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11 tips for creating direct-response copywriting that works

11 tips for creating direct-response copywriting that works

May 15, 2024
Pamela Barden

The fundraising letter that doesn’t get read (or at least scanned) or the e-appeal that is deleted before it’s opened is unlikely to raise much income. 

So, how do we write a direct mail letter or e-appeal that screams, “Read me!”? Here are some tips …

  1. Start off with the reader, not the organization. Your job in the opening paragraph is to convey “Keep reading; this is interesting – and it matters to you!” The reader’s first impression should be that the message is for him or her, not just about us (the nonprofit). 
  2. Keep it conversational. If your letter doesn’t read like people talk, they will likely give up. When in doubt, use the word that has fewer syllables and is more common in everyday language. It’s not the time to show off your vocabulary. 
  3. Make the need obvious. You want people to give money to help your organization accomplish something, so make it as clear as possible. Don’t assume your reader remembers what your mission is; spell out what he or she can accomplish by giving. 
  4. Don’t solve the problem without the reader’s help. “We’re going to feed 250 people” suggests it will happen with or without the donor’s help. However, “Our goal is to feed 250 people this year, but we need your help!” lets him or her know that they are part of the solution. 
  5. Make it clear that you are asking them to give. What you want your reader to do needs to be completely obvious. “Consider how you can help us impact this need” doesn’t cut it. When we fail to raise money, it’s often because we failed to ask.
  6. Don’t send the audience down rabbit trails. These are interesting copy additions that don’t really help you accomplish your goal of securing a donation. Some rabbit trails seem harmless enough, but you have a single goal: to secure a donation. 
  7. Focus on messaging to the audience, not the length. There is no magic length for a letter or email. If it is about a subject the reader is not interested in, they won’t read it. Your copy needs to be as long as it takes to present the problem, explain how giving helps solve that problem and show why the reader should give now.
  8. Make your copy visually easy to read. Using underlining, bolding, indenting and other formatting techniques helps guide the eye and can easily help a reader capture the essence of the problem and the opportunity his or her gift will make possible. 
  9. Make sure your P.S. and the copy on any reply form or landing page restate the case. These two copy areas are very important to achieving the goal of raising money. The P.S. and the “Yes, I want to …” statements on the reply or landing page should briefly restate the need and what the reader’s gift will do to help solve it. 
  10. Avoid editorial committees. If there is a committee editing fundraising copy, it will likely raise less than it would have without their intervention. If a committee is impossible to shake off, establish who has the final say – and then help that person understand what makes fundraising copy work (and what makes it fail). 
  11. Read what’s good and learn from it. Regularly review direct mail and emails from groups doing similar work, groups you admire and hope to be like when your organization “grows up,” etc. If you are not donating to organizations for the sole purpose of getting their postal and electronic mail, you are missing out on a continuing education bargain.

In summary

  1. Does the opening paragraph (or two) focus on the reader, not on the organization?
  2. Am I talking conversationally to people instead of writing too formally?
  3. Can the reader easily see what difference his or her gift will make?
  4. Have I explained a problem that won’t be solved without the reader’s donation?
  5. Have I asked the reader – more than once – to give a donation?
  6. Have I avoided anything that could divert my reader’s attention?
  7. Is my copy the right length to make a complete, compelling case for giving?
  8. Does the fundraising piece look easy to read? 
  9. Do the P.S. and copy on the reply or landing page provide a concise reason to give?
  10. Did the editing help make the letter better – or just different? 
  11. What have I seen and read lately that made me want to donate?


Pamela Barden

Pamela has amassed more than 40 years of non-profit experience. As president of PJ Barden Inc., she counsels non-profits, helping them develop their fundraising strategies and writing copy to achieve their goals. She previously taught fundraising courses in the Master of Public Administration program at the University of La Verne in La Verne, California, and the Fundraising Certification Program at UCLA Extension. Pamela is a former vice president at Russ Reid. Before that, she led fundraising efforts for non-profit organizations such as World Relief and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, getting hands-on experience in everything from direct mail to DRTV, from major gift solicitation to event management. Pamela is the recipient of a Silver ECHO Award from the Direct Marketing Association, winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and a Distinguished Instruction’s Award from UCLA Extension. She is also the coauthor of “The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management” (John Wiley & Sons), and author or hundreds of articles for fundraising publications. A Certified Fund Raising Executive, Pamela is a graduate of Wheaton College (B.A), Dominican University (M.B.A.), and California Southern University (Doctorate in Business Administration). Her hobbies include travel, hiking and reading. The most-frequently heard quote by and from Pamela is what she has told clients and students alike for many years because, as a fundraiser, she knows it’s true: "I am not the target audience.”