Monday, August 09, 2010

How To Request Any Support: A Donation, A Grant, Etc.; By Making A Compelling Case To Support Your Orgainzation

Raising support is about gaining a contributor's support and not about hammering someone over the head until they give. Nonprofits, who themselves are mired in a tough economy or lulled by their own written rhetoric or phrasing in their fundraising materials, though, can lose their objectivity when creating new, written, fundraising materials and lose their ability (or miss the opportunity) to actually raise support in a fashion so that the donor will not just give this one time now, but will also give again and again, in the future.

We're getting close to the end of the year in fiscal terms.  Often nonprofits get their annual appeal letters out to their donors prior to the end of the year because they want to both get their attention before the onslaught of many other nonprofits' appeals reach their donors' mailboxes, and also because the end of the year is the last opportunity for Americans to do anything to effect their tax liability for that year.  The contribution may be a good tool for donors to use to their own benefit (besides assisting their favorite causes and organizations) to defer some of their personal tax liability for that year through the contribution and its resulting tax write off.

I have received two different requests this past week.  One was from a welfare nonprofit that I have contributed to, before, and the other was from a professional affiliation which is itself a nonprofit.  While each request was heartfelt, meant well, and was sort of compelling, neither really did a good job of encouraging me to actually give and unfortunately this is not unusual among nonprofit solicitations.

When any nonprofit sits down to write any kind of donation request, whether it is a grant application, an annual appeal letter asking donors to give for the year, a sponsorship solicitation, an in kind item request, or anything else asking for support there are a few fundamental bits of information that must be included to make a compelling case for anyone receiving the request to give to your nonprofit.  They are:

1. Know to whom the letter should go and address the letter and envelope to that person, correctly.  I know I sound obvious or even condescending when I say this, but I don't mean to.  This advice is borne out of my own experience.  I have missed this very basic but powerful step in the fundraising process and paid the price, so I'm imparting my own experience.  Your donors names and contact information should be in a database of some sort in correct form; but if you are writing to a local business requesting a sponsorship or to a foundation requesting a grant, then know who (currently) is going to read the letter, spell their name correctly, get the mailing address right, and also get their current title correct and include all of that in a proper address block (on the envelope and on the letter per business letter formatting) and in correct form in the salutation in the letter. 

2. Be clear, succinct, thorough, and to the point in the letter's content.  I never read a four page donation solicitation.  I neither have the time nor the energy to, by the time in the day that I typically pick up my mail, get in the door of my house, and take a second to go through it.  It's usually after work and I'm tired.  Think about your own routine with snail mail and consider the recipients of your letter.  You want to be effective in raising funds through this solicitation so I'd do whatever makes good sense to reach them, inform them, make a compelling case why they would want to give, make the request, and thank them in a clear, 'to the point', and succinct fashion.  Also, include a remittance envelope with your request so that it's easy for them to give.

