Welcome to the Salsa Blog

How to Write a Donation Request Letter

This week, guest blogger Liz Kalweit, a former American Red Cross presidential correspondence writer, begins a three-part series on writing a compelling high-donor letter.*

Let’s say you are a small or mid-size nonprofit that’s enjoyed modest fundraising success. Let’s say you’ve attracted the attention of a high donor, or you’ve been frantically waving your arms to get their attention. You’ve done your research, and you’re ready to submit your request, whether it’s a personal appeal, an RFQ or an RFP. Now it’s time to write that cover letter. Plenty of templates exist online, and perhaps you have a favorite template that you’ve been using over and over. In my experience, it pays to put some extra thought into your cover letter, and get personal.

You might be surprised to hear that some of the bigger donors are still, well, big on letter writing. A personal appeal, along with a few graceful lines dashed off at the bottom of the letter, signed by your CEO and/or board chair, can make a huge difference to the recipient and give your organization a competitive edge.

When writing a high donor letter, I have found it easiest to get to the heart of the matter by breaking the process down into three steps: connect, create, communicate:

  1. Connect the dots that separate you from your potential donor,
  2. Create a compelling message, and
  3. Communicate it in a way that’s sure to impress.


Today’s blog article focuses on that first step, connecting the dots. I encourage you to learn as much as you can about the individual as a person, whether you are researching them as an individual donor or as the head of a foundation or corporation. Then, learn as much as you can about their world. Finally, establish the link that will connect them back to your ask.


The Person:

Giving USA reported that in 2011, individual donors were the largest source of charitable giving in the United States. So find out everything you can about them, starting with their name (their first name is not “Dear” and their last name is not “Friend”). You can find out a lot in a fairly short time by going online if you know what you’re looking for. Here are a few ideas:

  • LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, etc. – What does this person want you to know about them? Could it be you already have a relationship? Alma mater, trade associations, past employment, hobbies and sports can all help to establish common ground.
  • Google – Broaden your search to discover more about them. Look for a third-party press release, a grip-and-grin photo, anything that mentions their activities or interests.
  • Zillow or Google Earth – Where do they live or work? What is your organization doing or proposing to do that will resonate with them?

If you can establish a connection, any connection, your opening statement might look something like this:

As lifelong residents of Florida, we both understand the importance of the services that Liz Relief provides. This is why I am providing you with an update on our response to the earthquake in Jacksonville and urging you to make a gift of $XX to the Liz Relief Fund today.

 Nonprofit CRM Selection Cheat Sheet

Their World:

For corporations and foundations, check their Web site’s “news” and “media” pages. Read the executive leadership biographies, foundation mission statement, giving history and annual report. Check their corporate social responsibility (CSR) page to understand their giving preferences (in-kind, cash, bequest, annual versus ad hoc). If they don’t have a CSR page, they might be using Facebook or LinkedIn as a proxy. Research your competition. Who do they already give to? Do they act globally or locally?

In other words, are you a good fit for their existing giving patterns, or can you identify a niche opportunity that would not only interest them, but excite them?

Ask yourself, “How are they doing?” Five years ago, we had identified an individual donor, a billionaire, who was also a dear friend of a former Liz World CEO. We expended copious resources on researching a proposal to him. We figured out how to connect our mission to his. However, the recession tide rolled in and swept away one quarter of his wealth overnight. The individual’s financial loss was so profound, it made national headlines.

Without further ado, we abandoned the proposal. But had we moved forward with it, the opening statement of the cover letter might have sounded like this:

Throughout our nation’s history, the spirit of honor and valor has been one of our most enduring attributes. No one exemplifies that spirit more than you. Your considerable contributions to the greater good, as a business leader and visionary, are unprecedented.


Your World:

Finally, can you connect the person and their concerns back to your world? What matters to you and your potential donor this minute? Next week? Next year? Focus your research inward. Look for people who can help you illustrate your story. Feature a volunteer or an executive hard at work, whether it’s responding to a disaster, teaching a child to swim, stocking a food pantry or greeting 5K participants at the finish line.

If you can make that connection, it might look something like this:

Our chapters are the heart of all Liz Relief disaster response. But what would you do if you were the chief executive officer of a chapter and your own home has just been swept away by a mudslide?

Next Week: Create

Now that you have done your research and established that critical connection to your potential donor, the next step is to create the content that will go into your letter. What kind of hook would get their attention? Some good news? A bad scene? The answer? Tune in next week….

*Disclaimer: All examples here are fictional and created by the author for illustrative purposes only. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.

Keep donors engaged with targeted communications and forms. Get started with a free 14-day trial of Solis today.

Topics: Fundraising Marketing