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Fundraising letters


When planning a fundraising letter writing campaign, you need to think carefully about the aim of the letters. Is it to attract donations right now, or is it to obtain donors who will keep giving year after year? The letter you write will depend on the answer to this question, and one that is worth spending some time addressing.

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Fundraising Letters Should Raise Donors, Not Donations, When Mailed to Strangers

Alan Sharpe

Are you willing to spend $1.25 to raise $1? To lose money to make money? You should be. Most donor acquisition mailings never pay for themselves. They lose money. And rightly so.

Acquisition letters (letters designed to acquire new donors) should be a vital part of your development program. Current donors fall away. Some lose interest in your mission. Some lose their jobs. Other leave the country. Some die. You need to be mailing fundraising letters to people who have never supported your cause in order to replace the donors who fall away every year through no fault of yours.

But to be successful at acquiring new donors, you need to ignore one set of numbers and fix your eyes on another. The numbers to ignore are the costs of getting your first donation. According to James Greenfield, in his excellent book, Fund Raising (second edition), you can expect to pay anywhere from $1.25 to $1.50 to raise $1 with an acquisition mailing. That doesn't sound like a wise use of your resources, does it?

But with acquisition fundraising letters, you need to have your eyes fixed on the lifetime value of your donor, not the short-term value of their first gift. You need to remind yourself (along with your board members, key volunteers and inexperienced colleagues) that your goal with acquisition mailings is to acquire friends, not funds.


This is not always very clear to begin with, and I'm sure some fundraisers will shake their heads in disbelieve at the thought of spending $1.25 if they only bring in $1. However, if you keep reading, it does make sense, it's just another way of looking at things.  ~ Site Editor

Let me illustrate.

Lets say you mail a fundraising letter to a list of 10,000 strangers. These are people who have not supported your organization before but might. Assume that your costs for writing, design, production and postage come to $0.60 a piece. Your mailing costs are thus $6,000. Lets say you receive a 1 percent response rate. Thats 100 gifts. Further assume that the average gift is $30 Your income is $30 x 100 donors, namely, $3,000.

Your costs are: $6,000

Your income is: $3,000

Your net loss for the campaign is: $3,000

Are you in trouble? No. Heres what you tell your executive director. We gained 100 new donors. And up to 80 percent of them will give again, provided we follow up properly and solicit their gifts in the right way in the future.

Each of these new donors effectively cost you $30 each (your net loss divided by total new donors). Are you willing to spend $30 today to raise a friend who will likely give your organization hundreds of dollars in gifts in years to come? You should be, provided you can remember that your goal with acquisition letters is to raise a donor, not a donation.

My thanks go to Stanley Weinstein and his book, The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management (second edition), for his insight into the economics of donor acquisition.

© 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).


Alan Sharpe is a professional fundraising letter writer. View free sample fundraising letters and sign up for free weekly tips like this at

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