As a ‘lame duck’ rector of the church I’d pastored for decades, I had an unusual experience writing my last year-end appeal letter. I had announced my resignation six months earlier. The entire congregation was waiting for some good news from the Search Committee.
And we had a significant financial need. HUGE! We needed to raise about 15% of our budget in the closing few weeks of the year. That is a lot of money. I was hoping and praying, of course. But I knew I needed to do more.
I prepared an appeal letter and was ready to send it out. If you need to know why you need to write one of these letters every year, read here. I love writing them. They provide me with an opportunity to connect with people and give a call to action. It is like a mini-sermon, in a way.
But as I wrote it, I noticed that a spirit of fear and insecurity came over me. I thought, Why would they listen to me? I’m leaving. They are all holding back, waiting to see what the next guy is like. These are normal, human, but fallen thoughts. But they colored the tone of my letter.
Taking a Closer Look
I finished the letter and was ready to print and mail it. (YES! Send your letter through snail mail with a real, first class stamp on it!) But just before I pressed ‘send’ to the printer, I asked a friend of mine to take a look at it.
Tim is a fundraising professional. He writes appeal letters for a living. He has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for thousands of nonprofits agencies and ministries. (His client list would be recognizable to anyone reading this.) I asked Tim to take a look at my letter and, if he could, improve it. “Tweak it, Tim”, I said.
He did. His modifications to the appeal letter blew me away. I sent his letter out and, in a word, it connected. It worked! We raised the money we needed to and positioned the church for a great year. Thanks, Tim! Of course, we will never know if my letter would have flopped. But Tim’s reasons for his changes assured me that his message would succeed. Here is what he wrote me with his final draft of my letter:
I flipped around the sequence of the paragraphs, smoothed out and strengthened some language. I beefed up the tone of your gratitude for the reader and pushed the request higher in the letter. This is important in letters like this; they need to cut out the warm up and lead with the need. Then they can backfill with other facts, figures, and feelings. It is the ‘feeling’ part that acts as trigger words.
Thanks, Tim. And remind me never to ask you about my sermons.
Rules to Write By
But seriously, as I look at my letter of last year and compare it to his, side by side, here is my honest evaluation:
Rule #1: Never write from a position of fear.
Mine was too tentative. I needed to remember: I am not writing a fundraising letter to a group of strangers. I am writing to my family of faith. Fear of failing to make budget was omnipresent in me. My personal fear of choosing to leave Christ Church was lurking around too. A non-rational fear of ending my ministry with a financial deficit was in my heart too. Fear made me tentative and insecure.
Rule #2: Have confidence in your people. They are there for a reason.
I shouldn’t have to ‘sell’ the membership at all. Members have shown their commitment. They don’t need to be hooked or convinced. The people needed information. Tim took the same material I had written and placed it in a more useful order.
Rule #3: Don’t preach in a letter. And get yourself OUT of the equation.
My letter was annoying. I was too much in a sermon mode. (Have you ever noticed that lectures make terrible letters?) My letter tried to be a sermon. The phrase “I need your help” was trying to be a call to action. It was weird. And it made to be all about me! Ugh.
Rule #4: Find the positive, loving emotions you have for your people and write from that point of view.
Tim’s letter was teeming with emotion which I felt too at the time. I love Christ Church, and I wanted to see it thrive. I wanted the church to be healthy in the coming year. But that positive emotion hid behind other emotions.
Rule #5: If you DON’T have positive, loving feelings for your people, don’t write a letter.
Talk to a friend or counselor first. You know, first, remove the lumber from your eye before you try to take out the speck in the eye of another.
Rule #6: Your letter should uphold and uplift people, not scold or demand. They should feel pastored not pestered!
Tim’s letter emphasized the priority of prayer too. That shows a spiritual concern for the welfare of God’s people more than making the budget. My letter stressed that too, by the way; but Tim’s approach was refreshing. His reader might think, “Oh, wow, he doesn’t want me to jump at making a contribution! He wants me to pray about it first.”
Recently, I reconnected with Tim for this article. He is still at it: raising money for large nonprofits. He sent me some extra material that I found fascinating. He invited me to read this writers post about appeal letters. It will impress you. You will discover that the professional fund raising leaders think about the letters they write. They are not just slapped together in an hour or so. The letters they write are phrased, edited and shaped with care and precision. I was delighted to run across two fun writing tools (Hemingway and Latinometer) that I will use forever and ever. Amen.
You will find your style, but Tim’s advice to me was very helpful. We made the budget balance, and then some. But I also took away a significant lesson. Know your heart, know your people, and know what you want them to do. Then lovingly and honestly, tell them why. And how.
You can see my earlier draft and Tim’s revisions right here.