Nonprofit Writing – How to Write a Donation Letter to Raise Money

Nonprofit writing – such as writing a donation letter to raise money for a nonprofit organization – is different than writing business letters, newsletters, or reports. These tips for writing donation letters are from my experience fundraising for a hospital in Vancouver, BC.

Before my tips, a quip:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it,” wrote Mark Twain in a letter to D. W. Bowser in 1880. “No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

Twain’s writing tips apply to all genres and types of writing. Use plain, simple language — short words, brief sentences. And, make sure you edit your piece at least seven times (unless it’s a blog post, which is more informal and thus less subject to scrutiny).

To learn about nonprofit writing and promotion that goes beyond writing, read The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change — it’ll teach you how to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc to fundraise effectively.

And, here are several tips for writing donation letters for nonprofits…

Nonprofit Writing – How to Write a Donation Letter to Raise Money

Include a story – tap into the reader’s emotions. The donation letters I’ve written included stories about sick babies, hospitals in need of new medical equipment, and people losing their lives to disease. I interviewed patients, doctors, and nurses, and share their experience from their point of view. Here’s a snippet of a donation letter that asked for money for incubators for the hospital — it’s from a mother’s perspective: “I cried so much that first week. Not only was childbirth stressful, coping with a serious case of jaundice was almost too much! I couldn’t hold my baby unless I was feeding her. I felt scared and helpless.”

Be dramatic, and use powerful “please help us” words. At first, nonprofit writing – especially writing donation letters – may seem false and overly dramatic! But, that’s how nonprofits encourage people to donate. My hospital clients encouraged me to write sentences such as, “Funding for this hospital is literally a matter of ‘life and death’ – and your family could be next,” and “I was one of many new mothers who felt helpless and frustrated. You don’t realize how powerless you are as a parent until your baby has to wait for an incubator.” It felt over the top at first, but I understand the need to impress upon potential donors with strong writing. A weak, timid request doesn’t help nonprofits raise money.

Use italics, bold font, and underlining. Set your most powerful sentences apart by centering them and leaving white space around them. Use italics, bold font, and underlining to specifically ask for money in the donation letter. Here’s a sentence that I bolded, underlined, and set apart: “I ask you to give a gift to this hospital to alleviate the need I saw at the hospital – and keep ensuring the best care is given.”

Tie the donation letter to a holiday or special occasion. The hospital I write for sends their donation letters on Mother’s Day, Christmas, Easter, and hospital anniversaries. It’s more effective to connect your request for money with a heartwarming occasion – especially if a personal story can be naturally woven into the theme of the holiday.

Keep the donation letter short. Two pages should be more than enough to share a story, explain why the nonprofit needs to raise money, and make the request. People don’t have time to read long letters, and they may never get to the end of the letter – where the final appeal for money is made.

Make it easy for readers to donate money. Include a tear-off slip at the end of the donation letter, giving people the option to donate different amounts of money. Include tax credit information, a contact name and number for donors who want more info, and different ways to make a donation.

To learn more about nonprofit writing, read How to Write a Business Thank You Letter.

If you have any tips for writing donation letters or fundraising, please comment below…

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3 thoughts on “Nonprofit Writing – How to Write a Donation Letter to Raise Money”

  1. Great article Laurie! A few other tips for nonprofit fundraising letters:

    – Tie your ‘ask’ to something specific. For example: “Your $35 donation will feed a hungry child for a week.”
    – Include something in the letter that encourages the reader to respond, even without a gift. For example, several of the hospital clients I write for encourage donors to sign and return a special Holiday Card to display and brighten the hospital for patients at Christmastime. Most people will include a gift with the card, but might not have responded without it.
    – There is a place for longer letters. As a fundraising account director, I found that longer letters (4 pages) worked well for some clients — usually when prospecting for new donors to their cause. It all depends on the story, the cause and how much information is needed make a compelling case for support.

  2. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Susan, thanks for your information.

    I hadn’t thought about the language and geographic barriers when writing donation letters…this is great to know.

  3. I’ve written email appeals for nonprofits, and with email, it’s even more important to keep things short and have a clear to action (usually a hyperlinked request for donations that takes the reader directly to the donations page). Storytelling is a powerful way to appeal to the reader’s emotions, but unfortunately, some nonprofits have a tough time collecting those stories.

    For instance, my main nonprofit client offers programs in developing countries, so there’s a language barrier and also a geographic barrier between the people working in the trenches and the ones in the headquarters writing creative briefs. Sometimes there are confidentiality issues as well. In cases where we can’t get a brand new story, sometimes we’ll use statistics to put things into context and demonstrate the severity of the situation. (For instance, “every XX seconds, a child dies of the preventable, yet deadly disease known as malaria.”)