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  • Writer's pictureHillary Frances

Three Appeal-Writing Techniques to Transform End-of-Year Giving

In 2021, nonprofits across the United States would send emails to 1,250 recipients in order to generate one donation. In other words, the average nonprofit e-appeal response rate was 0.08%.

Technical Definition: Response Rate: The number of donations or purchases divided by the number of emails sent.

In my words: Did your email work?

In comparison, for-profit companies saw an email response rate of 15.22%. ECommerce data scientists would spill their drinks with excitement to explain how this works–how email continues to thrive as a channel for driving purchases. They would speak to the power of personalization, segmentation, cart abandonment emails, and product recommendations. We all know how spooky it is to receive an email from an online retailer highlighting the flannel sheet set you were browsing yesterday after lunch (I ended up buying it).

The nonprofit sector is becoming increasingly skilled at personalization and segmentation to its donor base. However, the 0.08% conversion rate tells us that we still have a hill to climb. The good news is that nonprofits have an opportunity to leverage a technique that is uniquely suited to our sector: creating value-add content.

Value-add content: Content (video, copywriting, social media posts) that use the organization’s expertise to elevate, liberate, or inspire the audience.

Creating value-add content is not a supplement to your appeal calendar. It can be central to your appeal calendar. It’s simply another way of writing that takes the sales out of your messages and lets your organization’s expertise speak for itself.

To make this clear, we’ve analyzed our favorite value-add email content and offer three key techniques for adding value to your audience:

Teach us something.
Give us something to practice.
Introduce us to a new perspective.

Teach us something.

Dr. Bayo Akomolafe is a widely celebrated international speaker, teacher, public intellectual, essayist and author of two books, These Wilds Beyond our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home (North Atlantic Books) and We Will Tell our Own Story: The Lions of Africa Speak. He has been globally recognized for his poetic, unconventional, counterintuitive, and indigenous take on global crisis, civic action and social change. In a recent email sent to his subscribers, Dr. Akomolafe spends 497 words offering a curious reflection on grief, loss, and coming home by way of marine biology.

Every year, across the Atlantic Ocean, a prestigious procession of siliceous shells or frustules belonging to dead and ancient freshwater diatoms, whipped up by fierce Saharan winds in North Africa, travels westward from the Bodélé Depression (considered the driest and dustiest place on earth) to the Americas….

…That things tear open, fall apart, fade away, and fall to the ground might come across as a tale of absolute despair. Let the beautiful dance of cross-continental dust remind us that nothing is itself all by itself.

He spends only 94 words prefacing his call to action, which is to register for an upcoming course. The vast majority of the email was content fueling the reader’s curiosity. Add value by feeding your audience’s desire to learn something new. You may have expertise on the top five factors contributing to homelessness in Los Angeles, the pros and cons of a new piece of environmental legislation, or the ability to translate a Shakespere play into layperson’s terms. Let your audience associate you with expertise on a topic they care about.

Give us something to practice.

On Being is a nonprofit media company featuring Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author, Krista Tippet. Through radio shows, podcasts, apps, and public events, On Being takes up the great questions of meaning in 21st-century lives and at the intersection of spiritual inquiry, science, social healing, and the arts. In 2021, they raised $6.4 million in philanthropic dollars. Their emails could focus on the urgent need for funding journalism, the impact their programming has had on its audience, or feature a specific success story. Instead, email subscribers receive a newsletter called “The Pause” which features themes like weathering storms, getting lost, and life transitions.

Whatever the storms you weather this summer, may you find entry into rooms of generational wisdom that surround you with calm, community, and flashes of delight…

…What practices or rituals offer you calm in the eye of a storm? Write these down; they may be from experience or something handed down to you. Store them away as anchors — in your journal, a jar, your phone. Return to them whenever you need.

The writing is highly focused on offering the reader a resource–a ritual, a practice, a reminder, an exercise–that brings them back to the basics. All of our work in the nonprofit sector can be translated to our donor audience into simple daily practices. Here are some examples of practices you could offer based on your expertise:

environmental organizations: as you greet the day, look at the sky before you look at your phone

domestic violence: breathing exercises that calms your nervous system

workforce development: notice how what you wear to work influences your effort

It’s also possible that your organization has rituals and routines that you could share with your donor base through your e-appeals: questions that are asked in team meetings, birthday traditions, thought-of-the-day. Either teach your audience how to do these things, or record them and share them with your audience. You are offering your organizational culture, the intangibles, so that your audience can feel a deeper sense of belonging to you and your work.

Introduce us to a new perspective.

Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles offers the largest gang intervention program on the planet. Each year over 10,000 former gang members from across Los Angeles come through Homeboy Industries’ doors in an effort to make a positive change. Founded by Jesuit priest Father Greg Boyle 30 years ago, the organization has grown to operate over 10 social enterprises and hosts a network of nonprofits emulating their model around the world. In 2020, Homeboy raised $9.9 million from individuals. The following three paragraphs represent the bulk of their recent end-of-year appeal:

The kinship of Homeboy’s beloved community is like “Jeong”…one of Korea’s most defining cultural concepts. It is about a deep connection and an emotional, lasting bond that encourages generosity and mutual understanding. People feel seen. It is not unlike Ubuntu in South Africa which posits that our communal health is inextricably linked to the very thriving of everyone. It shifts our thinking. Writer Heather McGhee points out, “We’ve found the enemy and it’s not each other.”

I asked a trainee the other day if he was panicky about flying, a thing he had never done before. “I discovered,” he said, “a long time ago, if you’re afraid of dying, you’ll also be afraid of living.” Not bad. So, I asked him to fly with me and another homie to Washington, DC. His eyes glistened with tears. “Damn G…you’re a blessing in the sky.” I’ll take it. There is an Irish saying, “It is in the shelter of each other, that the people live.” This is true at Homeboy Industries. We live in each other’s fearlessness, gratitude, and indomitable spirit.

Even given the upheaval so dominant this past year, we celebrate together how we have found our healing and ability to thrive in our community. In each other’s shelter and hearts, we have moved beyond barricading in fear, and seek our connection and exquisite mutuality in the beloved community of belonging. In a spirit of “Jeong” and “Ubuntu,” you’ve walked with us every step of the way. Yes, it is good…not be alone in this. Indeed, all of you are “blessings in the sky.”

You’re not reading a participant success story. You’re not reading statistics about gang violence or recidivism. Instead, you’re traversing cultures from Korea to South Africa to south central LA in order to consider “exquisite mutuality” with someone you may not have ordinarily formed a bond. This singular concept offers Homeboy’s audience everything they need to know about the organization and why they should donate. If donors want to participate in something as powerful as shifting the way we belong to each other, they will go to Homeboy Industries to do that. This is a more powerful message to readers than teaching them about gangs because through this writing, we can immediately imagine ourselves in the narrative.

Across all three forms of writing, the take-away is to allow the reader to find themselves in your narrative. Build a bridge for the audience between what you do and how it relates to their inner world. This is value-add content. Let’s practice with this type of content and experiment with how it changes our conversion rates.

Quick Tip: Consider converting your newsletters into one of these three offerings as a form of stewardship. Across all three of these email types, you are likely to witness your audience forwarding these emails to their friends and family because they are having an experience rather than receiving information.

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