Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Sep/Oct 2011, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

As fundraisers, we know several important things about people. They are generous. They like success. Despite the financial tremors of the last few years, the American people have continued their tradition of giving.

We also know that the largest portion of donations to charities comes from individuals. But we inhabit a crowded solicitation marketplace: Most people who are givers receive appeal letters from organizations they know and support as well as from others they neither know nor support. So how do we attract people’s attention? What can we do as fundraisers to move people to donate and to invest in our cause?

In this article, I offer four essential tips to create appeal letters that inspire your prospects to give money to your organization. In an appeal letter, you can take your readers through a journey that captures their interest, gains their trust, and makes them feel a part of the change you create. That’s contagious optimism.

The Four Essential

Tips You create a contagiously optimistic environment by unleashing your creative writing skills to talk about what you do best: serving community. Here, I describe the four essential tips that will help you achieve that environment. In addition, you will find a sample letter on the next page that shows how these tips translate into a powerful appeal.

1. Convey core competencies and values. In a compelling letter, you have an opportunity to engage your donors in a story that conveys your core competencies and values and demonstrates why these are important to them as donors and to the community you serve.

In essence, your core competencies matter because of the impact they help generate—describe them in this light. For example, imagine that one of your organization’s core competencies is multicultural expertise and one of its programs is to teach English to English-language learners. There can be many impacts of having this core competency applied to your work. These impacts could include participant trust or comfort, exemplary participant program attendance, and pronounced English-language acquisition, including rapid improvement in reading skills. Perhaps your students are able to apply for employment or college admission, which they could not do before your program helped them.

Whatever your core competencies, briefly describe them and explain how they translate into high-quality services that have direct and positive impacts for those you serve.

2. Describe effective outcomes. To illustrate how your services matter, describe your work in terms of effective outcomes. Share vignettes or quotes from staff and the people you serve, or paraphrase a funder’s praise for your service and results. Let others tell the reader about your impact in the community. The sample letter includes a funder’s quote, serving as an example of how to emphasize outcomes in an appeal letter.

3. Describe the social returns on investment. Demonstrate your value to the community by highlighting the social returns on investment that your efforts produce. Put your services front and center in local and broader contexts. Imagine your organization’s services and impacts as a wave that expands and enriches the larger society.

For example, offering educational services for Latino students will clearly make a difference in each of their lives. But how does educating Latino youth enhance community life on a broader scale? In this case, center attention on the Latino community and expand that focus to briefly elaborate on the broader benefits of this work in your community and beyond. Answer the question: What value does your service bring to society beyond the participants you serve? These are the impacts that will show how you create social returns on investment. Specifying and communicating this value gives you a competitive edge and fosters optimism. The sample letter shows how to effectively communicate an agency’s social returns on investment.

September 1, 2011

Dear Reyna Del Castillo:

Last week, Margarita Flores received her acceptance letter from Stanford University. One year ago, Margarita was still challenged by the English language. She enrolled in our English and leadership development classes, led by our highly competent multicultural and bilingual staff Margarita accelerated her learning and as a result unleashed her potential and tapped into her self-confidence. A year later, her personal statement for the Stanford application was impeccable and memorable; it earned her a scholarship. We thank you for your role in this and other successful stories. We are writing today with great enthusiasm about the future, and ask you to help with a special gif that will move us toward meeting an important challenge grant and expand the reach of our valuable services.

Everyone at Win-Win in Education appreciates your financial investment and loyalty. We are excited about what we accomplished in the last year. We recruited and served 250 youth through our educational and leadership development program and assisted them with college and employment applications. Our staff participated in monthly community outreach events, offering information about our educational services to local youth and recruiting new program participants at each event. In addition, we secured new program grants from four prestigious foundations.

We are filled with enthusiasm about the future success of our program participants as we continue to deliver powerful educational and leadership services. Sara Grant, Program Offer at the Giving is Receiving Foundation, says:

“Win-Win in Education and powerful results are synonyms. I have overseen their grants and assessed their outcomes for three consecutive years. Consistently, we see their program participants enhance their English language skills, write compelling school and job applications, and move from the margins to the center of action enthusiastically and successfully.”

Our work not only provides educational services and tools to individual participants so that they may enhance their skills and achievements. Our work is also part of a larger web by producing social return on investments. As the demographic trends in our country shift we are seeing the Latino population becoming the largest minority group in the U.S. By 2020, Latinos will constitute 20 percent of the U.S. population. The fate of the Latino population is critical for the nation as a whole.

Many opportunities lay ahead for Latinos, especially for the large numbers of young people whose futures are in the making now. We cannot afford to lose the talent of a generation. Our country benefits from the presence and growth of a brain trust that helps fuel innovation, creativity, and success. Expanding opportunities for underserved Latinos and supporting their future now, as individuals and productive members of society, is a powerful way to generate sustained social returns on investment. We wholeheartedly embrace this philosophy, bringing all our resources to our program participants, including our highly trained bilingual and multicultural staff and our state-of-the-art teaching methods and facilities.

All of us together—our students, staff volunteers, and donors—are integral links in a chain that connects opportunities with success. Your valuable role as a change agent helped move Margarita and many others from the periphery to the center of an active, productive life, helping to clear pathways to real outcomes. Moreover, by working toward expanding social returns on investment we magnify the ripple effects of our participants’ successes—society wins.

This year, major donors to Win-Win in Education have a unique opportunity to double the value of their gift as we meet a generous supporter’s $50,000 challenge gift The total of $100,000 to be raised will enable us to expand our reach by helping 30 more promising Latino youth to blossom. We have great plans in place for this special campaign, and to mark the success of our challenge grant we will present our first Chain of Success Award Certificates to current and new program participants next fall. In addition, we will acknowledge all donors who made this campaign and program expansion possible at the Award Certificates ceremony.

Please consider becoming a major donor this year and contributing to the success of this very exciting challenge grant. A gif of $250 or more would place you in the major donor category and go a long way toward helping meet the challenge. We would like to invite you to visit our offices next month to meet and chat with our leadership program participant, Luz Delmar, and me.

I will call you next week to set up an appointment. We would be delighted to see you again.


Lilly Rosa Garden

Executive Director

P.S. We thank you for giving serious consideration to making a major gif this year. This is a wonderful time to have your gif go twice as far!

4. Highlight inclusiveness. The impact of your letter will be enhanced through a discussion about inclusiveness. Traditionally, we think of inclusiveness as community engagement, for example, by seeking participant and stakeholder input to keep your work relevant and grounded. In this case, inclusiveness means making your donors an integral part of your agency’s accomplishments. When inviting them to invest in this worthy cause, encourage them to tour your facilities, observe programs, or volunteer, or send testimonials about why others help fund your organization. In other words, help donors feel they are an essential part of your agency as opposed to simply a name on your annual report.

Make sure your donors feel that through their contributions they are part of a cycle of strength, positive energy, and success. This can be one of your pillars of excellence.

The Four Tips in action

When we apply the four essential tips, we develop a letter that is compelling, engaging, optimistic, and inviting. Here is an example of a letter written to invite a current donor to meet with the senior staff at the soliciting agency. The goal is to strengthen this donor’s engagement and commitment with the organization and ultimately have her increase the amount of her annual donation, becoming a major donor to help with the success of meeting a challenge gift.