If you ever were faced with the task of writing your nonprofit’s fundraising annual appeal letter, you know how daunting it is to put pen to paper. After all, the expectation is that the letter you craft must bring in substantial funds. (No pressure, right?!)
When I sat down to draft my very first appeal letter, my initial thought was, “How much copy do I need to write to inspire people to donate? One, two, three, or more pages?” Like you, I receive many appeal letters in my mailbox. The letter lengths are as varied as the causes they represent. Experience and the study of the ins and outs of appeal letters have led me to the answer.
Many factors are involved in creating a killer annual appeal letter that motivates the reader to give. I will dive into the elements that make up a great appeal letter in future posts. This post will focus on how much copy to write.
A popular philosophy in modern marketing is that people have such short attention spans that they can only consume small amounts of information at a time — what is referred to as “snackable content.” Bite size pieces of content have been the rage in recent years. The thinking is not to overwhelm people with too much information or they will start to get fidgety and stare into space, and your message will be lost forever. Go short or you will fail miserably. End of story. Ahem.
I see nonprofits adopt this philosophy with their appeal letters. I recently received one that was only three-quarters of a page long, double spaced. I was left with many unanswered questions. (And when that happens, my answer to their appeal is “no.”)
The snackable content approach has been made more popular by research such as a non-peer-reviewed Microsoft study in 2015 that compared the attention span of a human to a goldfish. The study concluded that the attention spans were dreadfully close: a human’s average attention span dropped to 8.25 seconds (down from 12 seconds in 2000), and a goldfish’s average attention span was 9 seconds. The results garnered a flurry of interest from major media companies like Time, USA Today, The Guardian, and Inc.
If we are to believe on face value that goldfish have longer attention spans, what does that look like in the real world? That a goldfish can accomplish more in a day? Clearly not! While the goldfish-attention-span study makes for a great news headline, critics like life sciences writer Andrew Porterfield challenges this modern myth. He concludes that the real problem with our distraction isn’t attention – it’s multitasking.
While it’s true that with the many things competing for our attention nowadays, we need to hook our audience right away and then give them engaging, interesting content for the duration of the piece. This is how we keep our audience focused on our message.
Applying the snackable content approach to fundraising appeal letters does a disservice to those we serve and underestimates how much donors and potential donors truly want to learn about our cause.
Several years ago, my then 9-year-old son became very interested in the Harry Potter series. He gobbled up the first four books in a few months. That’s nearly 1900 pages read by a 9-year-old boy who, prior to that, would just be interested in DVDs and video games. He had an intense interest, and thus spent countless hours reading the words of J.K. Rowling.
Likewise, a few years ago I couldn’t get enough of Julia Child. I watched the movie Julie & Julia, read her autobiography and a couple biographies. I asked for her cookbooks for Christmas. I spent hours watching clips and episodes of The French Chef on YouTube. I learned from her the secrets to a delicious sauce, including adding a little more butter to a sauce right before serving to create a simple, yet powerful enrichment to the dish.
My son wasn’t interested in just a summary of the Harry Potter books. And I wasn’t interested in a snackable version of Julia Child. We wanted to devour as much content as possible.
So, if it takes you 1 page to answer all your donors’ and potential donors’ questions, go with 1 page. If it takes you 2 pages, do that.
Another post of mine illustrated that there are at least 25 reasons people respond to fundraising appeals. Surely, you will have some donors who habitually give to you. They comment on your Facebook posts, retweet your tweets, attend your events, and tell their friends about you. These loyal supporters might do a quick once-over of your letter and then get out their credit card.
But the vast majority of people will need to read, re-read, and triple-read your letter so that all their questions will be answered. They need to prove to themselves, with a series of yeses, that your cause is worthy of their money.
So, don’t skimp on the content. Explain the problem, why their gift matters, why your organization is the best pathway to solve the problem, how you are grateful, and ask for the donation.
The letter needs to be that length. No shorter. No longer.