Make the Most out of Your Nonprofit’s Annual Letter Campaign

It’s October, the season when many nonprofits organize an annual letter campaign. Letter campaigns can be a great fundraising tool when there is enough planning and personalization. 

How Letter Campaigns Can Go Wrong

However, letter campaigns can also be disastrous. Once, we saw an organization use an old mailing list to send a generic appeal letter to 500 supporters, some of whom hadn’t supported the nonprofit for several years. The organization opted not to use a mailing service, and instead, asked their staff to print the 500 letters and stuff the 500 envelopes by hand. Not only was this expensive for the organization (about $1 per letter), it took up a TON of staff time.

Once the letters were sent, the nonprofit started to receive phone calls from angry donors who received letters addressed to deceased loved ones and donors who had never signed up for a mailing list and didn’t like being solicited. In the end, the organization received a few checks from donors totaling $475, just a few dollars short of what they had spent on the campaign. So overall, the organization lost time, money, and their reputation among certain donors. 

Make Your Letter Campaign a Success

All nonprofits want to avoid this nightmare and the good thing is there are ways to plan and implement a letter campaign that is truly successful and engages donors in meaningful ways. Here is our guide on how to implement a successful annual letter campaign this fall.

1. Plan Your Year-End Campaign

Your year-end giving letter should only be one part of your year-end campaign. While some donors (especially older generations) appreciate a formal letter in their mailbox, it’s better to reach other donors via email, phone, or social media. Think about what segment of your donors is most likely to give because of a letter and only send the mailing to that group of supporters. For the donors you do send letters to, it’s important to follow up the letter with an email, or even better, a phone call. 

To fully prepare for your year-end campaign map out a timeline describing when you will complete each task.

Sample Timeline:
  • AUGUST: Set Goals, Outline a Theme
  • SEPTEMBER: Segment Your Donor List
  • OCTOBER:  Write Your Year-End Appeals, Prepare online giving channels and envelopes
  • NOVEMBER:  Review and Finalize letter content AND send the first round of appeals
  • DECEMBER:  Update donor progress, send follow up asks, and thank donors
  • JANUARY:  Report progress and year-end success to donors

2. Define and Segment Your Audience

Decide who among your donors you will be sending letters to. While every nonprofit is different and has to think about what will be best for their donors, a general rule of thumb is to send letters to older donors and supporters who have opted to donate via mail in the past. Once you’ve chosen who you will send letters to, you may consider segmenting your audience further. You could base these segments on how much donors have given in the past, when they last gave, or what programs within your organization they have given to. The more personalized each appeal is, the better. Make sure you are calling each donor by their preferred name and that it is spelled correctly. You can also add acknowledgment of the donor’s past giving and impact to make it especially personalized. 

3. Get Your Donation Forms Ready

Every good mailing comes with an easy way to donate by mail. Include a pre-paid return envelope where donors can enclose cash or a check. Read our Compliance Corner about mailings to learn about how to send mailings in bulk and navigate the legal requirements around pre-paid envelopes.

4. Give Thanks and Stay Positive

Make sure to promptly acknowledge mail-in donations with a phone call and follow up with a letter that doubles as a tax receipt. Acknowledging donations is an important part of building a long-term relationship with your donors, and failing to thank your donors can result in them feeling unappreciated and deciding not to make further gifts.  

5. Language Matters

The language you use in your appeal letter is a reflection of your organization’s brand and values. Use simple language in a consistent tone that is in line with what your organization cares about. Don’t use elaborate, difficult-to-read wording and stay concise. The letter shouldn’t exceed one page in length.

6. Create a Sense of Urgency and Highlight a Call-to-Action 

An effective appeal letter includes a clear, urgent call to action. Appeal letters are more effective when you are fundraising for a specific need instead of for your organization in general. Think about why this funding is important to your organization now and verbalize it in your appeal letter. Here are some examples of calls to action that we love: 

  • Give $50 on Giving Tuesday so that one family gets a holiday meal. 
  • Please use the enclosed pre-paid envelope to contribute $100 to our afterschool arts program. 
  • Please donate online or by check to our effort to raise $100,000 for 100 children with cancer.

7. Use Storytelling to Make It Compelling

Donors are often used to receiving dry, lifeless appeal letters. Imagine what it would be like to receive the letter in the mail, and what would keep you reading the letter. The most effective way to capture a donor’s attention is to tell a compelling story about your organization or a program participant. Including a photo goes a long way. 

8. Try a Postcard Instead

Postcards are less expensive, leave more room for compelling imagery and force you to be concise about your story and call to action. Think about whether it’s time for your organization to say goodbye to the classic appeal letter and opt for a postcard instead. 

9. Don’t Let Yourself Spend Too Much Time on the Appeal Letter

We often see nonprofits sink a lot of staff time into their appeal letters. Luckily, there are many resources to help you get started on a quality cover letter. One of our favorites (and one of the best-kept secrets in the nonprofit industry) is, where you can find templates for every kind of fundraising letter you can imagine and even more good advice on how to run an effective annual letter campaign. 

Is this your first annual letter campaign? We recommend understanding how to comply with the legal requirements for nonprofit mailings. If you’re looking for guidance on your annual campaign, schedule a free consultation with Linda Akey