At some point in our careers as artists we come face-to-face with fundraising for our creative projects. This can be thrilling and exhilarating—serving as a rite-of-passage into the next phase of our professional work—but it can also be daunting, intimidating, and anxiety inducing. Even if you experience the latter more than the former you should not give up on your fundraising goals. (Please, don’t give up!)
Working with nonprofit arts organizations and supporting hundreds of artists in furthering their own work has allowed me to collect some fundraising tips over the years. Every development director has her own secrets. And every arts organization has its own special charm. But here’s the biggest secret—every working artist with nonprofit (or fiscal sponsorship) status can be a successful fundraiser. Truly. It’s just that pesky word “success” that you’ll have to define for yourself and you’ll also need to play to your own strengths.
Regardless of where you are on the career spectrum, here are ten tips for writing appeal letters to individual donors. Hopefully these tips will help guide your “ask” and give you more confidence in increasing your individual donations. Take a deep breath and remember: all you’re going to do is ask for support to continue your work. You’re just going to ask very nicely.
1. Be professional. Be polite. Be professional. Then repeat.
2. Timing is everything. Traditionally, nonprofit organizations time the letter to arrive in the midst of the holiday season—between early-November and mid-December is most common. The thinking is simple: this is the time when folks tend to be generous. It’s also the time for any year-end donations to be taken as write offs for that tax year. Some donors expect to give at the end of the year and they divvy up their donations accordingly. Some folks, of course, disagree. They argue that you should standout by sending your letter at another time. That’s okay too. Just remember that timing is still important. Example: Don’t send your appeal letter the week of April 15!
3. Your letter should sound like you. It should fit your brand. If you’re the lead artist and the main contact for your company then the letter should sound like it was written by you. Again, see #1.
4. Include a response device consistent with your ask. If you’re sending a paper letter then the response device should be a paper envelope. (You don’t need to include postage, but you should include a self-addressed envelope.) If you’re sending an email appeal then include a working link where the donors can give online. Make it easy.
5. Tiered levels are king! In addition to the return envelope, include another response device that lists tiered giving levels. This can be a very simple form on standard 8.5 x 11 paper or it can be more sophisticated. It should list the basics—name, address, phone, email, and then tiered options such as $25, $50, $100, $250, $500. Start the donations where you think your community can contribute (be honest) and end a little higher than makes you comfortable. Yes, stretch.
6. Sign the letter by hand. Some argue you should always sign in blue ink as proof that the signature is original. Not a bad idea.
7. Write personal notes to folks you know personally. It can be a simple phrase in the bottom corner of the printed letter that reads, “Steve, I hope you and Tim are well.” But if Steve is your brother it should probably say something more personal. Trust me, it makes a difference.
8. Keep it to one page. Unless you have extraordinary news to share—and then it must be truly special, not truly special year after year—then keep it to one page. Again, make it easy.
9. Send thank you notes! This goes back to my favorite, #1, but it’s probably the most important tip. You should send a thank you note for every contribution regardless of the amount. Your thank you letters should follow much of the same etiquette of your appeal letter (see #1, 3, 6, 7).
10. Share some exciting news and have a specific ask. Think back on the entire year and share your greatest achievements. Did you launch a new program? Have a sold out run of your spring show? People want to share in your success so give them a reason to celebrate. You can’t list everything (remember #8) but you should list the most important news. Also, ask for something specific. Be honest. “I’m looking to secure donations to help renovate my studio in 2013. Your generosity would allow me to…”
11. I know, I said “ Top Ten Tips” but there’s one more: Never give up. That’s the golden rule of fundraising and it’s the golden rule of being a professional artist, right? Be creative. Set goals. Stretch your comfort zone. Take time to acknowledge your successes and to reflect on your mistakes. Then? Try again. You’re building relationships and those relationships will grow alongside your work. Now, pour a cup of tea and get writing. You can do it!