The sev­en dead­ly sins of fundrais­ing appeals and how to avoid them

Written by
Rachel Beer
July 02, 2015

Over the years, and the appeals, I’ve learned much about the factors that determine success in fundraising – and even more about what to avoid doing. I’ll always be learning because that’s one of the privileges of working with so many different charities, across such a wide variety of campaigns and media.

These points and tips are mainly written in the context of individual giving. However, many are relevant anywhere direct marketing techniques are used. They represent the most common issues in fundraising appeals that I have come across and include suggestions to help you avoid the same pitfalls.

I hope that some of these insights and suggestions are useful to you and that you will test to prove or disprove them for yourself.

1. Beating around the bush

Many people seem to feel slightly embarrassed about asking for donations. I only say this because there have been numerous occasions where I’ve been asked to remove most of the asks for a donation from appeal copy. Once to the point that the first mention was almost at the bottom of the last page of the letter, as though it was an afterthought.

This is a fundraising appeal, not a magazine article or a short story, so get to the point and do it quickly. You’ve heard of the saying, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’, never has this been more true than in this context. Experience and testing tell me that the earlier you include an ask, and the more direct you are about it, the better the response will be.

Tips to uplift response and income

  • Include your ask early – the earlier the better.
  • Repeat the ask several times throughout your copy.
  • Be direct. Phrases like ‘will you donate today?’ will be more effective than, ‘your support would be appreciated’.

2. Confusing the issue
It’s tempting to try and make your appeal achieve more than one objective – more ‘bang for your buck’, right? Wrong.

If you want donors to make a one-off donation, ask for a one-off donation. If you want donors to sign up for a monthly donation, ask them to do that. If you want to open a dialogue about legacy giving, create a communication that focuses on that and nothing more. Don’t try to shoe horn all those things into one appeal because you will diminish the response to all of them.

Also resist trying to educate your audience about everything your charity does at once. Attempting to cover too much ground in the space and attention span you have available will just make your appeal vague and directionless. It won’t go into enough depth in any one area to engage the audience sufficiently to donate or respond.

Tips to uplift response and income

Make sure your appeal is ‘single-minded’. Focus on:

  • Achieving the objectives of the appeal and the kind of responses you most want to achieve. This could be monthly direct debits, cash/one-off donations, legacy pledges, or registrations for a fundraising event.
  • One area or aspect of your charity’s work. Allow space to explore this in enough depth and to keep your audience’s attention.

3. Asking for the wrong amount

This is a surprisingly common mistake and one that affect the funds you raise enormously – particularly if you get it wrong on donor appeals and you have a large donor base.

Your audience should be front-of-mind at all times when you are developing your fundraising appeals. You should tailor what they receive as much as possible to what you know about them. You should ensure that the amount you ask for is appropriate for them. Asking for too much will suppress response and asking for too little will suppress income.

Tips to uplift response and income

  • For donor appeals, prompt each donor for an amount or amounts that are similar to the donations they have given before. Make sure you include at least one donation prompt that is higher than donations they have previously made.
  • For donor acquisition appeals, consider carefully what level of donation each audience is likely to be able to afford. Make sure that the amounts you prompt for are well supported by the proposition and other elements of your appeal.
  • Always suggest at least one donation amount in your copy and support this by explaining what difference this would make.
  • Test to determine the best number and level for donation prompts for different profiles or types of donor and prospect.

4. Style over substance
We all like creative ideas and good design and it’s exciting to innovate, but it’s important to be able to separate the things that excite us from the ones that will drive donations.

Witty straplines and clever concepts seldom pull harder than a good fundraising proposition. Emotive testimonials and strong, tangible asks, and making your fundraising appeal look pretty, cool or slick don’t usually uplift response. In fact, in split tests, something more plain, functional and straightforward will often out-perform something that is beautifully art directed or conceptual.

I’m not recommending making your appeals look terrible and sound dry – just to be judicious about design, layout, format and messaging, ensuring you focus on what really matters.

So, resist the temptation to include that holographic, scratch and sniff ‘lift device’ if it’s not clearly supporting the fundraising proposition. Question whether that witty ‘teaser’ on the outer envelope is really going to get someone to open it. Opt for something that helps to make the case for support stronger, or generates emotional engagement instead. That might be something quite simple, like a testimonial from a beneficiary or insights from a project worker underlining the value of the work you are fundraising for.

Tips to uplift response income

  • Make sure your copy is easy to read – including by people whose sight might not be as good as yours. Consider point size, paragraph spacing, typeface and the standout of copy against any background.
  • Ensure your key messages, such as the call to action and key information supporting the proposition and asks, come through clearly.
  • Include a response mechanism that is as easy as possible to read and complete. Reduce the number of steps to respond as much as you can.
  • Make sure everything you include in your appeal links clearly to the fundraising proposition and makes the case for support stronger.

