Tip Sheet & Case Study: Donor Appeals

A donor appeal is a renewal appeal targeted at existing donors and solid prospects. It is often in the form of an annual appeal or an appeal to support a specific project or urgent need.

Your Fundamentals

Your Audience

In addition to your current donors your appeal should include people who are known supporters of your organization:

  • Lapsed donors who have given to you in past years.
  • Volunteers
  • Suppliers
  • Prospects suggested by your Board, staff, and research

Letter vs Online Appeals

With letter appeals you have more space to tell your story and repeat the “ask” which is known to boost response rates; you can use photos to compliment your story; and the response rate is higher [5% to 20%].

The downside is the increasing costs of postage and printing that make letter appeals much more expensive.

With online appeals you can use an array of visuals [photos, graphics, and video] to tell your story in a way that engages donors; you can respond spontaneously to current issues; and the cost is much less.

The downside is the response rate is much lower [.75% to 2%], and not all donors are comfortable with online transactions.


Anytime of the year is fine for a donor appeal with the exception of summer months when many people are vacationing. End of the year captures people thinking about their tax returns, and holiday periods appeal to people’s generosity. Try to avoid high profile national appeal periods [i.e. Daffodil Campaign, Heart & Stroke].

For letter appeals: Using full colour allows you to emphasize text and use colour photos. Choose a quality bond that will reproduce colour well. Two-sided printing will help keep your costs down. Ideally your letter should be no more than two pages, but if you need more, remember that extra weight will incur extra postage.

Choose good quality photos that represent your story and engage your readers. Using people in photos draws readers’ interest but unless they are stock images [i.e. you have paid for them] you should have the permission of the individuals.

You will need to include a donor form and ideally a postage-paid return envelope. Be sure the form has all the information you need about your donor including e-mail addresses and the option to allow you to publish their names.

For online appeals:  13% of online gifts are made from mobile devices so be sure your design and donor form are mobile responsive. Use text boxes to emphasize your copy, as well as photos and videos that tell your story. Avoid live links that take your reader out of the e-mail and away from your message. The one link you want them to click is the “donate” button.

Case Study

The National Trust Donor Appeals

Learn more about the National Trust’s donor appeals below.

The Challenge

In October 2015 the launch of a new initiative created the opportunity to do a project-directed donor appeal. Launch Pad connects local groups with seasoned professionals to collaborate on solutions to save and renew places that matter. It also offers mentoring opportunities for young heritage professionals

The Approach

The messaging focused on the two features of the program – the volunteer professionals and the youth mentoring opportunity – that would have the most appeal for donors. The money raised would be directed to the cost of planning and executing Launch Pad missions.

The letter stressed the sense of urgency by using examples of heritage places at risk that could benefit from the program.

The call to action was that the program was ready to go – seasoned volunteers in place, young heritage professionals looking forward to mentoring opportunities and communities that needed their help – all that was needed was the support of the donors.

The postscript messages reminded readers of the end-of-year tax deadline and invited them to
visit the website for more information about Launch Pad.

A customized donor form was created for the mailing with the title “YES! I want to help put Launch Pad Into action!”

The e-mail reminder was sent three weeks after the letter with the subject line “Help Put Launch Pad Into Action. It re-iterated the key messages of the letter in bullet points and featured a photo of a mentoring opportunity in action. The only link led readers directly to an online donor form.


• Response rate was the highest ever achieved for a fall appeal.
• Both the open and click-through rates for the e-mail exceeded benchmarks for non-profits.
• A dramatic increase in online donors [over four times the previous high].
• Highest revenue ever generated by a fall appeal.

Lessons Learned

01. It Worked! What Now?

No question the “bucket funding” approach increased response and revenues. The National Trust is reviewing its donor appeal strategy and plans to include at least one program-directed appeal next year.

02. Use Performance Measurements to track donor attitudes

To understand what was behind the dramatic surge in online donors [was it the “bucket funding” approach or was it the new donors who responded?] in future appeals they will measure method of payment for recurring versus new donors.

03. Get to know your donors

While it represented a dramatic increase, only 15% of the donations for the appeal were made online. The National Trust is planning to survey their donors to better understand their attitudes to e-mail appeals and online transactions.

Before You Start - Ask Yourself:


Will my donors respond better to online or letter appeals?


How can I use photos, videos and social media to compliment my appeal?


What is my call to action?


How will I track the performance of my appeal?