How I wrote it: the Action­Aid igua­na letter

Dur­ing a series of inter­views with lead­ing fundrais­ing writ­ers, Aline Reed talked to Fer­gal Byrne about an appeal let­ter she wrote in 2005 while work­ing at Blue­frog. It was part of Action­Aid UK’s long-run­ning mid-val­ue donor pro­gramme. Here, Aline explains her approach to writ­ing sto­ries that move donors to action. It is a fan­tas­tic arti­cle to read if you’re sit­ting down to write your next appeal.

Written by
Fergal Byrne
& Aline Reed
October 16, 2010

The challenge

On many charity files mid-value donors are neglected, falling short of ‘high-value’ treatment, yet have the potential to give significant sums if made to feel valued as such. ActionAid have led the way with their mid-value programme, which has been running for many years now. Even though the mid-value programme was well established at the time of the appeal in 2005, we needed to produce an appeal that would inspire donors to give substantial sums – from a hundred pounds or so to several thousands.

Click on image to read letter in full - in PDF version.

Background work

Aline remembers reading through the material provided for this appeal and being struck by the story of Raymond and Itai, whose story she tells in the letter. 

‘Their story really leapt out at me,’ she says. ‘I can remember the moment, sitting at my desk one evening, when I started reading about two little boys living in Zimbabwe, aged eight and four, who were orphans. Raymond was actually Itai’s uncle and they ended up just living on their own looking after each other. Reading this had a really profound impact on me and I wondered how could I get the donor to read that story and feel the same way. That was the starting point: the whole project was then to talk about children who had really difficult lives without their parents to protect them.’

The authentic detail

Aline is always on the lookout for the authentic detail that really makes the story credible, believable, alive. ‘If you’re a writer, you tend to have enough imagination to make things up, but what you’re looking for is something that makes you think, “Wow, no one would think of that” and you realise that’s the key to understanding this situation,’ she says. ‘As a writer, you are always looking for details that you would never even dream of – the sort of thing you could never make up. Things that only people on the ground doing the work would see.’

For Aline, this detail was the iguana. 

‘I was really struck when Raymond and Itai talked about having an iguana in their garden. Every day they’d play on their own and they were really terrified to go to this part of the garden because there was an iguana sitting there. When ActionAid staff asked these little boys what they most wanted in the world, they said that they wanted a dog: they wanted a dog to protect them from the iguana. In fact, what they really probably wanted was food and clothing and parents to look after them in a home, but because they lived with this awful everyday fear, it was just this iguana that they’d focused all their fear on.

‘What I liked about it was, it was really childlike,’ Aline adds. 

‘I felt that this story about how they lived in fear of the iguana, wanting this dog, I just felt it really showed a child’s way of thinking. And an adult reading that just couldn’t fail to be moved by it. I thought if I could use that in the story, it would help create a real bond with the donor.’

Making the donor part of the solution

When writing about major disasters or immense global problems there is always a danger that the donor will be overwhelmed and feel unable to do anything to make a difference. Aline believes this is where personal stories are crucial. ‘When you’re writing to somebody, you need to remember that people give to other people and they’re interested in other people. One person’s story is a powerful way into understanding a situation. If you can engage them with the story of one or two children, they’re much more likely to give than if you talk about thousands and millions. If you ask people to give to one child, they’ll respond much more generously than if you ask them to give to two or three or five and if you start to talk to them about millions of children, they start to feel helpless.’

If you can make the donor feel that they can play a part in the solution they then feel empowered. ‘Otherwise, why would you give?’ asks Aline. 

‘That’s really the question we always ask: not only why would people give but why people wouldn’t give? And if you ask people why they don’t give one of the reasons that comes up quite often is that they don’t feel they could make a difference, or that they feel powerless.’

A story about the number of HIV/AIDS orphans would, she believes, overwhelm the readers. ‘The reaction is likely to be, “Well, what could I do about that?’’ But if I start by telling them about these two little boys and the iguana in their garden, people feel empowered: they feel they can make a difference. Of course, you realise that actually they don’t need a dog, they really need to be protected and looked after, which is really one of the core messages here.’

Just connect: the emotional and financial bond

Aline believes that the story about the Raymond and Itai is very emotional and purposefully so. 

