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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Capitalizing on Why People Respond to Fundraising Letters

By Steve Hitchcock

One of my continuing concerns is that those of us in fundraising don’t know our donors or members well enough. That’s why I’m a big advocate of calling to thank people when they send in a gift – it’s the best way to find out why they’re supporting your organization.

I also encourage people to spend some time processing gifts: opening envelopes, looking at the checks, reading the notes or comments often sent along with the gifts, and noticing which mailings are generating lots of responses.

Too, organizations can benefit from a more extensive survey or poll of their donors to find out who they are and why they give. Ideally, this research would also involve either focus groups or longer interviews with several donors. These more free-form conversations add insights to the more numerically based analysis.

With that as background, here’s my crack at the 10 reasons people respond to fundraising mailings:

1) They are thanked – both in response to their last contribution and in the appeal letter itself, which early on should express gratitude for the individual’s generous support.

2) They are asked. In other words, the letter makes it clear that this isn’t an essay or a report but an explicit request for a contribution at this time.

3) They trust you will put their gifts to good use. In previous mailings and publications (newsletters, annual reports) and in the letter you’re sending now, you demonstrate that you’re operating in a diligent and effective manner.

4) They share core values and beliefs with your organization – what you do is accomplishing a greater good.

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5) They want to get something done or they like solving problems. Your letter either reflects a determination to get the job done or you show how practical and achievable your solution is.

6) They’re angry or upset about something. Sending a gift becomes a way to express outrage or to protest an action or behavior the donors believe needs exposure.

7) They feel compelled to respond to an emergency or a crisis. They’re pleased your group is dealing with an urgent situation and see their gifts as a way to make a difference.

8) They appreciate the information and insights you provide, including those in your newsy, chatty appeal letters. Individuals who respond to direct mail are overwhelmingly well educated and are avid readers. They’ve learned that if they contribute to organizations, they get news about achievements and challenges.

9) They would like there to be a public record of their support. It’s hardly ever the primary or only reason donors send gifts, but many do like others to know they support your cause or organization, which is why listing donors in your annual report or newsletter can be so effective.

10) They’re loyal to your organization and want to maintain their personal tradition of contributing to you. That’s why membership renewal, annual fund, and re-activation mailings have very high rates of return.

Even though I believe every one of these reasons for giving motivates some of your donors some of the time, I do realize that – at some level – both we and the donors themselves can’t really explain rationally or systematically why we write checks when we receive appeals. 

So be sure to give your donors continued opportunities throughout the year to do what they enjoy doing: send gifts to you. And be as effusive and appreciative as possible when you send thank you letters to these extraordinary individuals.


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