3. There is some very specific information that should be stated in each solicitation and every time.  This is where the two solicitations that I received this week missed an opportunity.  Always include in each letter that solicits for any kind of support:
a.) Open with a "...thank you..." - I try to at least in the opening paragraph and then also again in the closing paragraph of each and any solicitation letter that I compose to say "thank you".  Each of the people who are going to receive a solicitation have either indicated that they care about the cause your organization works for, or have given something to your organization in the past.  Either way: the recipient cares and for just that alone, a thank you is warranted (whether they have given or not, before, and whether they gave thousands and thousands or five dollars).
b.) "...this is what we have accomplished this year..." - Each time this is omitted in a solicitation of any kind, sent to me, I'm astounded.  Many nonprofit fundraising materials writers substitute 'heart wrenching' or 'hitting someone over the head with their heart strings' for this content and in my opinion (not just as a professional fundraiser, but as a recipient of nonprofit solicitations) it is a huge mistake and a missed opportunity to develop a potential repeat donor.  People give because they care about a cause or issue but they give to specific nonprofit organizations because of that organization's success rate, potential, integrity, reputation for effectiveness and honesty, and for their achievements in the cause or issue.  Repeat donors (donors who give once and then again, and again) give because a nonprofit is successful at achieving the goals of its mission statement.  The only way a potential donor will know what a nonprofit's recent successes and achievements are is if that organization tells its current supporters, clients, and the potential supporters in its communities.  This information is compelling and by virtue of it making the case why someone who gives to your specific agency is making a sound investment in the community (rather than pulling on heart strings which any nonprofit could do to raise funds and by virtue of blending with the rest makes no real compelling case why that single nonprofit should receive a donor's support over the next organization working on the same issue).
c. "...this is what our nonprofit's goals and anticipated outcomes are for this coming year and here's why we have put these goals into place..." - Again, the two solicitations failed to mention these in each of the solicitations that I received this week and it leaves me, the potential donor, wondering what my money is supposed to do in the community if I give it.  Do not make the same mistake.  Do not leave potential donors wondering what their money will be invested to do in the community.  Tell them explicitly.
d. "...the population that benefits from this specific organization's work are..." and then provide current factual demographics and other descriptions of whatever it is that the organization exists to assist and enable and include the clear, current, honest reason that the organization's work is still needed (succinctly).  For example, if I work for an environmental nonprofit working to preserve prairie land I might write, "...four thousand natural prairie land acres were acquired, protected, and preserved for future generations, this past year; but we have studied current unmet needs and located twenty thousand local wild prairie land acres that still need our protection and this year our programs are designed to do x, y, and z to achieve this goal..." and provide specific clear objectives.  If you don't impart what the entity, people, thing is that needs assistance and what it is nor what the real, current, but as yet unmet need is that exists, today, warranting more work or effort; why should a potential donor believe their support will 'do anything'?  Nonprofits are in partnerships with their supporters: they are the formal organization set up to do something about an issue and the supporters are the ones that enable that organization to succeed at the work of its mission statement.
e. Clearly state what it is that you are requesting by sending the letter and make this request in both the opening and closing paragraphs; and do not limit what the recipient might give.  If I am working for a nonprofit that provides clothing to low income school children I might write to our donors, "...Since our goals include providing winter parkas to 20,000, local, low income, school children, as we did this year, but also an additional 5,000 more school children this year please give a cash or an asset contribution today, partnering with our organization to achieve this goal."  I did not state, "...give $35..." or "...give generously...".  I asked them to give.  If you ask for $35 based on some amount that the donor has given for the past five years, but they were considering giving $100, as they read the letter, because they believe in the goals and programs your organization is going to offer; but they come to the request in the letter and are only asked for $35, then you may have just lost $65 for your agency.  Make a request but don't make any assumptions or place any unforeseen limits on what they may or may not contribute.
f.  Say "...thank you..." again in the close.  As I said above, thanking anyone for both their interest but also their considering giving is not just polite, it's acknowledging them and their ability to help solve the issue or cause and it's worth doing.

Finally, because we are in the midst of a recession, I must say a word or two about emergency solicitations.  In 2001, I was working on staff at a medium sized nonprofit.  It always did an excellent job of maintaining its usual cash flow by fundraising well.  After the attacks on 9/11, most nonprofits, world wide, that were not working in causes related to first responders, emergency services, or other efforts related to the attacks suddenly saw their usual cash flow diminish (understandably).  I worked for a nonprofit that provided direct services to local people suffering from multiple sclerosis and while each of us working at that nonprofit understood what motivated people world wide were giving after the attacks, we faced a momentary but nonetheless real crisis.  We needed to raise what we expected we would for the months after 9/11 and had to figure out how to do so, and quickly.  I created an emergency solicitation letter with our executive director and it was a big success (raising what it needed to, for that organization, and more).

Emergency solicitations are not unusual right now, sadly (because of the state of this economy), and I don't mind receiving them because I really appreciate the work that the nonprofits conduct, that I have chosen to support.  If they are having difficulties raising what they need to conduct basic operations, then I want to know because I want to do what I can to help.  Also, emergency solicitation are reasonable requests by these organizations as, to be clear, these aren't organizations facing closing because they are poorly operated or because their leadership haven't done yet what was necessary to get the organization through this recession.  These are nonprofits that are facing not raising some finite amount of money that, once raised, will 'right the boat' and allow their operations to remain on track.

Sending an emergency solicitation to a nonprofit's donors is not just a forthright and reasonable thing to do, sometimes it's a necessary thing to do and it's O.K. as long as it's clear.  State what has occurred, what is needed, why the organization needs X or Y amount, and clearly state what that amount (once raised) will honestly do for the organization such as, "...once this agency raises the now needed $50,000 we will have rectified the gap that is currently sitting in our fundraising budget, and fixed our temporary but vital revenue discrepancy, putting this nonprofit back on track to meet all of its programmatic budgets and achieve its mission goals for the year...".

Hitting a potential donor over the head with emotions rather than snatching the opportunity to truly engender in a donor the clear reason why their contribution will make a good improvement to the community by virtue of their giving to your specific agency is not just a lost opportunity to raise more money; it's a lost opportunity to bring someone interested in doing so into achieving successes for the community - and that's a shame for the community, the donor, and whoever or whatever it is that your organization exists to enable and better.

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