‘We’re asking for quite a lot of money,’ she says. ‘If I were to ask you for five pounds, it might not take me that long to convince you, but if I’m going to ask you for five hundred pounds, it’s going to take me an awful lot longer. The materials in this fundraising package reflect this: we’re asking for more money, so we need to get donors to identify strongly with this situation, to win their confidence. After all, they are parting with a significant amount of money and they need to feel like that’s going to make a difference.’

When writing a fundraising appeal, Aline tries to make sure that the donor will have a positive experience. ‘You have to think about the emotional state that most people are in when they receive this communication,’ she says. ‘Donors don’t get up that morning thinking, “Oh, I’ll really feel like giving away five hundred pounds today.” This is just another letter that is going to appear in their letterboxes and you’re going to have to work very hard to make them feel strongly enough to take action. You’re trying to write something that’s going to genuinely move somebody and persuade him or her to do something extraordinary – take a leap of faith with you. What you’re really trying to do is to get somebody to connect with somebody she’s never met and never will meet and leads a very different way of life. And the key here is to enable her to make an emotional connection, which is why Raymond and Itai’s story is so important.’

Who to write to?

Most experienced fundraisers recommend that writers address themselves to a particular person when they are writing a fundraising letter. And Aline is no exception. ‘When I train writers,’ she says, ‘the first thing I say is that they should write a letter to one other person. The last thing that you want to do is to make people feel like that they’re just one of many. You want them to feel like this is a personal letter as far as you can. When writers receive a brief they should have an idea of who their audience is. When you’re starting out, it can be helpful to take that demographic information and replace it with someone you know – an aunt, uncle, parent, friend – who fits the description. Some people even put a photo of that person on their keyboard. I don’t do any of those things myself, though, as eventually it becomes second nature to slip into someone else’s shoes when you write – and fun also.’

Getting the right style and tone

The style and tone is obviously guided in the first place by a charity’s brand or copy guidelines. However, that still leaves some scope – or at least it should. Aline recommends looking at the style and type of writing that donors pay to read - what kind of magazines, what kind of newspapers do they buy?

‘Think of any paper and it’s full of human interest, things that are about life and death. You can employ similar storytelling techniques. An often neglected aspect of direct mail is the person who is signing off the letter. This is the person I am actually writing in place of – this might be a staff member on the ground or a chief executive. A good writer will make sure you also get a genuine sense of who is writing to you. Not by starting a letter, “My name is whoever and I am writing to you because…” That’s awful’ you should start the letter with the tone and perspective that you want convey.’

The letter

Children like Raymond live in real fear. Will you give £440 to help them?

Aline cuts directly to the heart of the matter here, asking for £440; this varied according to giving history. ‘There will usually be a series of different letters written with a range of different amounts according to what somebody had given before,’ says Aline. ‘In this case the highest was three thousand and the lowest about a hundred.’

Aline shies away from rules about how many times to ask in a particular letter. ‘Most fundraisers would say that you should ask on the front page but beyond that, I think, it depends on what you’re writing. I try not to be too prescriptive. We’re writing to intelligent people, and you don’t want your letters to all feel the same to them, so you don’t want to feel formulaic. But at the same time, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.’

We do not know how old Raymond is. For the last two years, whenever anyone has asked his age, Raymond has whispered ‘I am eight years old.’

The opening of the letter is crucial. ‘You’re always looking for something that will really involve the reader,’ says Aline. ‘This little boy actually doesn’t know what age he is. The reason Raymond continues to say he is eight is because each year is passing without any note, there is no parent to say, “Oh, happy birthday, you’re nine,” “you’re ten.” I just thought that was a really moving way into his situation. Because he has no parents, that’s the part of his ultimate isolation.’

‘We’re asking for the money straight away, but we are using a fairly powerful story to get them to be part of it. We are saying that they need to take this seriously.’

Aline points out that this section is trying to capture the donor’s interest. ‘We’re not saying: here’s this kid, his parents are dead, he could be HIV positive himself, his life is awful,’ she says. ‘We’re just trying to introduce you in a more personal sort of way so that you can understand Raymond’s situation. But, even though this story is about Raymond, it is also about the whole community, it’s about the effects of HIV and AIDS on the community. If you see the effect on one life, you know, you can really see the need for your help.’

For Raymond and Itai, childhood should be a time of learning and discovery. For many of us, it is the one period of our lives when we are truly free to enjoy the smallest things – like playing hide and seek or learning to skim pebbles on a lake.

