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Fundraising Letters Must Tell Great Stories
(Three Samples)

by Alan Sharpe


If your fundraising letter doesn’t tell a great story, it’s not a fundraising letter. It’s a memo. Direct mail fundraising is all about storytelling.

If you want your direct mail donors to respond to your letters in greater numbers and with larger gifts, learn the craft of storytelling. Learn how to write human-interest stories that inspire, motivate and move your donors—to give.

As a gospel preacher and one-time university instructor, I’ve learned over the years that the safest way to make your point stick is to tell a story. As UK fundraising consultant Ken Burnett observes in his book, The Zen of Fundraising, fundraisers should tell stories because “we have some of the best stories in the world and the best reasons of all for telling them.”

Jesus Christ revealed complicated truths about God’s character, God’s prophetic plan for the ages, and moral absolutes by telling parables. The Prodigal Son. The Good Samaritan. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. These phrases are in common use today because the person who coined them 2,000 years ago told stories. Memorable stories. Stories that reached the hearts of His hearers.

Your fundraising letters need to do the same. And the quickest way to a donor’s heart is through the adrenal glands. Consider, for example, this opening paragraph from a fundraising letter mailed by Covenant House:

“She stood on the curb looking scared and lonely in a skimpy halter top and bright red lipstick. It was two in the morning. A chilly breeze whipped up in the street and seemed to make her shiver. She was a child . . . just a child. We pulled our Covenant House van up to the curb and rolled down the window . . . .”

Or this opening story from an appeal letter mailed by The Cousteau Society:

“A shipwrecked sailor was struggling in the water. The shore was near, but his strength was almost spent. Then suddenly there was a friendly presence in the water, a strong, sleek body that buoyed him up, escorted him to shallow water, saved his life. This story, or something akin to it, has been told countless times about dolphins and porpoises.”

Or this opening from an appeal letter mailed by the YWCA:

“Shortly after the latest increase in heating oil, a fuel company received an inquiry from the Mother Superior of a Convent: “How much,” she asked, “has the price of oil gone up? Wanting to break the news gently, the salesperson asked, “Are you sitting down, Sister?” Replied the nun, “I am kneeling.” In its struggle to become energy efficient and cost conscious, the YWCA has initiated priorities to be achieved as funds become available.”

The secret to crafting great fundraising letters is to craft great stories. Whatever you are writing about, whether endangered whales, land mines, cancer survivors or abandoned cats, look for the human drama in your work that brings your message alive. Then tell your donor a story. One with a happy ending.

© 2006 Alan Sharpe. Reprinted with permission.

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About the Author: Alan Sharpe, fundraising letter writer, instructor and author, is president of Raiser Sharpe, the full-service direct mail fundraising agency that helps non-profit organizations raise funds, build relationships and retain loyal donors using cost-effective, compelling, creative fundraising letters. Sign up for free weekly tips like this at RaiserSharpe.com.
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