[Appeal Letter Preflight Checklist] Pre-Writing Exercise to Increase Responses from Your Next Appeal

Joseph Cole is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub and a writer for those who do good. Leveraging ten years of experience in the nonprofit world as a program leader and fundraiser, he proudly writes for both nonprofits and the for profits who serve the nonprofit sector. Connect with Joseph at freshideacopywriting.com.


Would you go up 39,000 feet without checking to see if the wings were functional on your aircraft?

Dumb question, I know. You’re not a pilot (neither am I), and who in the world would fly a plane with a broken wing?

Well, if flying a plane were analogous to writing an appeal letter, plenty of us would go racing off the tarmac into the wild blue yonder without a single glance to see if everything was airworthy.

We assume we know our donor. We assume we know our mission. We assume we understand the reason why our donor gives to our organization.

And we all know what assuming does.

It produces a broken wreckage of terrible copy which at best lands in the recycle bin or, at worst, makes our donors sorry they ever opened the letter in the first place.

The results? Low donor response and a ghastly return on investment for your fundraising dollars.

The solution? An appeal letter preflight checklist.

It’s not magic, but I used this technique once to increase donor response for a client by 300 percent on the first letter I wrote for them.

It really works. “Works” being the operative term there; these checklists are a lot of work.

They’ll slow you down. But… the result will be a symphony of appeal letter copy that’ll move your donor to action.

By the way, don’t take my word for it. I first read about this pre-writing concept from fundraising copywriting legend Mal Warwick. Pick up his book How to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals for a more in-depth look.

Here’s “The Appeal Letter Pre-flight Checklist” I use.

Who is my reader?

Always start with the reader. Your answers to the following questions will frame the answers you come up with for the following questions.

  • What do the people you’re writing to have in common?
  • Have they shared an experience?
  • Do they share common interests?
  • Do they share common concerns?


  • What makes them different from the rest of the world?
  • Are they over sixty?
  • Are they women?
  • Are they wealthy?
  • Do they live in a certain area?

Let’s explore their psychographics. Demographics are useless without determining the resultant psychographics.

  • How do these people feel about the world?
  • How do these people feel about themselves?

Let’s expand our look to their relationship with your organization.

  • How well do they know your organization?
  • How well do they know your cause?
  • What don’t they know about you and your cause?
  • What makes you believe they would give to you as opposed to another charity?

What’s my call to action?

This might fit into the “duh” category, but it’s something I see many nonprofit leaders miss because—again—they assume everyone knows what they need to do. So, do you want your reader to…

  • Join a club?
  • Renew their membership?
  • Make a one-time gift?
  • Send in their answers to your poll?
  • What is the minimum amount of money (if any) that you hope to receive from each recipient?

“Few other questions are more important. The amount of your ask, particularly the minimum amount, will often predetermine the amount you receive.” – Mal Warwick

Why should my reader respond?

In our questions revolving around the reader, we asked, “Why would they be likely to respond?” That question is looking for intrinsic motivation based on how they know you.

Now, we’re asking a different question. What reasons exist that make your call to action a moral imperative or, at the very least, a pragmatic solution to an agreed upon problem?

The answer to this question often fits nicely into one of two categories: Opportunity and Crisis.


What opportunities exist that require donor action?

Examples of opportunity reasons include matching or challenge grants and real estate suddenly available for a great price.


What crisis are facing the organization that only the donor can resolve?

Examples include a specific group of people or animals in unexpected need, natural disasters, and epidemics.

Who is the signer?

When I write for a nonprofit, I’m never the signer. It’s quite possible, though, that you’re writing in the name of someone else in your organization like your president or executive director.

These questions will establish in your mind where exactly the signer stands in their personal relationship with the donor, even if you are the signer of the piece.

  • Do the readers know the signer of the letter? How?
  • Is there any direct link between the signer and the cause?
  • How does the signer feel about the cause?
  • Is there a link between the signer and the audience?

What does the donor get out of this?

There are two types of returns the donor can possibly receive by responding to your appeal.

Intangible Benefits

Most appeal letters can only offer intangible benefits. That feeling that you did something good in the world. A feeling of accomplishment, revenge, redemption, solidarity or celebration.

With a quick glance at the psychographics we came up with in question one, answer these questions:

  • What will satisfy the story they’re telling themselves about who they are and where they fit into this world?
  • Will they be the hero if they give to you?
  • Will they get redemption?
  • Will they get revenge?

Tangible Benefits

Donors may receive a freemium like labels, stickers or pendants that come included with the package. Or, you can offer to send them a premium like a keepsake, plaque, certificate, book, etc. to them for making a gift.

Why should my reader respond NOW?

Not tomorrow. Not when they get around to it.


To get to that answer, ask yourself:

  • Why are you sending this appeal now instead of another time?
  • Are there natural deadlines that could motivate your donors to give now?
  • Can you create a deadline?

It’s not just for rookies. Even veteran pilots would never fly without a preflight checklist.

Even if it’s your hundredth letter, every fundraiser should use the pre-writing checklist to make sure their letters land right where they need to—the heart of their donors.

appeal letter

Joseph Cole

April 29, 2016

You May Also Enjoy

Become a Member

Whether you’re with a large team or a solo entrepreneur looking to start the next great cause, we have a membership package that will help you grow your network and your cause.