It’s Annual Appeal Time?! My Papercuts Still Haven’t Healed From Last Year’s Envelop Stuff-A-Thon

As Thanksgiving approaches, your anxiety level may be rising at the prospect of spending uncomfortable meals with relatives, engaging in an even shorter official Christmas shopping season than usual, and getting your annual appeal letter out.

I can’t help you much on the first two, but a couple years ago Fracture Atlas posted their helpful “Procrastinators’ Guide to Sending a Year-End Appeal”

Reading their guide might cause you a little bit more anxiety at first when they suggest the appeal consist of three different missives rather than one, but I promise there is a method in their apparent madness that aims to make the whole process productive for you. (my emphasis)

The centerpiece could be a 1-2 page letter mailed in a pretty envelope with a seasonal stamp. This will set the flavor for your whole campaign, aesthetically and thematically. Your “sides” could be a follow-up email about two weeks later, with a final email request within the last few days of the year. Make sure there’s a visual through-line in these materials and that they reference each other, otherwise the recipient may not recognize that the materials are related.

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know I talk about the importance of marketing materials being focused on the experience of the participant rather than on the importance of the organization or performer. The appeal letter is no different. Juliana Steele who wrote the Fractured Atlas piece says the emphasis should be on the impact the donor can have and be positive in tone rather than focused on the organization and its frightening dire need.

While it may be true that your program, production, or exhibition will have to scale back if you don’t raise the appropriate funds, remind them of what you will be able to do with their support, not what you won’t be able to do. The holidays may have them stressed out — give them inspiration!

Other suggestions Steele makes deal with the logistics of the ask–including specifically asking for a donation rather than implying it. Projecting success is important, but not the appearance of wasteful spending. Steele says the letter should be printed on good paper, but nothing so fancy that people become concerned about organizational priorities.

It should be easy for people to return their check in a return envelop or make a donation online. The more steps people need to take to get funds to you, the greater a chance their process will stall along the way.

Of course, sometimes the hardest part of writing an appeal letter is just getting started. Take it from someone who learned to type on an actual typewriter–the best thing about word processing is that the time cost of writing more than will be ultimately necessary is near zero. Starting to write anything knowing you will edit it down moves you closer to the end goal faster than staring at a blank screen. (These blog posts don’t come easy a lot of times and often evolve a fair bit from the topic I started writing about.)

Steel provides the following advice along those lines:

Writing a letter that is inspiring can be challenging and anxiety producing. Honestly, all you can do is sit down and get words on paper. Turn off the television, navigate away from your inbox, read appeals from other organizations, and make a list of all the amazing stuff you do (and will do next year). After a while, you will have something to work with and build upon.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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3 thoughts on “It’s Annual Appeal Time?! My Papercuts Still Haven’t Healed From Last Year’s Envelop Stuff-A-Thon”

  1. Some advice from a donor who gets *lots* of year-end appeals:

    Don’t send further requests once the donor has given you something—it makes you look either incompetent or greedy.

    Keep the letters fairly short—a 1lb envelope full of boring lists of donors, activities, and annual reports is not compelling.

    Don’t send lots of letters—I’ve started discarding a number of the frequent requester’s letters unopened. An annual membership renewal letter is good, saying when the membership expires (or expired). Monthly “reminders” just seem like a way to try to take advantage of people’s forgetfulness about when they last donated.

    A thank-you note with the tax-deductible amount should be sent promptly.

    Don’t keep sending “legacy” requests—they start to sound like “I hope you die soon”.

    • Yep, good advice. The most recent mailing we did, I made sure we removed anyone who had given within the last few months. I have often wondered if people are turned off when they receive information about estate planning and including the organization.

      • I don’t mind having a mention of ways to give that include estate planning (such as charitable gift annuities, charitable remainder trust, beneficiary on retirement savings or insurance, mention in a will, …) in a letter to request money. What I object to are the letters that are solely about legacy gifts—the ones that seem to say “we want all your money when you die, and we hope it is soon”. The worst at that has been the Southern Poverty Law Center.

        I disagree with approaches like which says to keep hitting people with the message over and over, though some of their other advice is good (like making it easy, thanking people, and being friendly).


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