5 Elements of a Magnetic Appeal Letter

I was new to university fundraising when I traveled to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the mid 00’s. At the invitation of Robin Wray, the deputy director of Annual Giving, I met with her team, one by one, in an office on Charles Street across from Hopkins’ Homewood Campus.

At day’s end, Robin arrived in the small conference room to see how it went and brief me on “The 5,” her nuts and bolts for a magnetic, gift-pulling appeal letter. The simple formula I scrawled on my notepad that day has been a fundraising workhorse for dozens of projects, signers and audiences.

A few years later, Robin took a job at the University of Delaware (her alma mater), where she still advocates the five-paragraph letter. Paraphrased from one of her more recent handouts, following are the five elements.

1) LEAD. Grabs the reader with letter’s concept, using action words, a thought-provoking, short sentence, or an anecdote.

2) CONCEPT AND SIGNER. Deepens the concept by exploring the signer’s ties to the concept, perhaps giving a personal example. Or explores the specific need in a positive manner. Points to signer-reader commonalities. Includes soft ask, such as “with your help” or “together, we can make a difference.”

3) CONCEPT AND READER. Expands the concept to include reader. Builds a bridge with a metaphor, analogy, allegory, or a question. Draws parallels between signer and reader. Shows how reader’s need and program’s need match, and how resolution occurs when reader makes a gift.

[Read a letter from the University of Delaware that tells how I helped increase giving by nearly 30%.]

4) ASK. Directly connects the concept and solution to the gift. Makes hard ask, including specific dollar amounts at three levels. Tells specifically how to make the gift in multiple ways.

5) CONCLUSION. Communicates solution through giving. Includes thank you. Repeats soft ask.

Make that six elements because there’s also the P.S. Do include a P.S. since it’s one  of the most-read letter elements. This is an opportunity to transmit an urgency message, to stress an important factor, to make another ask, to say a final thank you.

Robin says to include three asks: two soft asks and one hard ask. This is a good guideline. These are all guidelines, by the way. You can’t expect to cram each of the above tips and devices into a letter. But, drawing from the ideas and examples, you can expect to weave all six elements into a coherent and persuasive message.

[See appeals I wrote for University of Delaware, Roanoke College, Virginia Tech and Johns Hopkins University.]

The 5: Shorthand Version

Following is the short version of what I wrote on my notepad several years ago. It varies somewhat from Robin’s later handout, but has the same basic elements and thread. I often write it down before I start drafting an appeal.

1) Gripping, vital, dilemma, challenge.

2) The issue, dream, who signer is, message, soft ask, philanthropy.

3) The ASK: specific, point blank, direct, nothing hidden, ties back to No. 2.

4) The close–how we’ll realize.

5) One line thank you, goodbye.

P.S. Usually why, how, urgency.

So there, in long and short form, is “The 5,” a proven appeal formula that has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mid-Atlantic universities. Borrow and use it with confidence.


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