Bringing gift opportunities to life for annual donors

Let’s imagine a common scenario.

Soon you’ll be sending an email appeal to thousands of alumni and friends. Because of the pandemic, your institution is focusing on emergency student support. You’ve got the perfect story to tell about a student who received assistance this fall. All you have to do is draft the narrative, write a “call to action”, plug in a few “tangibles” (gift opportunities) that your donors can give to, and—well—watch the funds roll in.

Except that as you write, something’s off. There’s a critical question on the edge of your consciousness that you can’t answer quite as clearly as you’d like: “Will my donors actually care about these gift opportunities?”

I’ve helped clients think through this issue a number of times for direct appeal writing. Below are a few notes I’ve made over the years on the subject that I hope will be useful to your own work.

You have permission to shake things up.

Your strategy will have a precise administrative fund name (or two) for the appeal to support. In this example, we’ll use the Emergency Student Support Fund.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t give you a lot of detail to work with. But remember the fund name is the theme, not the final copy point—don’t let the lack of specificity curtail your imagination.

Strong gift opportunities should be real and relevant. So the first thing to do is jot down the real, relevant necessities that fall under the category of Emergency Support:

  • $50 can fund internet service.
  • $150 can buy a textbook.
  • $250 can help with rent.

Put these on the page and technically you’re “done.” But stop here, and you’ll be far from satisfied. Worse yet, your donors will be far from inspired.

As writers, our job is to get at the feeling behind each need—to communicate why philanthropy is critical, and how your donor can make a real difference in a student’s life.

One way to do that is to connect the list more firmly to the story I’m telling in the appeal, so that the tangibles actually help reinforce my core message.

As a result, I’ve started thinking about these tangibles in an earlier phase of the creative process: the story interview.

Invite your inner journalist to the story interview.

Let’s rewind a bit to the original interview with the subject of your appeal piece.

Many of us writers dream of being intrepid reporters like Bob Woodward or Ida Tarbell. We’ve trained ourselves to zero-in on the key details that can make a great story. Unlike investigative journalists, however, many of us tend to stop asking questions a bit too early in the process. Woodward doesn’t have that problem—he keeps asking—which probably helps explain why he writes such captivating and compelling nonfiction.

Before the interview, jot down a list of possible “emergency needs”—tuition, rent, internship support, travel expenses, etc. —then ask questions that test out your hypotheses. Pull yourself deeply into what your subject was going through at the time they received financial support. Keep asking questions.

  • What options did you have before you received donor support?
  • What was your biggest fear at that time? Were you worried about having to drop out?
  • What went through your mind when you actually got a financial aid check in the mail?

Posing these kinds of questions and then soaking up every detail is what often makes the difference between an average appeal and one that actually advances your mission. A few weeks ago, I was interviewing a student who had received financial support for several emergency expenditures, including her nursing textbook—a 1,500-page tome that is absolutely essential to building her technical skillset as a healthcare provider. Bingo.

This detail will make my “textbook” gift opportunity a lot more authentic. All we need now is to dial in the right voice.

Bring it to life with an authentic perspective.

How “flashy” can a “tangibles” list really get? We’re not looking for standing ovations here. We’re looking to convey a real need that resonates with your donor.

I usually start by putting myself back in the shoes of a student who has meager resources and tuition due in a week. In this scenario, a few extra dollars to use on a textbook can literally mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

Think of it this way: Every emergency is personal and unique to the one experiencing it. The stakes are always high when you’re the student in need of financial support. When you’re the writer of an appeal, your job is to make your reader feel the impact their philanthropy can have.

There’s a quick exercise I use to warm-up. Start with the same-old tangible and then rephrase the idea based on a detail or two from your interview. For example, “My donor isn’t buying a textbook. They’re reducing the financial burden of a heavy textbook.” This is not the final cut. It’s a working draft with a few ideas we can shape.

After thinking it through and doing a few rewrites, we might end up with something like this: “By giving $150 today, you can ease the heavy lift of a new 1,500-page textbook for class.”

In the end, every word of your appeal should help make the case to act now. Gift opportunities shouldn’t be an afterthought in your appeal campaign. The details you give to your donors—and the way you describe them—should be a key part of the overall narrative.

Leave time to go back and review your piece to make sure the tangibles include details and that they tie-in to the rest of the story. If they look like just another series of bullets on a page, your donor might just skip over them entirely. You need concrete details and a compelling voice to make sure your donor feels the immediacy of the need. Every word should invite your reader into a deeper conversation about your institution—and how they can personally—make an impact right now.


If you’d like to talk more about appeal writing or other topics in fundraising communications, email counsel@grenzglier.com.

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