Sadly, for Raymond and Itai, childhood is very different. It is a time of hunger, pain – and constant fear.

‘Here we are going a bit deeper: we are playing on people’s expectations of what childhood is: it’s something that’s very precious, you know, a time of learning and fun,’ says Aline. ‘We might take the fun aspects of childhood for granted but here you have the contrast, so it’s so much starker.

This last sentence is in bold/subheads. Aline believes that the human brain gets bored easily and recommends adding visual elements like varying the length of your paragraph, making text bold, underlining, lines down the side of the letter of and so on.

Paragraph structure matters too, according to Aline. ‘All the paragraphs at this stage, are short, they’re mostly a sentence or two,’ she says. ‘But they’re fairly varied. None of them are very long but we start with a very short first sentence that has got speech in it. The style is kind of conversational: you need to break it up, you are trying to stir it up a little bit to keep a rhythm to it, to add emphasis where appropriate.

‘Fear’ is perhaps the most important word here – and the one that might surprise you.

‘This became the theme of the piece really,’ says Aline. ‘The story about wanting the dog was key to realising that it’s not just that the children are hungry but they also are living with a great deal of fear in their lives.’

Aline says that that the blue lines on the left hand side are another way of showing that the letter’s personal: not only is it being typed in a style that’s looks as if it’s written to you, but if you’re using the blue underlining and a blue signature – it suggests that it is from one person to another. These are old-fashioned marketing techniques, but they do work.

Raymond is frightened of the iguana.
During the long days that they are alone, Raymond and Itai are constantly frightened. When they venture out to play, they keep away from the large pile of rocks by their crumbling mud brick house. An iguana lives there.

Aline points out that she is using their own words. ‘Raymond is frightened of the iguana: we are just saying it straight, really highlighting it and putting it at the centre.’

Help us reach the very poorest people.
At key projects throughout the world, we are simply overwhelmed by the demand for our support – as Esther Chivasa, one of our project workers recently told me. ‘You find children hungry. They have not washed because there is no soap. You find children are sick and you do not have the means to take them to hospital. You then leave and go to the next family without your presence having brought any meaningful change. In such circumstances, you begin to wonder whether you are ever going to be able to do anything worthwhile…we just wish we had the resources to do more.’

The country programme staff also made an important contribution:

‘One of the most important things on this page was the fact that we had quotes from one of the field workers at the charity. I think ActionAid were pretty brave to include these words because it’s an incredibly strong statement. These are pretty strong words.’

I know it is a great deal to ask. But by giving £440 today, you could transform the lives of - not just one - but four families which have been devastated by HIV and AIDS. At its head, there will be a young person who is little more than a child themselves yet is responsible for the care of children.

Where is the money going? ‘Most charities will want funds that they could be spent any way, not just on the project itself,’ says Aline. ‘Of course, there is a tension is between the donor wanting to know what their money will be spent on, but also understanding that we’re giving them one example because the nature of the work is such that we might need it for an emergency, or we might need it for some other less glamorous work. So you also are trying to make sure that the charity’s getting the type of money it needs. The examples of other children are there to show the money is being used in the right way and that the donors understands that their donations might be used in various different ways.’

‘The regular gifts mean that children in those communities continue to receive our support.’

It’s important to recognise that the recipient of the letter is already supporting the charity, says Aline. ‘You’re asking them for more support. This letter is really designed to make sure that donors understand and learn more about Action Aid. If you look at the piece as a whole, it’s really all about deepening the donor’s understanding of the work of the charity, so you know it’s things that you want to be associated with. In a way, it’s trying to make sure that people do know what they’re supporting.’

Mutembezi was frightened she’d never have a real home again.
During ten long years of civil war, the people of Goma faced a constant battle to survive. But when a volcano erupted, it swept away the homes, communities and sense of security poor people had worked so hard to build. Mutembezi and her children fled for their lives and were forced to make a temporary home under plastic sheeting.

‘Its really good to talk about Mutumbezi here because it’s a way of making sure people see we’re not specifically asking for help with one child: it is a wider problem,’ says Aline. ‘It also helps build trust with the donor if you can show that you are able to do this, you have done it before, you have done it elsewhere.’

