How social scientists can help you write better fundraising letters: Top 10 tips from peer-reviewed academic research

 

As part of my master’s degree thesis, I am developing guidelines based on research evidence for improving nonprofit appeal letters. Here are my top ten takeaways from the scientific literature on nonprofit appeals.

1)      Be sure that your fundraising letter includes a story about an individual beneficiary, and create follow-up materials (especially thank-you letters) that circle back to the story of the beneficiary, indicating that the donor’s support has improved this person’s (or animal’s) life situation.

Merchant, Ford and Sargeant (2010) ran an experiment finding that stories can influence donors’ emotions and intentions to give, and that donors would be more likely to give again if thank you letters and reports reference the original story told and provide information about impact of the donor’s gift.

2)      Include at least one photograph of a program’s beneficiary in a fundraising letter, and carefully consider selecting “sad-faced” photos.

As noted in Lipovsky’s (2016) study of French fundraising letters through the lens of functional linguistics, text and images work together to engage readers, and photographs can convey important meaning that text does not.

It is advisable to include only the photographs that show a single beneficiary (or at most, a very small family group), because photographs that show large groups of people can give donors compassion fatigue and discourage them from giving.

Photos should look natural and be easy to understand.

As determined by Small and Verrochi (2009), people are more likely to donate to charities after viewing photos of a sad-faced child.

Be sure to tell stories of real victims and/or real beneficiaries – avoid using actors or composites. Shanahan and Hopkins (2007) found that people viewing a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) advertisement were more likely to state proclivity to donate to this nonprofit if the advertisement pictured an actual or implied victim of drunk driving, not a person who was an actor or composite of a victim. 

3)      Employ “loss framing” messages when writing to audiences known to feel at risk of a loss related to the nonprofit’s cause.

Cao (2016) found that loss framing (discussing the negative consequences of not taking a promoted action) can more effectively result in donations from people who perceive themselves as susceptible to a related loss.

In Cao’s study, the “loss-framed” appeal that respondents reviewed was a message from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital telling the story of Lisa, a baby treated for leukemia at the hospital. Respondents were told that without donations, the hospital would not be able to prevent the deaths of 7 out of 10 children like Lisa. In contrast, a less effective gain-framed appeal stated that 7 out of 10 children like Lisa would be saved due to individual donations.

4)      Be sure that the appeal letter directly asks for money and makes clear that the reader is being asked to donate; and if resources allow, send multiple appeal letters at different points in the year rather than one single annual appeal.

Yoruk’s (2009) analysis of data from the Survey of Giving and Volunteering (SGV) in the United States found that being asked to give to a charity increases a donor’s propensity to give by 19 percentage points.

5)      Partner with a foundation, corporate supporter or major donor to offer a “bonus trigger incentive” for giving instead of the more typical match offer.

Helms-McCarty, Diette, and Bugg Holloway (2016) discovered that “bonus trigger incentives” (promises made in an appeal letter that if a person gives at any level to the nonprofit, then a certain fixed dollar amount will be added to that donation by a funder partnering with the nonprofit to help its fundraising efforts) can nearly double donations from acquisitional (new) donors, as long as the promised incentive is large enough (in this case, $10).

These researchers found that the presence of a bonus trigger incentive does not change the average donation size, but that offering smaller bonus trigger incentives ($1 and $5) was not effective. So offer at least $10, and more if possible!

6)      Encourage prospective donors to give because “people like you gave at $X level.”

This tactic could be described as applying subtle social pressure. It hinges on research in the consumer behavior field on social influence, finding, as stated by Shang, Reed and Croson (2008) that “in situations in which information is ambiguous or absent, consumers are often affected by what other consumers have done.”

As was done in the Shang, Reed and Croson experiment with public radio donors calling into a pledge drive, social cues can be as direct and explicit as telling prospective donors that another radio station member just contributed $240.

The impact can be stronger if prospective donors are also told that this other donor was of the same gender or other distinguishing identity as the prospective donor, and if the prospective donor can be put into a mindset of thinking about other people rather than oneself.

The risk is that, as Shang and Croson discovered, telling a prospective donor about another donor’s lower donation can result in that prospective donor lowering the amount of money he or she gives as well. In this way, “upward social information” benefits nonprofits’ fundraising revenue, while “downward social information” may harm it.

7)      Experiment with divulging social norms as a general strategy to increase responses to appeals. In line with the specific tactics studied by Shang, Reed and Croson (2008), Martin (2012) discusses the general utility of discussing how “people like you” are behaving in order to modify the audience’s behavior.

In the context of letters sent by the British tax authority that increased payment of overdue taxes by telling readers that the vast majority of people in their neighborhoods do pay their taxes on time, Martin recommends that data about the social norms be as localized as possible (e.g., zip code-based rather than regional); that the social norm be about the behavior that is desired, not the behavior that is not desired; and that the social norm information be based on an actual study or otherwise verifiable information. 

8)      Devote more resources to creating effective appeal letter packages for acquisition donors (those who have not given before) than resources devoted for appeals sent to prior (renewal) donors.

Diamond and Gooding-Williams (2002) found that attitude toward an appeal letter was a stronger factor in a person’s decision to donate if the person receiving the appeal had not previously donated to the nonprofit.

Burnett and Fowler (1997) found that current donors are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to communications materials from charities that they already support, while these donors hold charities they have not (yet) supported to a higher standard in written communications.

9)      Make judicious use of the “signals” that can help a reader trust the nonprofit asking for funds.

