Fundraising Letters: Where To Find Creative Ideas For Your Appeals

How do you make your fundraising letters creative and fresh year after year when your needs don't change all that much? I am not talking about new initiatives. I'm talking about the programs that you run year after year. The membership drive that you run year after year. The funds that you must raise to cover administrative expenses and salaries year after year. How can you request funds for these things over time without boring your donors into apathy? Learn a lesson from Jack Foster.

Jack Foster spent 35 years working in creative departments of advertising agencies in the United States. One of his challenges was doing the advertising for Smokey Bear. Here's how he describes his predicament:

The first thing the writers and art directors had to do every year was come up with a basic poster.

The rules for the poster never varied: It had to be a certain shape and size; it had to feature Smokey; it had to be simple enough to grasp at a glance, clear enough for even a dunce to understand, and (if it had words) brief enough to be read in three or four seconds.

The mission of the poster never varied either: It had to convince people to be careful with fire.

In other words, every year we had to come up with the same thing only different.

And we did. Indeed, every year we came up with 20 of 30 different ideas for posters. Every year. For over 20 years. Over 500 posters, all featuring Smokey and all trying to do the same thing and not a one of them the same.

I faced similar challenges when I worked at advertising agencies as a copywriter, and as a freelance copywriter for direct response agencies that create fundraising letters for international non-profits. The work was tough, but I discovered that writers and art directors could indeed create original fundraising appeals year after year for the same clients who needed money for the same things.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way, tips that will help you present your case for support to your donors in creative ways over time. The secret is knowing where to look for ideas. Here's where I look.

Challenges in the field

One place to look for original ideas is the field. If your charity is involved with child welfare, then your "field" may be the homes of your foster parents. If you are a small but international humanitarian organization, then the "field" for you is the towns and villages where you operate overseas. As you sit down to create a brand new appeal letter, look to your field and ask yourself what challenges you are facing. These challenges can often be translated into a compelling ask. Let me give you an example.

Doctors Without Borders is an international aid organization that sends volunteer doctors and nurses to places where no medical infrastructure exists, usually because of war or natural disasters. Since they never know where the next tsunami or civil war will strike, they need to have sufficient funds on hand at all times so they can respond quickly to a humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world. This means their fundraising letters must ask for funds for no particular emergency, but for emergencies in general. A tough challenge.

Doctors Without Borders has met this challenge year after year in creative ways. Here is just one. They realized that they often sent their volunteers into emergency situations that were created by water. Either there was a flood or there was a drought. Either there was too much water or not enough. In a brilliant move, Doctors Without Borders crafted an original fundraising package that presented this global need. They told their story in such a way that the need was obviously great, though not necessarily looming.

Donors who received the appeal understood that Doctors Without Borders needed funds on hand to meet the challenge of floods or droughts at anytime. But they also understood that their gift to the organization might be used to help victims of a cholera epidemic, or people displaced by a civil war. By looking to a challenge faced in the field, Doctors Without Borders created a memorable fundraising letter campaign that did nothing more than raise money for their general fund in a novel way.

Your frontline staff

Another source of creative ideas for fundraising letters is your staff, particularly those at the front lines of your ministry. The men and women who carry out your work face to face with the public have dozens of stories to tell about the needs that your organization meets and the people it helps. Many of these needs can be translated into an appeal, not for a special project, but a request for general funds to meet a given need. Here's an example.

In talking with the staff of a ministry that works with inmates in Canada's prisons, I discovered that most inmates have a problem with anger. Their tempers often land them in prison. And, while inside, they grow even more angry. As you can imagine, a compelling theme for an appeal letter would be inmate anger, and how a donor's gift supplies the funds that this prison ministry needs to help inmates conquer their anger and lead productive lives upon release.


Is your organization celebrating a 10th or 100th anniversary? Then you have the ingredients for a compelling appeal, provided you link past successes with your plans for the coming months and years. Have you just served your millionth meal? Or planted 500,000 trees as of this week? Translate your milestones into compelling proof that your organization needs your donors' continued support, then put your proof on paper in the form of a persuasive fundraising package theme and mail it.

Recent successes

Similar to milestones are recent successes. One organization I wrote for won the Nobel Peace Prize. That became a theme for one mailing. Another organization I know of retired their debt early, and announced the fact with an appeal for funds.

The key to keeping your fundraising letters engaging and a joy to read with each passing year is to present your work in new ways. As Foster put it, "to come up with the same thing only different." And the best places to look for those creative ideas are your clients, volunteers and staff, and the challenges they face each day in carrying out your mission.

About the author
Alan Sharpe is a professional fundraising letter writer who helps non-profits raise funds, build relationships and retain loyal donors using creative fundraising letters. Learn more about his services, view free sample fundraising letters, and sign up for free weekly tips like this at http://www.fundraisingletter

© 2005 Sharpe Copy Inc. You may reprint this article online and in print provided the links remain live and the content remains unaltered (including the "About the author" message).

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