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Don’t Be a Lemming: How to Write an Effective Planned Giving Appeal Letter

The planned giving world is inundated with so much legalese and technical jargon, a simple fundraising letter usually reads like a privacy statement sent out by a credit card company. It’s enough to send a corporate lawyer straight to sleep — and those are the folks who write privacy statements!

Which begs the question: If an appeal letter (heck, any letter!) is packed with legalize and mumbo-jumbo, do you really think your prospects are going to read it, much less understand it?

Dear Ms. Caruso –

I am pleased to announce that the School for Lemming Reeducation has donation vehicles available that we think you will find convenient. The first, called a charitable remainder trust, isa tax-exempt irrevocable trustthat will reduce your taxable income by dispersing income to beneficiaries you name, for a set duration of time, before the remainder of the trust is donated to us.

The second, a residuary bequest, will be dispersed to us after any and all claims against your estate, such as specific, general, or demonstrative legacies and bequests, as well as your estate expenses, are satisfied in full.

These planned giving options will help us continue our mission — teaching lemmings not to jump from cliffs — for many generations. Now in our 2nd year, the School for Lemming Reeducation, a 501(c) 3 organization, is the only independent nonprofit dedicated to saving this keystone species.

Please call me so we might discuss these options further.

It’s all about emotion

When it comes to philanthropy of any sort, legalese and technical terms aren’t going to attract donors.

Here’s what will: Simple language, emotional appeals, and gratitude.

Russell James, professor of Charitable Financial Planning at Texas Tech University, has done extensive research on the phrases and words that are the best ways to promote planned giving.

He writes that “Philanthropy is a social act using the mechanisms of family bonding … family-social relationships, not market-contract relationships” are what encourage people to give. “Avoid market language, formal, legal or contract terms.”

In other words, structuring a fundraising appeal letter like a contract negotiation is about as effective as trying to row a fishing boat up a waterfall.

Write like it’s a letter to your mother (or a friend)

Now read the same appeal, using simple language and relatable emotion.

Dear Arlene –

Thanks so much for your frequent gifts to the School for Lemming Reeducation. Your dedication to our mission is really heartwarming.

I thought you might be interested in some new gift options we have to help us save your favorite animal — gifts that could help us for many generations to come.

The first is an option that could pay you or a loved one income for life, earn you a tax deduction, and even help you avoid certain taxes — all while helping us reeducate lemmings!

The second is a gift through your will or trust that allows you to save money for the future, ensures you can take care of your loved ones first, and then leave whatever is left to us.

We’re only in our second year here at the School, but we’re already making a huge difference in the lives of lemmings. Last year alone, we were able to teach 350 lemmings not to jump from cliffs. One of our volunteers, Tricia, said it was amazing to see all these beautiful little creatures turn around before they reached the edge. “It brought tears to my eyes … I am so thankful for the people who support us!”

Arlene, you’re one of those people whose gifts help us make a difference. I hope you’ll call me so I can explain in more detail the exciting new ways we have to reeducate lemmings!

I don’t know about you, but that’sthe kind of planned giving letter my friends and family would respond to.

The takeaway

Effective planned giving appeal letters will onlybe appealing if they don’t read like contract negotiations:

  • Avoid legalize and technical terms
  • Don’t sound stuffy and formal
  • Use simple, everyday language
  • Appeal to emotion
  • Tell a story
  • Express gratitude

Stick to this advice, and I guarantee you’ll get a better response from your prospects … even if your charity really isdedicated to lemming reeducation.