Need your next appeal to get donations pouring in? Copy that tugs the heartstrings will do it nearly every time explains Frank Chamberlin. Below are his five top tips for writing emotional fundraising letters.

Almost always, the copywriting that gets the best results is emotional. One of the greatest skills that a writer can possess is the ability to make the reader feel something. If you can engage readers on an emotional level, you are well on the way to producing a successful appeal. That involves using details to vividly bring a need to life. An example could be:

It was the saddest of days for the desperately sorrowful dad. He stood in the local graveyard with his hands clenched at his sides as he watched the coffin being lowered. She would never be in his arms again. How could anything be as hard as losing a child? His entire body shook and tears streamed down his face. She had been his life for these last seven years. And now he was all alone. It was over. But we will not desert him at this time and we need you to reach out with us.”

1.       Good appeals need good stories

Write your appeal about someone who attracts strong feelings. Obviously, it’s not too difficult to write emotionally about a 7-year-old orphan girl who goes to bed hungry every night. For example: “Her only chance is if we hold her by the hand and give her something to eat before it’s too late.”

However, if you are raising funds for a new school wing you may have to be more inventive. Perhaps it will be a story about a ‘special needs’ child or a particularly dedicated teacher who has given long service – a ‘Mr Chips’ type of character.

Ideally, you need to weave stories into your copy that stir up hope in attaining a goal, solving a problem or achieving a dream.

2.       Use compelling words

The words you use can have a powerful impact on how your message is received. Insensitive, outraged, fearful, crushed, tearful, terrified, tormented, sorrowful, worked up, fuming, boiling, ashamed, thrilled, elated, fatigued: these are all likely to evoke a strong reaction. For example:

The terrified young mum is so ashamed of the bruises. She is totally crushed. But her soul is fearful. Will this monster return?”

The non-emotional version would simply say: “The young woman is ashamed of what happened. She is concerned that her partner may return.”

Notice the difference? By choosing your words carefully, you can convey all kinds of different emotional tones. When you choose words it is best to err on the side of those that carry an emotional message.

3.       Paint a picture with your copy

This is one of the best ways to write emotionally. It’s all about using specifics. You can say “The little girl needs help” but to make it emotionally engaging you need to make readers see her:

“Amy is already 7 years old but cannot spell her name. It is pitiful to see her in the back row of the classroom. Just sitting. Not a word on the blank page. The other children are busy. Then the tears begin. Amy knows she is the odd one out. She needs someone to respond now to help her learn the basics.”

4.       Headlines with feeling

Just as emotion has to seep through the letter copy, so your main heading and your sub-heads need to be emotional too. A first-class headline has to slice through the clutter in your reader’s life, powerfully grab attention and concisely convey the main benefit. All within a fraction of a second!

5.       Remember the envelope

A friend collected all the charity mail appeals that came to her home over a period of six months. There were 41. Every last one of them arrived in a plain white DL envelope. So if you want to stand out from the crowd, think outside of the plain white rectangle!

And when you are deciding on envelope teaser copy (should I have it or not?) remember what you are aiming to do. In my view, the job of the envelope is to help get the recipient in the right frame of mind. Examples might be:

  • Would you spend $1 a day to save the life of a child?
  • Take this simple quiz to discover your health IQ
  • Last year we distributed 4 million kilos of food. It wasn’t enough.

Intriguing, engaging teaser copy can make your overstressed, overworked, time-poor recipient (isn’t that everyone these days?) more excited about opening your mail. But equally, if it is too cheesy, too silly, too salesy or just not believable, it can actually hasten your mail’s express trip to the recycle bin. 

There’s more to effective fundraising copy than simply being emotional:

  • The ‘ask’ has to be relevant, clear and repeated
  • The copy has to be impactful as well as conversational and easy to follow
  • The header and the sub-heads have to hone in on the vital points
  • You have to be clear about what you want the prospect to do
  • The post script has to be compelling.

Frank Chamberlin

Frank Chamberlin presented a series of copywriting workshops for Fundraising Institute Australia across Australia in 2013. He has been running the successful copywriting business, Action Words, for almost 15 years. For a copy of his PDF ‘Top 20 Tips for Writing Fundraising Letters’, e-mail him at [email protected].


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