personalize!

Now that you have a compelling story, actual investment numbers, and a compelling call to action, it is time for … data entry! 

While this is not a glamorous part of the appeal process, it is vital to customize your donor appeals as much as you can.

Preferred Salutation

I left this one at the bottom of the list because I hope no one is still using “Dear Donor” or “Dear Friend” salutations anymore. If you have not yet learned how to customize documents using linked spreadsheets, please take the time to learn today! Donors expect (and deserve!) personalized appeal letters!

Be sure to capture adequate salutation information now, if you have not yet already. Maintain a field on your spreadsheet to include the full preferred salutation, including any honorifics (Dr., Sgt., Mx.).

Individuals are claiming more aspects of their identity, so it is useful to be proactive in respecting these choices. Include “preferred salutation” as a line on your pledge card so you can update this information at least once each year.

Customized Ask

Many appeal letters include a personalized ask within the copy of the appeal letter. It may look something like this:

Example: Ariel, you gave $300 last year. Would you consider giving $325 this year?

Establish a percentage increase for each gift. You may assess the same percentage for all of your donors or a different increase depending on the segment. Major donors sitting near the threshold of the next donor level may be suggested a larger increase to help them graduate to new rewards in the next highest giving circle


These five critical elements are the basic building blocks of a strong appeal. Don’t forget to gather a great story and solid financial information for the bulk of your appeal’s language, closing with a direct and powerful call to action.

When it’s time to sign, make sure you have chosen the correct messenger for your campaign and audience. Before you mail these appeals, double check the customization; at the very least call your donor by name!

All of our blogs, products and services are proudly conceived, created, reviewed, and disseminated by real humans — not A.I. (artificial “intelligence.”)

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