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Write Better Fundraising Letters by Making a Scene

by Alan Sharpe

Successful fundraising letters are exciting to read. They take you to crack houses, battlefields, logging protests, prisons, floods and other places you will never set foot yourself. Effective donation request letters show you the organizations you support engaged on the front lines in the battle to right wrongs, correct injustices and make the world a better place. They put you in the thick of the action. And they usually do this by making a scene.

An inexperienced writer will tell you about a subject, place or person. But a writer who knows how to craft novel fundraising letters will show you that subject, place or person in action. Plays are constructed with scenes. So are movies. And so are the best appeal letters.

Novel fundraising letters usually open with a dramatic scene, go on to state the need, invite the donor to participate with a gift, include one or two more dramatic scenes, then conclude with another request for a gift.

Here is a sample of the opening scene from a donation request letter that Trans World Radio Canada mailed to its donors (Trans World Radio Canada is a Christian radio network that offers inspirational programming and Bible teaching in dozens of languages around the world).

We had never seen anything like it before.

It was a Saturday evening in rural Angola. Our team was visiting villages, distributing wind-up radios. In one village, we found a group of at least 150 people huddled around a tiny radio, listening to Trans World Radio's weekly broadcast. We joined them on the grass, and listened from the first program to the last, including Women of Hope, the ministry of Project Hannah that I know you pray for so faithfully. Then we introduced ourselves, and made some new friends. Here's what we learned.

The villagers, especially the women, were amazed and grateful to listen to a program addressed to them. Since you cannot meet these dear people face to face, as I do, I'm writing to tell you how your prayers are being answered in the lives of your sisters in Christ, halfway around the world, in Angola.

Why should you include scenes in your donation letters? Because your donors are used to movement, action and a three-dimensional experience. Scenes make your fundraising letters "cinematically compelling," as Lee Gutkind puts it. Scenes involve your donors in the action while informing them about your need for funds.

Here is another example, taken from the opening of a fundraising letter mailed by Humane Society International:

In a peaceful olive grove in Spain, Luna, an unsuspecting female greyhound, tail wagging, is led to a tree by her owner. One end of a six-foot length of piano wire is secured around her neck. The other end is flung over a high branch. The defenceless creature is then jerked up by her neck and left to hang.

Death does not come easy as the poor animal struggles for precious air and balance. But, the more she struggles, the more the wire tightens. Finally, after several agonizing minutes, the greyhound is dead?along with four other greyhounds hung from different branches of the same tree.

As you can see, this letter is powerful not because of the cruelty it describes, but because of the cruelty it shows. The writer takes you to the "peaceful olive grove" and makes you see the cruelty with your own eyes. That's the power of showing instead of telling, the power of writing in scenes.

© 2006 Alan Sharpe. Reprinted with permission.

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About the Author: Alan Sharpe is a professional fundraising letter writer, instructor, author and newsletter publisher who 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

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