She adds: ‘You need to show some respect for the people that you’re talking about: the last thing a development charity wants to show is some sort of paternalistic relationship between the donor and the person they’re giving to.’

As a child, Tafadzwa wasn’t able to go to school. Now he is desperate for an education. ‘You need to be educated if you are to get on in life,’ he told us. But for now, Tafadzwa has put his dream on hold. Instead, he works every hour of every day to put four other children orphaned by AIDS though school – his brother, sister and two young cousins.

He shouldn’t have to make such a sacrifice. But at just 18 years old, he’s the only father that these children have. When we asked him why he’d taken on this huge responsibility, he answered ‘You have to ask yourself, if it was you in the same situation as me, what would you do?’’

’In this case, we’re saying to the donor: “You have to ask yourself, if it was you in that situation, what would you do?” It’s a very powerful statement: it’s the sort of statement that bridges the gap between the donor and the person that they’re giving to and they can say: ‘Ok, you’re asking me to imagine something that I actually can imagine.’ You can’t necessarily imagine what it’s like to grow up in Zimbabwe but actually, he’s just saying, ‘I’m actually being a Dad to my brothers and sisters.’ You know, you’ve just done the same. Here we have picked out some really powerful parts of the information that we were provided with.’

‘I think it makes you feel strongly that if this teenagers are doing this. We are not showing them as just people, people who are doing their best for themselves, you know. Raymond’s looking after Itai, who is looking after his brothers and sisters. It makes it seem much more reasonable because it’s saying these people are giving so much. The context of your gift then becomes, it’s not such a big ask, is it?

Would you be able to give £440 to offer not one, but four poor families the materials and training they need to build a secure life – free from fear? 

We can make a difference.

This is a long letter and there are three separate places where it ask for a donation. ‘One of the challenges with a long letter is making it all flow, from one paragraph to the next,’ says Aline. ‘So you need something to string it together, continuing an ‘I’ and ‘you’ conversation with the donor as you go.’

PS The PS is a great place to underline a key point – in this case, how easy it is to give. ‘You always need to bear in mind all the things that might stop somebody giving and one of them is: ‘I haven’t got to get my cheque book’ Or ‘I haven’t got to get my bank details in front of me’’ Aline says. ‘These are the practicalities of giving. In this case, we already had the bank details of a large number of the donors so all they needed to do was put a tick to make the gift we’d suggested – it’s that easy. You make it as easy as possible as well because you’re just increasing your chances each time that somebody’s going to do it there and then because the moment they put it aside to do later, then the more time they’ve got to think of a reason not to do it.

Gut Instinct

In addition to writing skills and an understanding of fundraising and direct mail, Aline believes that writers need one other crucial ingredient to succeed, to write powerful letters that get people to donate money. ‘I’ve never really seen anyone good at this job unless somewhere, however hard they want to hide it away, they genuinely care about the issue that they’re writing about.’ She adds a rarely voiced but critically important key to success: ‘If you don’t care and you’re not moved yourself, then you’re not going to move anyone else.

Language tips for writers

• Read the letter aloud to someone else is to check it.
• Ask for money and justify that ask.
• ‘You’ is the most powerful word you have.
• Look out for words that you don’t need or sentences you don’t need. Press delete.
• Make sure the story has a rhythm, which builds up to key points of emphasis. The layout should reflect this too so it appeals to different types of readers – browsers, skimmers and scanners.
• Make reading easy – choose your wording accordingly. Anglo Saxon vocabulary tends to be much more direct than the Latinate equivalent.
• Make friends with a data specialist. They can work with you to personalise or ultra-personalise, making your letter genuinely individual to the donor you are writing to.

About the author: Fergal Byrne

Fergal Byrne

Fergal Byrne is a seasoned freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Financial Times, The Guardian and The EveningStandard. He’s been writing about finance and business for more than 20 years, but his main area of interest is now non-profits and charities. Contact Fergal here.

About the author: Aline Reed

Aline Reed is a freelance copywriter and creative. She worked for fourteen years at Bluefrog, a London-based agency that specialises in fundraising, where she progressed from copywriter to creative director. She has written fundraising campaigns for all kinds of organisations – charities, museums, galleries and universities. Her work has successfully run internationally in the Netherlands, US, Australia, Ireland as well as the UK. Away from fundraising, she writes book reviews for the Sunday Express and blogs about books and travelling.

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