How an Ugly Fundraising Letter Scared Me into Donating

Plain Often Trumps Elegant

Urgent Message
Urgency is just one element of an effective fundraising letter. DNY59/E+/Getty Images

Dateline - May 5, 2015

The letter I got from the ALS Association recently was not at all pretty. 

It was on simple letterhead, used simple sentences in short paragraphs, and contained underlining and bolded characters. 

The spacing was strange with weird indentations. It was awkwardly positioned on the front and back of one page and didn’t even feature a story of one of the victims of ALS or a photo.

It came in a plain envelope and enclosed a simple return envelope with the words “Please Rush” on it.

What that letter did do was get my instant attention and scared the hell out of me.

Here’s how it went:

Dear Ms. Fritz,

                It can start with twitching and weakness in your arm or leg.

                You might think it’s nothing. That it will pass.

                But the weakness in your muscles progresses until you lose your ability to move…to talk..to swallow…or even to breathe….

                Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” is a terrifying, heartbreaking illness. After losing voluntary muscle movement, most people living with ALS will die of respiratory failure.

                Every 90 minutes, someone in America is diagnosed with ALS, and every 90 minutes, another person loses the battle against this devastating disease.

                You know what’s even more frightening, Ms. Fritz? There’s no cure for ALS. Today, you have an opportunity to help change that! You see…

Well, I shuddered and read on.

The letter included a corporate match (up to $50,000) that would double my donation, IF I donated by the deadline of June 15. (Read how matching donations work and why deadlines are so important)

The letter also referenced the ALS super successful Ice Bucket Challenge, but in such a way that it was clear the Association could do more with even more money.

Now the ALS Association could have sent out the fanciest fundraising package ever, considering the cash it has raised recently, but it knows that I and other donors want every penny possible to go to the treatment and cure of this devastating disease. Thus, the stark letter, the simple packaging, and the focus on bringing home just how awful it is to be diagnosed with ALS.

I’m pretty sure the copywriter of that letter knows Jeff Brooks…maybe it is Jeff Brooks. Jeff wrote the best book on fundraising copy ever. (See my review of The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications here.)

Jeff's rules of good fundraising copy are exhibited all through the ALS letter. Such as:

  • That logos and fancy packaging mean nothing if you can’t reach the emotions of a donor
  • That urgency works
  • That you have to show what is at stake (in this letter, I’m at stake. I could develop ALS)
  • That people respond to one person at a time, not a multitude (in this letter I’m the person, but a small insert in the package also told the story of another person living with ALS)
  • That easy-to-read trumps elegance (Try running this letter through your spelling and grammar checker!)
  • That statistics only work within the context of story
  • That every fundraising appeal has to be about the donor
  • That a clear call to action is your best friend

There are many ways to write a fundraising appeal, but the best follow some simple rules. This letter from the ALS Association shows how those rules work.