Having been both a Lutheran pastor and a member of a development team at nonprofits, I learned great sermons and great fundraising appeals have much in common. At their core, both move you to think and act differently. They both ask something of you. They invite you into a new way of being that envelopes you into a larger purpose greater than yourself.
A great sermon is not opinion, but it isn’t bare fact, either. It is an amalgamation of story and exposition sequenced in such a way that the hearer enters into a stream that takes them to a destination, changing and charging them along the way. And while it may be true that a sermon may seem to have a “captive audience,” while their bodies might be in attendance, their mind could be wandering anywhere. In short: you have to hook them quickly and compellingly, which every appeal letter must also do.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there are three key factors that make both a sermon and a fundraising appeal compelling.
- Move the Heart, but Speak to the Brain
- Solve the Mission-Driven Challenge
- Offer Compelling and Timely Calls-to-Action
1. Move the Heart, but Speak to the Brain
I was working with an agency that focused primarily on adoption and child welfare. We were embarking on a new campaign to highlight the wonderful and effective work of the organization. At a team meeting, we were reviewing the mailing material.
“Hmmm,” I said, spying their trifold, with a sad and crying child emblazoned on the front. “Is this what we want them to see, first?” I asked.
“The need is so great,” one on the team mentioned, “we need them to know the plight of these children.”
Now, in many ways the genuine care and emotion that this person was putting into words was not wrong, it just wasn’t necessarily right for the first mailing. In most situations people aren’t ignorant of the need behind an organization’s work. By and large nonprofits don’t exist just to exist; they meet the needs of the world at the place where hurt and potential means intersect.
But when we’re motivating the world to join our cause, beginning with the pain actually puts a hurdle where a springboard should exist.
People don’t become embedded in a movement when they’re motivated by pity.
“Why don’t we show one of our youths smiling on the cover?” I said. “Let’s tell the story of a life changed first, and the need will be woven into a story of how our work is effective in turning a situation around.”
In a great sermon, a person is invited into a story of inspiration rather than when a person is told bare information. Information will tingle the mind to a degree, but inspiration tingles the mind and the heart, especially stories of lives being changed by the good work at hand. Inspiration moves the mind past pity and engages the heart in genuine affection.
In short: keep your focus on moving the heart, but speak to the brain.
An appeal letter can illustrate need, but it should be noted through the lens of an outcome that has a life turned around. Lead with what you’re doing well and inspire people to invest in that.
2. Solve the Mission-Driven Challenge
It’s important to remember that before any appeal is sent out, an organization needs to honestly assess the reason behind the outreach. Know your mission and root your appeal in that mission.
(Spoiler alert: “to raise money” is not a mission)
Why do you exist? What is the reason you do what you do the way you do it?
I was working with a religious organization that was trying to pay off their building. “What’s the purpose behind this appeal?” I asked at our first meeting. “We want to burn this mortgage,” one of the committee members said. “I get that,” I responded, “but why?”
No one said a word. They just figured the reason was evident.
“What would be loosed into the world if this mortgage was paid off?” I asked.
“Well,” one of them said, “the gym houses a neighborhood group who gathers here every Friday because they don’t have a safe place to play ball. Paying off this debt would make sure they always have a place to play.”
“There we go,” I said. “Why else?”
We brainstormed the rest of the meeting, noting all of the ways that paying off this debt was a blessing to their community. In doing so, their minds and imaginations were moved from the simple task. They became firmly rooted in the reason behind their existence in the first place.
Every appeal needs to be deeply rooted in something greater than the appeal itself.
While you don’t want to showcase the need in an exploitative way, you need to honor why you exist and root your appeal in that reason.
Sermons are rooted in ancient scriptures of some sort, or an ancient tradition, that pulls them backward through history while also stretching them forward to what is possible. Amazing appeals do the same thing, and rooting them in that original purpose for your work is essential to having an ask mean more than the task at hand.
Your organization doesn’t exist just to exist. You are rooted in a mission. Let your appeal reflect that deep and abiding truth in an organic way. You are mission-driven, and your donor’s support will move that mission forward.
3. Offer a Compelling and Timely Call to Action
Modest asks invite modest responses. Or, worse, yet: no response at all. Any great appeal letter should ask something of the recipient in a way that invites them into a new way of being that holds hands with the mission of organization.
But, a word of caution: having too many action options creates analysis paralysis in the reader, confusing them on which next step is the most helpful.
I remember receiving an email from an organization that I deeply cared about that had more than four distinct links embedded into one simple ask email. Each link led to a different page. While I assume the organization thought they were empowering the recipient to have choice in where their gift went, all they ended up doing was confusing me.
Have a call to action, but make sure the action is clear and the call concise.
A great sermon invites the hearer to adapt their ways and change their life in a direction of wholeness. It asks something of them because it knows they’re seeking something and longing to be invited into a new way of being.
A deep truth that humanity largely ignores is that people want to give of their gifts to causes that do good in the world. They want to involve their lives in worthwhile endeavors. They want to be asked. We don’t need to be afraid of asking.
A great appeal letter knows this, and a strong organization embeds this in their being.
People want to give. Invite them to action, and don’t apologize for it.
A Bonus Thought
One good thing about sermons is that the best ones create something that can be stored in the memory banks to be called upon for later reference: a turn of phrase, a simple truth stated in plain language, a quick story that can be told by the casual reader.
What’s your phrase, your simple truth, your quick story? In a Tweet-driven society, including this in any appeal creates a sticky effect in the brain of the reader, enmeshing your cause in their daily life. In this way your ask is immediately accessible to the reader. It can be called upon at any time in their casual conversations with others. It creates the potential for new participants in your mission.
Don’t underestimate the power of well thought-out words when you message your work. Phrases that stick in the brain give your mission a longer life. Engaging professional thinkers, strategists, and writers in crafting your messages can go a long way in ensuring this takes place.
Putting it All Together
A great appeal letter, and indeed a whole campaign, moves the heart but speaks to the brain, is rooted in your mission (why you do what you do), and invites people to timely action. Outstanding letters also create repeatable statements that can be easily and virally shared! Words matter.
In all of these ways, a great appeal letter speaks to the heart like a great sermon, inviting the imagination to envision a different world where needs are met and we take better care of one another.
That will preach, and appeal.
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About the author:
Tim Brown is a writer, longtime professional fundraiser, and mainline pastor who helps others solve the world’s problems one word at a time. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his two kids, his partner, and when he’s not rooting on the Chicago Cubs can often be found at a coffee shop or craft brewery reading something interesting (at least to him).