Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ideas That Work

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Letter Writing 101 (part 1)

Today, while the first cool breezes of September kiss the pines and maples of the Lexington campus, I want to begin saying a few things about Fund-raising letters.

Fund-raising Letters are an art form. They are often not mail one eagerly anticipates receiving, yet when well written, they can move people to send money for things they might not have thought they really cared about. They may be both informative and evocative. Successful letter writing is a science and a skill. If you do it right, you may be rewarded with financial success (or maybe not). A bad letter means certain financial loss.

Let me start for the top then and offer you in the first of two entries, some advice about fund-raising letters:

  • Start with a need. What is the point of your letter? You will soon compose a rhetorical case which ideally ends with the reader responding to you (giving money, volunteering, etc.). As you begin, be clear you know what the need is and how you want the reader to respond. This is important, because uncertainty is the enemy of response-focused composition.
  • Determine if a letter is the appropriate vehicle for for your request. I knew a person who sent a direct mail letter seeking new board members. This is not a good use of the medium. A mass-mailed letter does not deliver the gravitas that a board membership invitation requires and deserves. Generally the same is true for major donations, which demand great personalization. Instead, letters succeed with a request for support that can be quantified at a convenient level - say, $50 memberships, or support of the 2010 walk program.
  • Fire up your need. Back when I worked raising money for hospitals a colleague (no longer employed) said she asked recipients a recent appeal to increase the cash on hand of the hospital where she worked. Ugh! Are you raising money to "keep the lights on"? No, you're raising money to offer another child, just as precious as your own child or grandchild, the one in a lifetime opportunity to have a future unhampered by dyslexia. The lights are simply the means to this end. Drill down to the bones of what you are offing and find the spark that will inspire the reader.
  • Tell a passionate story. The late anthropologist Joseph Campbell said that humanity is a race of storytellers. Most of us respond to powerful personal narrative than cold facts. Find a story that suited your letter. Tell it in an exciting way. Use the line of narrative from which to sparingly depart with relevant supporting information. And remember the reader. You want the reader to be moved, not bored.
  • Keeping the reader's interest in mind. Yes, you have needs, but if you write thinking only of yourself, I guarantee a poor response to your letter. Constantly bounce between perspectives when writing. As the writer, describe your needs. But then, get on the other side of the table and pretend you are a recipient of this appeal. Has the writer kept you interest? Is it clear what is wanted?

This is a good start. To be continued, September 8...


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