6 ways to ensure your annual giving appeals inspire action

You don’t need to be the most colorful writer to draft an effective annual giving appeal. In fact, it probably helps if you aren’t drafting prose like a best-selling author. But you do have to tell a clear, compelling story.

That story needs to appeal both to loyal donors who are engaged and have historical knowledge of the institution and those who are either new to the prospect pool or in prospect pool for some other reason. That’s a difficult line to walk with a number of potential pitfalls. But there are several areas to home in on to ensure that your appeals capture attention and inspire action.

Here’s where to start

1. ABT (Always be testing)

Regardless of whether your annual giving program is brand new or decades old, you need to regularly challenge your assumptions. That means testing different approaches to ensure that you aren’t leaving dollars on the table.

For example, we recently ran a test in which we sent one group an appeal with a graphic on the envelope and another group a standard business envelope. The graphic attracted significantly more donors while the business envelope received a higher average gift. Neither approach was “correct,” but by testing we were able to determine the best approach for the institution’s objective of attracting more donors.

2. Know your audience

Understanding the demographics of your target audience can give you a starting point to begin testing different messages and formats.

If your audience skews older, start with a direct mail test that pits a one-page message against a four-page message. The mailings should feature the same general content so that you can determine the format donors are more responsive to.

If your donors skew younger, you may want to invest your limited resources to focus on testing email and text messages as opposed to mail, which they may be less responsive to. Any format can work, but it’s only through testing that you can find your institution’s secret sauce.

3. Ensure every component has a purpose

If you’re sending a direct mail appeal, the first area to focus on is the envelope. The envelope’s sole purpose is to be opened, which is why we suggest you consider leveraging real estate on the outer envelope to draw the donor in by using a call-to-action graphic or a notice that the message inside comes from a prominent figure in the organization. That way you can drive someone to take the critical first step to reading your message.

If you’re sending an email, craft a subject line that will drive someone to open it. That often starts with a powerful action word that inspires the recipient to take action, such as “Save”, “Help”, “Give”, or “Change.” It also includes personalizing the message; 50% of marketers report that personalization is one of the most effective email marketing strategies, along with 51% who cited email segmentation.

There’s good reason for those results; personalizing the message shows that that you understand who the donor is and what they care about. For example, if a grateful patient made a gift to support her doctor’s cancer research, then receives a pediatric cancer-focused annual giving appeal, she likely won’t understand the connection. It’s up to the institution to identify a donor’s interests and provide relevant opportunities for further engagement.

4. Deliver a clear, powerful message

Regardless of format, every annual giving appeal should be easy to read with big fonts, bolding and callouts. The goal is for the reader’s eye to be able to move through the page as quickly as possible so that she can look to any point in the letter and know what is happening. That’s not easy to do unless you’re repetitive (which is not only OK—it’s encouraged!)

We suggest grounding the appeal in reality with an important bolded fact, such as “35% of families within our community struggle with food insecurity.” That fact should enable you to pivot to the importance of your work. That might sound like, “That’s why we’re focused on ensuring that no child goes to bed hungry at night with our No Family Left Behind Initiative.” If your program offers other resources or programs, you might also expand out with a sentence such as “While that program is doing important work, I also want you to know about some of our other important initiatives that we’re working on right now.”

It’s important to make sure you engage the reader where she is by starting with a bold first sentence. That way, if that’s the only thing she reads, it will stick with her, and—hopefully—it encourages her to continue reading.

From there, you can add in additional details to justify the need for funding. That requires you to be blunt. While you don’t need to be alarmist, you do need to articulate why help is needed now. Nothing should be left for interpretation. If you need money (which is why you’re sending this appeal!), explain why you need it, and what the prospective donor can do to help the organization solve the problem.

For direct mail pieces, shorter is not necessarily better. It doesn’t help to cut down your appeal just for the sake of minimizing the page count. When you force a direct mail annual giving appeal to conform to single page you may lose real estate that could improve your ability to tell a compelling story. If it takes two pages and an insert to meet them where they are and help them understand how/why you’re asking them to be a part of initiative—that’s what you should do.

That said, you do need an early call to action. And, throughout the piece, you need to use bolding, leverage white space, and make a compelling case for support in a personal, conversational manner.

You can follow a similar format in email, while also including a link to a customized landing page that includes additional details. The landing page enables you to keep the email short and to the point, providing an easy-to-access link for those interested in knowing more.

The email can feature a simple headline detailing why the organization is reaching out, while the email body might include a brief story about someone who benefitted from the organization’s work that’s aimed at engaging the prospective donor and inviting her to learn more. Include clear calls to action throughout the email, but don’t send mixed signals—make it clear what action you want the audience to take (make a gift!).

The landing page can include those stories, as well as a prepopulated giving form to make it simple for someone to quickly give.

5. Focus on the voice

We know from experience that it can be challenging to capture the most effective voice when the appeal is signed by an individual such as a curator, music director, dean, or researcher. That’s because they often don’t want to sign a letter that features the voice that’s most effective for annual giving, which is confident and positive, but also casual in a way that distinguishes it from a major gifts letter or other communications piece. After all, it needs to use a voice that is easy to engage with as a casual audience member. In other words, heavy lingo or academic speak isn’t effective.

6. Share a vision that speaks to, and is relevant to, the audience.

That means providing a clear, well-articulated case that speaks to causes that they care about and that they can impact. That doesn’t mean you can’t pitch a large-scale initiative to annual fund donors, but you have to do so in a way that brings it down to size. That may mean focusing on the importance of community, or the impact/importance of everyone coming together to contribute to a greater good.


If you need assistance rethinking your annual giving appeals, contact Al Ham at aham@grenzglier.com or Annie Hudson at ahudson@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Alan Ham

Consulting Associate

Alan Ham, Consulting Associate, brings an expertise in annual giving, alumni and constituent engagement, grateful patient fundraising, and database management. Prior to joining GG+A, Alan served as Assistant Director of Annual Giving at the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Development Office. In this role, he assisted with the…