Making a scene: the recipe for a great fundraising letter

publication date: Sep 26, 2011
author/source: Sumac Research
People find it easy to ignore what they can't see: starving children halfway across the world, impoverished neighbourhoods, melting ice caps, suffering animals, depressed elderly and the mentally ill. Want to write a successful fundraising letter? Make them see! Bring readers into your world, help them see why you do what you do, feel the amazing feeling you get when you do it, and share the impact it has.

What's the best way to do that? Tell a story, and make a scene.

According to Alan Sharpe, direct mail fundraising specialist and author of Breakthrough Fundraising Letters, "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." Much like plays and movies, he says, they make a scene.

Here are three examples to get you thinking about how you might replace your typical introduction with one that makes a scene so that your fundraising letter cannot be ignored.

Typical intro - why read on?

We rely on the dedication and hard work of our staff to fulfill the important mission we have undertaken. And we depend on the generosity of individuals like you to help us save lives and unite families. The Community Project has a proud record of working to provide social services to our community....

Replace boilerplate with compelling scene

This one is from a fundraising letter mailed by Covenant House and is offered as an example by Alan Sharpe:

She stood on the curb looking scared and lonely in a skimpy halter top and bright red lipstick. It was two in the morning. A chilly breeze whipped up in the street and seemed to make her shiver. She was a child . . . just a child. We pulled our Covenant House van up to the curb and rolled down the window . . . .

This intro is brilliant. The writer has managed to bring us into the child's world. And once you're there; once you have been introduced to her, you cannot ignore her. You can see her and, in that one story, you can see the importance of what Covenant House does.

When statistics don't help

Every year, 5.8 million children die from hunger-related causes. Every day that's 16,000 young lives lost. At Feed the Children, we work to put an end to world hunger....

This intro is trying to be shocking, and it is - kind of. But numbers are easy to ignore. They are numbers, after all, not individuals.  While some people can see through the numbers to the practical consequences, most need the consequences to be more visible.

Scene, not stats

We were frozen with shock, amazement, and fear all at the same time...

It had been a long and hard journey through Sudan, and at the end of it we were met by the frail, gaunt and starving bodies of children, teenagers, and adults all rushing towards us. Protruding rib cages and depressed stomachs. Legs as frail and thin as matchsticks. It was the most shocking sight we had ever seen.

But with this sight came their smiles, their laughter, their cries of joy and their warm embraces. Tears were shed on all our shoulders as we were hugged and thanked by many different people.

And suddenly, we all realized how much what we were doing meant to all these people!

This intro is amazing. You feel like you are there and you can feel what they felt when holding those children. If you can make someone feel that - that wonderful, marvellous feeling of making a difference and changing lives - then you've got a great fundraising letter. That is why people give - for that feeling!

History doesn't work either

Since 1984, East Side Children's Centre has provided thousands of children in our community with free access to counselling, after-school tutoring, mentoring and recreational programs. This access is made possible through the generous donations of community leaders like you...

Make a scene instead

It was a Saturday morning, and we looked around to see the breakfast club full of happy, smiling children. Each one of them talking and laughing, completely oblivious to the fact that they were disadvantaged; they did not see themselves that way at all. Since you cannot see their dear faces, I am writing to tell you how wonderful it is to see them smile...

This one is taken from another Sumac Research article called How to Write the Perfect Fundraising Letter. Check it out for more letter-writing tips as well as a sample letter. Remember, the next time you're trying to figure out what to write in your fundraising letter, try telling a story. Bring the reader into your world and help them see the importance of what you do.

Sumac is a complete, integrated software solution for nonprofits that tracks lapsed donors and distributes personalized electronic and paper communication easily and cost-effectively. For more information, visit

Like this article?  Join our mailing list for more great information!

Copyright © 2011-Current, The Hilborn Group Ltd. All rights reserved.

Free Fundraising Newsletter
Join Our Mailing List