Handy (2000) identified the signals of trustworthiness that are often used to good effect in appeal letters: longevity of the nonprofit; service by board members who are prominent or respected in the community; affiliation (including receipt of grant funding) with other trustworthy organizations; obtaining audited financial statements; publishing information about administration and fundraising costs; documenting past achievements in quantitative form; asking for nonmonetary contributions (e.g., volunteer hours or in-kind donations); and receiving testimonials and favorable mentions in the press.

It’s important to be aware of (and try to manage) the dynamic of nonprofit donors being distrustful of a charity’s ability to spend its money wisely in service of its mission. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in 2015 that 35% of Americans report having “little or no confidence in charities.”

To counter this, appeals can address donors’ concerns about salaries, administrative costs and marketing; provide evidence that the nonprofit’s programs are effective; provide charity watchdog ratings; speak to the personal connection of the prospective donor to the cause (if a connection is known); and personalize letters when appropriate to connect the prospective donor to a person that he or she knows at the nonprofit.   

10)  Maximize discussion of the nonprofit’s effectiveness for larger donors, and minimize discussion of effectiveness for smaller donors.

Karlan and Wood (2016) found that analytical/scientific information about outcomes of a nonprofit’s activities did not impact average donations overall, but that large prior donors were responsive to effectiveness information, while small prior donors perceived the same information as a deterrent to giving.

 

So there you have it… ten practical tips from peer-reviewed academic articles that can be applied to your nonprofit’s fundraising.

Keep in mind that all approaches need to be customized for the audience and nonprofit. When in doubt, test!

Does finding, reading and interpreting scientific articles seem a bit intimidating? (It did to me when I started this project!) If you don’t routinely read scholarly articles, try the following approach.

First, to find peer-reviewed research articles on topics related to nonprofit fundraising, use google scholar. For my research, I used search terms such as “nonprofit appeal letters,” “nonprofit direct mail” and “charity appeals” to find articles. I also reviewed the table of contents of all recent volumes of journals dedicated to our field -- Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing and the International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing.

Once you have your hands on an article of interest, read the abstract to understand what was studied and what the researcher’s results were. Next, read the introduction, where the topic is framed and the focus of the article is introduced – the last paragraph of the introduction usually encapsulates the question and the methods used. Methods and results can be glanced over at first. Pay attention to the figures – if done well, they should graphically tell the story of the results. Read the discussion – here, the first paragraph encapsulates the findings in plain language and then goes on to discuss context, implications and applications. If any of this piques your interest or raises questions in your own mind, return to the methods to consider the researchers’ approach and how/if it applies to your work. 

Do the pages of statistics and formulas throw you off? Don’t fear – you don’t have to fully grasp the methods in order to understand the research. These articles have been peer-reviewed and the methods should be sound.

But use your own common sense to weigh the results. For example, I found a number of peer-reviewed studies of appeal letters that used college students as research subjects, even though the students aren’t representative of a nonprofit’s typical donor, who is older. Results of such studies can be of limited applicability to your nonprofit. 

You might not be surprised to hear that there is a big divide between academic researchers and nonprofit communications/fundraising practitioners. While there are good reasons for this divide, it’s high time for researchers and practitioners to collaborate much more closely in researching topics of interest to people working in the trenches in nonprofit fundraising. 

References

Burnett, K. and Fowler, J. (1997). How to make sure your donors read your publications. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 2:4, 299-309.

Cao, X. (2016). Framing charitable appeals: the effect of message framing and perceived susceptibility to the negative consequences of inaction on donation intention. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 21:1, 3-12.

Diamond, W. & Gooding-Williams, S. (2002). Using advertising constructs and methods to understand direct mail fundraising appeals. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 12:3, 225-242.

Handy, F. (2000). How we beg: The analysis of direct mail appeals. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 29:3, 439-454.

Helms-McCarty, S., Diette, T.S. & Bugg Holloway, B. (2016). Acquiring new donors: A field experiment using bonus trigger incentives. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45:2, 261-274.

Karlan, D. and Wood, D. (2016). The effect of effectiveness: Donor response to aid effectiveness in a direct mail fundraising experiment. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 2016, 1-8.

Lipovsky, C. (2016). Negotiating solidarity with potential donors: A study of the images in fundraising letters by not-for-profit organizations. Functional Linguistics, 3:1.

Martin, S. (2012, October). 98% of HBR readers love this article. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/10/98-of-hbr-readers-love-this-article 

Merchant, A., Ford, J. & Sargeant, A. (2010). Charitable organizations’ storytelling influence on donors’ emotions and intentions. Journal of Business Research, 63, 754-762.

Perry, S. (2015, October 5). 1 in 3 Americans lacks faith in charities, Chronicle poll finds. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved from https://www.philanthropy.com/article/1in3AmericansLacksFaith/233613

Shanahan. K. & Hopkins, C. (2007). Truths, half-truths and deception: Perceived social responsibility and intent to donate for a nonprofit using implicature, truth, and duplicity in print advertising. Journal of Advertising, 36:2, 33-48.

Shang, J., Reed II, A. & Croson, R. (2008). Identity congruency effects on donations. Journal of Marketing Research, XLV, 351-361.

Small, D. & Verrochi, N. (2009). The face of need: Facial emotion expression on charity advertisements. Journal of Marketing Research: XLVI, 777-787.

Yoruk, B. (2009). How responsive are charitable donors to requests to give? Journal of Public Economics, 93, 1111-1117.