By Alan Sharpe

I have a brother-in-law who farms and drives a 16-wheeler for a living. When I told him that I start each business day with a blank computer screen that I must fill with at least 1,000 words by noon, he almost fainted. He says he could never do it because he wouldnt know where to start. But the same goes for me when it comes to pulling the engine out of a John Deere 6020 Series tractor.

My brother-in-law is correct, of course. You cant write an effective fundraising letter unless you know where to start. The most important part of any direct mail fundraising appeal is what you do before you write a word of the package.

Poorly conceived appeals lead to poor results. Letters written in haste usually waste money and hinder donations.

The secret to attracting new donors, renewing support, raising funds, building relationships and retaining loyal donors with direct mail is to ask yourself the tough questions before you ask anyone for a donation. You need to know who you are writing to, why you are writing them, and what you want them to do.

Here are some tips for increasing your chances of success by answering the vital questions that leading fundraisers ask before writing a single line of copy.

1. Who are you writing to?

Most of your donors share a common trait. What is it? Are they all touched by heart disease in some way? Are they all veterans? Are they all former students of your university? Are they all theatre-goers?

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Understanding your audience is the first step because who you mail to is the single most important determinant of your success. You can craft the most moving appeal letter of the decade but your campaign will flop if you mail it to the wrong people.

Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself to get a better understanding of your donorsand how to appeal to them in a relevant way that motivates them to give.

* What are they passionate aboutwhat makes them furious?

* What is their affinity with your organizationstrangers? Regular donors? Major donors? Former donors? Volunteers? Clients?

* What types of appeals (emergency, renewal, acquisition, year-end) generate the highest response and largest gifts with this audience?

2. Why are you writing?

That sounds like a dumb question, right? You are writing because you need money! Thats a given. But as someone has so well said, Your donors do not give to you because you have a need. They give to you because you meet a need.

This means you need to take your attention away from your financial need and turn it to your cause. What crisis, opportunity, current event, issue or need is causing you to appeal for funds today? Focus on that and not on your need for funds. Here are some other questions to ask at this stage:

* What is the goal of this appeal letter, exactly? Acquire new donors or members? Get your current supporters or members to renew their support or membership? Raise funds for a particular project? Recover lapsed donors or members?

* What will you do with the money raised? Put it in your general fund? Spend it on a designated project or program? Reduce your deficit? Buy some capital equipment? Donors want to know.

* Why do you think donors will respond now? Have they responded to similar appeals? Have they supported similar organizations?

3. What do you want your readers to do?

We want them to mail a gift, the larger the better! Not so fast. Are you writing to business peers, inviting them to join your organization as members? Or are you mailing to existing donors, asking them to renew their support by mailing you a gift? Or are you writing to major donors, inviting them to join your giving club (Presidents Circle, for example)?

In each of these cases, the action you want your reader to take will be different. So make sure you know what action your readers must take before you start writing. Consider these other questions:

* What other actions do you want your readers to take? (Request information about planned giving? Sign and mail a petition to their member of parliament? Complete and return a survey? Refer a friend?)

* How much do you want them to give? What is the amount of money that you want to receive from each person who receives your letter?

* What is the minimum size of gift you need? What is the largest gift that you can reasonably expect?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than the others, depending on where you are in your annual giving program, the age of your organization and the nature of your mission. But asking them (along with the many other questions you must ask yourself before committing money to a mailing) should reduce your mailing costs, eliminate waste and increase your response rates and levels of giving.

About the Author: Alan Sharpe is a professional fundraising letter writer. Sign up for free weekly tips like this at

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