5. Making false economies
A strong appeal requires certain elements and forgoing these to save money can curtail the amount it will raise. However well meaning, that’s not in the best interests of your charity.

Minimising what it costs to produce your appeals is important and, when you know everything is working hard, this can increase your return on investment. However, the budget for your appeal should be an informed investment, designed to generate as much net income as possible. You should invest wiselyto generate the best return. Beware making small savings on the cost of your appeals that can drive response and income down in a much bigger way – even if your supplier thinks they are doing you a favour by suggesting them.

If you reduce the number of elements in a direct mail pack, leaving you insufficient space to make the case for support, or if you spend money on a display advertising campaign, only to direct potential donors to generic online donation pages with the wrong donation prompts, you may be saving money, but the income you lose is likely to be several times greater.

It’s counter-intuitive, but your net income and return on investment can actually be much higher if you spend a little more, provided you invest it in the right places. The key is to be open-minded about spending more on testing to find out where these places are and what generates the best returns for your charity.

Tips to uplift response & income

  • Be prepared to use the budget you have for each appeal, if it allows you to test different executions and learn more about what generates the most income.
  • When suggestions are made to you by consultants, agencies, or other suppliers, question the rationale for them, whether these have been tested before and with what results.
  • If you feel strongly, and have good reason to believe, that spending more on a particular element of the campaign will make a difference but it is either expensive, or you cannot get buy-in from the budget holder, test it to establish whether it is worth investing in rolling out across entire campaigns in future

6. Poor attention to detail
This may seem trivial, but I believe it’s crucial, because I want the audience of every appeal I develop to be fully engaged with the fundraising proposition and considering how much they will give – not distracted by poor punctuation, grammar and spelling mistakes. It is also about getting small but important details right, such as the recipient’s name and salutation. Getting this wrong can annoy people and turn them off.

But there are other little gremlins to look out for, which I often see when I’m reviewing appeals. This includes ask amounts being inconsistent across elements and media. Often between letters, lift elements and response forms of direct mail appeals, inserts and doordrops and between advertisements and landing pages of outdoor and/or online campaigns. Response forms missing asks altogether, or missing a place to indicate the value of the donation being made, and online donation processes with glitches that will have a terrible impact on response.

They say, ‘the devil is in the detail’, and putting a strong fundraising appeal together is all about getting as many details right as humanly possible – because they all add up to better results.

Tips to uplift response and income

  • ‘Double’ proof read your appeal copy. This means someone reads it out loud – including all the punctuation and formatting – whilst another person checks the text matches and the spelling, grammar and punctuation is correct and consistent
  • Learn who, on your team, is good at proof reading and always ask them to give your copy the once-over before you give it final sign-off. It’s useful if this person hasn’t been directly involved in developing the appeal, as they’ll pick up on things that have become invisible to you
  • Ask colleagues – even friends or family members – to complete your response forms, test your online donation process or your telephone response handling to make sure it works.

7. Failing to test and learn
These comments and tips are all very well, but all good direct marketers and fundraisers know that there are exceptions to every rule. Different combinations and environmental factors can have an impact on results in unexpected ways. Various audiences respond differently to different causes, fundraising propositions and media.

That’s why it’s important not to take anyone’s word – including mine – for anything. You need to appreciate that nothing is finite and to test, as much as budgets and volumes will allow, to learn what works for your charity and your audiences.

Learning the ‘rules’ or, more accurately, understanding what effect various factors usually have, also helps you to break them when the circumstances require it. You can have greater confidence that every appeal you develop, and each decision you make, will bring the best returns possible for your charity.

Tips to uplift response and income

To ensure the results of your tests are valid:

  • Only test statistically valid volumes.
  • Do not change more than one element, or factor, between test segments – if you change more, you will not be able to pinpoint which specific change influenced the results, or whether it was the combination
  • Since you may only be able to test one element or factor within each appeal, prioritise those that are likely to have the biggest influence on cost and response/income
  • Be aware that a wide range of factors can influence the outcomes of your testing and your results, including, but not limited to:
    • Timing.
    • Economic climate, current affairs/national or global events.
    • Audience.
    • Media.
    • Previous communications, or appeals, received from your charity or donor’s response to previous appeals.
    • Communications received from other charities (about which you generally have no control or knowledge).

About the author: Rachel Beer

Rachel Beer has worked as a direct marketer and fundraiser since 1995. She created NFPtweetup ­– a regular series of events to promote effective use of technology in the charity sector, which is now in its eighth year – and is well known as a fundraising expert, digital specialist and strategist for the third sector. She writes and speaks regularly on these subjects and is head of fundraising at an international development charity.

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