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When writing charity appeals, be clear you’re asking for money

James Barry

Peripheral Vision

In the competitive world of charity direct mail, you sometimes have to push smaller organisations to ask their supporters for help more clearly – argues James Barry.

Leaflets posted through a letterboxCharity direct mail has come under intense scrutiny in the media recently following the tragic death of Olive Cooke.

Miss Cooke reportedly received hundreds of appeals and other direct mail pieces from charities every month, and this has sparked fierce debate about whether the methods of large charities are too aggressive and impersonal.

There are plenty of far more qualified people in the charity sector discussing the details of this case elsewhere, so I’ll leave it to them to do that.

But the question of whether big charities send too many ‘begging letters’ – as the tabloids are putting it – made me think about the smaller charities. How do these organisations, that might only get one or two opportunities a year to ask for support by letter, stand out in the crowd?

When is an appeal not an appeal?

I’ve worked for and alongside charities for a decade now. In that period I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard fundraisers say they can’t compete with the big organisations when it comes to direct mail.

Yet as a copywriter who works mostly in the charity sector, I’m often surprised by how coy many small and medium-sized charities are when it comes to asking their supporters for money.

Often their ‘annual appeal’ will be a small ask right at the end of the cover letter that goes out with their newsletter or annual review. Other times they’ll have a whole appeal pack put together, but the donation form included with it is the only obvious indication that it’s the reader’s opportunity to help a charity they love.

Now, staff of small charities having to be cautious should come as no surprise to anyone. But what does surprise me is when I see appeals written by other copywriters that still fall into these traps.

A recent example was a job I picked up from a charity that turns over more than £15m each year – a pretty serious organisation.

They’d hired a writer to come up with a three-page appeal to send to their warm audience. The charity liked what had been produced it but felt it could be strengthened in places – at which point they brought me in to whip it into shape.

Reading the letter for the first time, something gradually became clear – this letter wasn’t really an appeal at all. What the charity was preparing to send to the people they rely on to keep their services going felt more like an update than a call-to-arms.

It wasn’t until 850 words in that a mildly clear and direct ask for a donation appeared. It had been hinted at earlier, but I had to wait until paragraph 17 to finally see where I, as a donor, would fit in to this whole thing.

Even if a charity’s supporters really love them, the chances that every person who opens that letter is going to read three pages of copy to discover the big reveal at the end are pretty much zero. Needless to say, the letter needed a complete rewrite, not a few tweaks.

Be clear, be engaging – and be bold

Whenever I write an appeal letter I always keep in mind that my headline and first ask might be all I’ve got to convince the reader to send a donation in response. The toil and creativity I put into the body copy will definitely be wasted on a significant section of any mailing file, no matter how great the writing is.

So I make sure these important lines are noticeable, clear, emotional and engaging. Most importantly they must leave the reader feeling like their participation is essential.

It’s our job as writers to help charities raise as much money as possible – they’re spending their supporters’ donations on hiring us after all. Sometimes that means you have to nudge your charity client out of their comfort zone.

Although the old adage of ‘on brief, on brand, on budget’ is key, I will always try to spot the places where a charity isn’t making the most of an opportunity to raise money, and I’ll propose ways in which they can change that.

A simple but key question to ask the client – and yourself – is ‘will the supporters understand this is an appeal?’ If it’s not clear to you, it’s unlikely it will be to anyone reading it.

What are you selling exactly?

When writing appeals it pays to think differently from when we’re writing for commercial clients, selling products. There’s rarely a life-changing tangible object or service at the centre of everything that the reader can exchange their hard-earned money for.

What you’re selling is goodwill. You’re giving the reader a chance to improve the lives of others while feeling great about themselves too.

That’s why when writing appeal letters for smaller charities we should always consider putting a clear call to action up front, so no reader can be unaware of what they’re being asked to do – and why they simply must do it now.

So in keeping with the theme, here’s my call to action for you:

Be bold with your asks. Make that reader, who’s already shown they care about the charity, feel like they’re truly an essential part of it. Let them know the life-changing, or even life-saving, difference that their £10 or £20 will make.

Just don’t wait until this point in your letter to do it.

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