11 appeals that make fundraising letters work

sad dogThe first rule of human behavior is that people make decisions emotionally, based on a feeling, need, or emotion.

This is important in all kinds of direct mail, but for fundraising letters, it is critical. Your letter must elicit an emotional response and channel it toward a donation.

A fundraising letter I received a few years ago from The Humane Society of the United States delivered so much emotional power, I still remember it to this day. It began bluntly:

I regret to inform you that The HSUS has conclusive evidence of the brutal murder of millions of dogs and cats…

…precious animals just like your own pet.

It’s the most deadly case of massive animal abuse ever in history. And I must warn you:

The sealed envelope I am sending you along with this letter contains graphic photographs of companion animals — dogs and cats — being slaughtered.

Please do not open this envelope unless you are prepared for the heartbreaking horror you will find inside.

The envelope held three photos. One showed cats being hanged and skinned. Another showed a German shepherd chained so tightly to a fence, it couldn’t lie down without nearly strangling. The last showed some sort of furry animal — I couldn’t tell what — curled up in a filthy burlap bag awaiting slaughter.

My reaction? I was sick to my stomach. I was enraged and overwhelmed with compassion for those poor, helpless animals. And I was reaching for my wallet to help stop this cruelty.

11 Key Emotional Appeals

If emotions are the key to powerful fundraising letters, it would be handy to know what the most effective appeals are, wouldn’t it?

Now I don’t want to give the impression that emotions or the appeals that generate them can be bottled, labeled, and arranged neatly like a rack of spices. Emotions are complex and infinitely subtle. But there are a few appeals that lend themselves to your fundraising efforts.

Altruism — Whether people are truly altruistic or have self-serving motives for giving is often debated. The best approach is to always assume altruistic motives and appeal to other motives subtly. People want to be seen as generous, kind, and noble. So even if they’re giving for selfish reasons, you must treat them as though they are the models of altruism. You want to say to them, “I’m so glad we have generous friends like you.” Assume the best of people and you usually get it.

Anger — Some highly emotional issues can cause feelings of outrage. This is a powerful motivator, but a tricky one. If you decide to be angry in your letter, maintain your anger throughout. You don’t want to froth at the mouth. But you also don’t want to drop out of character and slip into fuzzy wuzzy language on page 2, either. Your appeal should be along the lines of “This is outrageous and we have to stop it!”

Belief — Whether religious, political, or social, many people act on strongly held beliefs when given the opportunity. Especially powerful is an appeal based on the idea of “us vs. them” where “they” are doing something that threatens “us.” They are trying to take away our guns. They want to raise our taxes. They want to build an abortion clinic in our neighborhood. Even if you’re not dealing with issues as volatile as these, you should take a bold stand on your cause.

Compassion — You can generate sympathy by painting a word picture of a person (or an animal) who needs help. Share details about that person’s life and ordeals. But be careful. If the problem is distasteful or unpleasant to think about and you present it too graphically, you might make your reader turn away instead. There’s a fine line between sympathy and revulsion.

Ego Gratification — Gratifying one’s ego is not the same as being egotistical. It’s a sense of well-being, a feeling that inner perceptions and outer realities are in sync. Since most people like to think highly of themselves, it’s best that you speak to them in an appropriately flattering tone. People tend to want to live up to the perceptions of others.

Fear — Fear usually takes the form of self-preservation – for example, donating to cancer research to save your own life in the years ahead. This is a powerful motivator. It’s dangerous, though, because you can easily offend by suggesting self-serving motives. As I’ve already pointed out, people like to think of themselves as altruistic.

Guilt — Discomfort and guilt are your emotional allies in any appeal. To spark your prospect’s desire to give, you must create a certain level of discomfort about the problem you are presenting. And the thought of not helping should cause a feeling of guilt within your reader. You can’t deal with this on the surface, but you should hint at how good your reader will feel by helping — the unspoken alternative being a rotten feeling for not helping.

Idealism — If you have a cause with a big idea, you can frame your message around the “I want to change the world” appeal. Of course, many causes can be positioned as world-changing. The trick is to not stretch believability too far. Even the most idealistic donors are very practical with their checkbooks.

Immortality — As children, we feel we’re going to live forever. As adults, we know we won’t, but we feel an overwhelming urge to try. Engraved plaques in a concert hall, published names in a newspaper, additions to hospitals, and other such tangible records of accomplishment are all symbols that allow a certain kind of immortality.

Joy — It’s too easy to focus on the more negative and selfish motivations for giving. However, for many people, giving creates a powerful sense of joy — the joy of sharing, of belonging, of being needed. Find the “Joy Factor” in your cause and test an appeal based on it. Many times, you’ll find it wins.

Recognition — Everyone needs a pat on the back now and then. A simple “thank you” note is good enough for some. For others, a certificate or some form of public notice is more appropriate. Some people give solely to be congratulated. So congratulate them.

What is the right emotion for your cause? Anger? Joy? Fear? A combination of two or more emotions?

Once you identify it, use it to spark a strong emotional response in your direct mail letter. And then remember to give people enough supporting information to allow them to justify and act on their feelings.

Never be shy about making people feel something. Strong feelings create strong supporters for your charitable cause.

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