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How NOT to write a letter to your supporter community

Greg Warner is CEO and Founder of MarketSmart, a revolutionary marketing software and services firm that helps nonprofits raise more for less. In 2012 Greg coined the phrase “Engagement Fundraising” to encapsulate his breakthrough fundraising formula for achieving extraordinary results. Using their own innovative strategies and technologies, MarketSmart helps fundraisers around the world zero in on the donors most ready to support their organizations and institutions with major and legacy gifts.

How NOT to write a letter to your supporter community
Here’s the copy (below) from an old letter sent by my alma mater. In 2012 they achieved their goal and raised $1 billion but, in my humble opinion, they failed miserably. 

Although this letter is meant for the “community” (non-donors and donors), this is NOT how you should ever address people.
Here’s why:

  1. It’s boring
  2. It lacks emotion
  3. It fails to tell a story
  4. It’s conceited, boastful, arrogant and narcissistic (it says “I”, “we”, “me”, etc. way too much)
  5. It thanks everyone who did not donate before finally thanking the donors (3rd to last sentence at the very end). As a donor, that pissed me off!

 
December 12, 2012
Dear University of Maryland community:
In late 2006, the University of Maryland publicly launched the $1 billion Great Expectations campaign.
Today, I am proud to announce that the Great Expectations campaign has achieved this landmark goal. Much of it was accomplished during a difficult economic climate.
We expected this campaign to accelerate our rise among the world’s best research universities. And so it has.
The $1 billion includes over $250 million in scholarship and financial aid for our undergraduate and graduate students. This support has helped Maryland compete for the best students and help make their education more affordable.
We raised $129 million to help us recruit, retain, and advance pre-eminent faculty. No university is better than the excellence of its faculty. Through education, research, and service, faculty help transform the lives of students, contribute to knowledge, and improve the human condition.
We raised $171 million in support of innovation — to turn ideas into impact. The University of Maryland encourages creative thinkers and entrepreneurial ideas, nurturing them from research and development into social and economic enterprises.
We raised over $303 million for high-tech buildings and to upgrade classrooms, arts venues, and athletic facilities. The private support is leveraged for state capital appropriations, greatly magnifying its impact.
There are many, many people to thank for the success of Great Expectations. The campaign was conceived and led by then President Dan Mote and Brodie Remington, then Vice President of University Relations. We simply could not have reached our goals without their vision and leadership.
The College Park Foundation Board of Trustees provided unwavering dedication and guidance throughout this campaign. They gave not only financially, but their time, energy and collective experience.
Our entire faculty played a crucial role in this campaign. It is their research and their academic excellence that provided the motivation for so many of our supporters to give.
Our entire University Relations staff — now led by Peter Weiler, our new Vice President of University Relations — worked tirelessly to make the goal a reality.
Over 124,000 unique donors supported this campaign, some gifts large, many small. All contributed directly to our expanding excellence. To each and every supporter, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude for your support.
In February, we will commemorate this milestone more widely, but I wanted to share with you this incredible news as soon as it was official. Please join me in celebrating our collective accomplishment, and more importantly, what it means for our students, for our faculty and staff, and for the University of Maryland.
Together, we have fulfilled our Great Expectations.
Sincerely,
Wallace D. Loh
President
University of Maryland
 
What a dud of a letter!
Here’s how to write appeal letters to major donors that raise money.

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13 responses to “How NOT to write a letter to your supporter community”

  1. Erin says:

    Bullseye as always! Right off the bat, I’d say they failed by writing a letter about what the university did ad nauseum. Note the paragraphs consistently begin with phrases like “We expected, We raised, Our entire faculty/University relations staff/” And how cool is it that Peter Weiler got a promotion out of the whole exercise? Is this stuff coming from campaign consultants – because seriously I’m receiving similar materials from a very expensive one right now. It appears the organization had quite a few egos to stroke, and they spent a lot of money and time doing so while disguising the mailing as a donor communication piece. And what does this sentence even MEAN? “Please join me in CELEBRATING our collective accomplishment.” Should I turn a few cartwheels on their behalf or perhaps make myself a balloon hat in the shape of a dollar sign?

  2. Lauren says:

    Well, perhaps I’m not on their level, but I was bored immediately just looking at all of the text I had to wade through! A LOT of information – I wonder how much of it they wanted you to retain?

  3. Cheryl says:

    They thanked the University President but not the donors? Seriously? That’s harsh. Imagine what they would have raised if they had done it right.

  4. Mena Gainpaulsingh says:

    Stunningly bad letter! Thanks for sharing. It’s as if donors has barely anything to do with this success! Appalled!

  5. Candace Wood says:

    This was a fundraising letter? I missed the ask. I thought it was perhaps from the PR Department.
    Is anyone else concerned that everyone who started with the campaign left?

  6. cheryl sam says:

    I would agree that this is a terrible letter! I’m still trying to figure out the intention/purpose. Was it a PR piece? Was the purpose just to inform you that they reached goal? Whatever the reason, it should have started with a thank you to the donor!

  7. Michelle Covington says:

    Everywhere I turn there is example after example of poor writing with zero regard for the audience. What’s worse is when ineffective writers believe they are spot on and refuse to adjust their perspective. Just this morning I was thinking about how staff at all levels, myself included, can glean much from a writing course or marketing degree to enhance creative writing abilities and elevate the messaging in all public-facing communications and collateral. While frustrating and depressing, this letter serves as a potent reminder for us to have an external perspective when communicating outside the organization.

    • Greg Warner says:

      That’s a good idea Michelle. But since most nonprofit employees graduated high school or college, shouldn’t they know how to write. And since they work at nonprofits, one would figure they’d have empathy for the reader. Sigh!

      • Michelle Covington says:

        Hmmm, maybe. But having also worked in advancement at a university, I can say that the profs continually lament about how unprepared college freshman are in math and English.

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