Email Fundraising: How to Tell a Short Story That Moves People to Action

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The most noticeable difference between digital and print appeals is length.

In print, long appeals almost always do better than short ones. You have room to tell a story, to repeat the call to action, to bring out emotions that will move your reader to act.

Most readers don’t read every word, of course. Holding your pages in their hand, they’ll skim your copy. And, if your appeal is in the hands of a skilled copywriter, their eyes will be drawn to the messages you most want to emphasize.

In a way, it’s like the salesperson with a foot in the door – if you can keep the reader engaged, your chances of a gift increase.

Email appeals, however, are usually not long. I aim for 200-300 words. A simple two-page print appeal might have between 500 and 700.

Many writers know it’s easier to write long than short. So you might have some questions about writing your next email appeal.

  • How can you write about a complex topic in few words?
  • How can you create an emotional response in your reader?
  • With attention spans as short as they are now, how do you keep the reader engaged?
  • Can email feel as personal as a letter?
  • How can you get readers to even open your appeal?

How to write about a complex topic

When space and attention are issues, focus – relentless focus – is your friend. So even if you feel your organization’s mission requires explanation, fight for simplicity.

This is work you need to do before your write the first word. Explain your request as if you were talking to a third grader. Keep at it until your explanation is both simple and emotional.

Here’s a hint for you: often, the complexity concerns how you do your work. That’s not interesting to your reader. Focus instead on why: the need. Don’t tell donors or prospective donors about how hard you work. Tell them about what they will achieve with a gift.

Your cutting-edge programs make you proud. But donors give for results. So cut everything but the simple tie between need and result. Your donor goes in between.

When you look at it this way, your cause is not as complex as you think.

Keep your language simple, as well. Writing for skimmers is even more important in a digital format. So keep the words simple, keep the sentences short and break up long paragraphs.

Cut the flab. Adverbs. Adjectives. Often, the word “that”. Stick to active verbs and simple nouns. Try the Hemingway app to simplify and improve your writing.

You want readers to understand the need and the ask in a few quick moments.

Creating an emotional response

You won’t have the space to tell a long story. So simplify and focus. But don’t be so focused on narrative that you let emotion go.

What details add to the story? What could be cut? Where is the true emotion? Worry less about putting the facts in the right order (you’re not Sgt. Friday and this isn’t Dragnet). Worry more about how you want the reader to feel.

Here’s an example. Suppose your organization helps refugees. You could research one family’s reason for leaving, their journey, and their experience with your organization. These are people’s lives, so the full story is compelling and exciting and detailed.

You don’t have space (or time, as your reader is measuring it) for the full story.

So what really matters?

They were in danger. They fled. Now they need the reader’s help.

Use details only where they add to the emotion. A child’s toy left behind. The family member who didn’t make it. The angry words that greeted their arrival.

Look for the human details that connect your story’s subject to your reader.

Think in terms of senses: we feel what we read. If you think about typing, your hands are likely poised to move. If you think about the soft texture of a child’s blanket, your brain reacts as if you’re holding it.

Email offers so many visual options. It’s easy to insert video or many images.

But don’t go crazy. One impactful image is far more powerful than a collection. Just as with print, chose an image with one person, looking at the camera if you can. We react to eyes looking at us, whether it’s on the page, the screen or real life.

Keep it simple! Remember this is an appeal from one person to another. Being able to include all sorts of fancy things doesn’t mean you should. I’ve had more success with a simple letter format, including a signature and a P.S.

People help people. Show the people reading just the detail they need to feel a connection.

Goldfish attention spans

Actually, goldfish are apparently better at focusing than we are now. (Scary, right?)

You can’t change our culture before your next appeal. So you have to work with it.

We’ve talked about simplifying your writing and focusing on emotion. But emotion needs to lead to action for your appeal to be effective.

That’s where repetition is your friend.

Design a compelling call to action. Simple. Emotional. Urgent.

Then make sure it’s repeated throughout your appeal. Begin early. Then keep bringing the reader back to it.

For our refugees above, you can tell readers: “They fled violence and met anger here. You can welcome them. Make a gift today.”

Remember, keep it all about what the donor can do, not what your organization does. You are the means to an end… the conduit for a donor’s care and need to do something good.

Make it personal

Your data matters. If you want to move people to make a gift, you must appeal to them personally.

That starts with addressing them personally. Make sure your list is updated and has the information in it that you will need. (Nothing like getting a warm email that starts Dear *FIRSTNAME*!)

We are drawn to the word “you.” We are also drawn to our name. So use names, just as you would in a conversation.

Don’t go all pushy salesman, though. Read it aloud. Ask a colleague to listen. You’re going for a gentle hand on the arm, not fists grabbing lapels.

How can you get readers to even open your appeal?

Your emotional, urgent and concise appeal won’t do its job if no one opens it. So spend a great deal of time thinking about your subject line.

Prioritize action over opens for an appeal. You need gifts, not just eyes, right?

I don’t suggest hiding the fact that this is an appeal. If you let people know you’ll be asking them to take action, you might have fewer opens. But those who do open it will be more likely to act.

Brainstorm 10 or 20 subject lines and run them through a few testers. (Try Advanced Marketing Institutes or Co-Schedule’s headline analyzers.) Writing one quickly and hitting send isn’t the way to succeed here. You have to make your reader feel she has to open this.

The truth about online fundraising

Direct mail still rules. But there’s no reason not to do both.

Email can be easy to use. It can be tracked, so you can see how your messaging is working. And since almost everyone now has a mobile phone, it reaches people wherever they are.

But that’s no reason to take it for granted. If you want results, give it all the care you give your print communications.

Author Bio

I’m Mary Cahalane, principal of Hands-On Fundraising. I’m based in Connecticut and specialize in annual giving programs and donor communications. And I stuff a mean envelope. I say that not because it’s the most important skill I’ve developed. But after 30 years in the nonprofit world, I still approach my work hands-on. I enjoy the dual nature of this work: half art and half science; half philosophy and half paper cuts. Helpful is my mission. My fundraising experience includes arts, community, social service and education organizations. I’ve helped to build successful fundraising programs by focusing on great communications, sensible planning and strong donor relationships. Can I help you? 

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