5 Things to Include in a University Donor Letter

Illinois Wesleyan University is my alma mater, and for years I’ve made donations toward its annual donor drive. And each year, I receive a direct response donor letter (snail mail!) from the Office of Advancement, petitioning for my continued financial support. So, I’ve decided to dissect the rather polished fundraising letter I recently found in my mailbox for the calendar year 2017.


Because studying the direct response copy I receive personally is one of the ways I improve as a freelance writer. As it turns out, there are some salient moves and appeals made in this letter that can be used beyond just donor letters. You’re likely to find many of these elements in sales letters, landing pages, and other copywriting projects.

Illinois Wesleyan University Donor Letter

1. Involve the Reader Personally

From its outset, this letter makes a personal appeal to me, the prospective donor, with an explanation of how my ongoing donations have impacted the lives of IWU students.

To wit:

More than 90 percent of these freshman students, as well as the overall student population, rely on financial support from alumni and friends to attend Illinois Wesleyan. You are a significant part of making their Illinois Wesleyan experience possible with your gift each year. Thank you.”

This makes me feel as if this letter was tailored to me—it helps me forget that this is part a mass mailing sent out to thousands of alumni.

And it’s also a relatable pathos move:

I was once a freshman at the same university; I, too, faced significant financial challenges.

2. Humanize it with Stories and Testimonials

Don’t just tell me that my donations make a difference—show me how with real-life stories. That’s exactly what this writer did by introducing the stories of Meri and Tony:

When Chicago native, Meri _______ ’18, was searching for colleges, she planned on leaving Illinois for a large school in a neighboring state.”

Similar to Meri, senior Tony _________ of East Peoria did not include private universities in his initial college search.

Here we learn about two kids from different backgrounds that have benefitted from donor money. Most readers, no matter who they are, will find something relatable in one of these kids’ stories. And we get a dose of storytelling that’s engaging, interesting, and, again, relatable.

There’s even a direct quote from Meri herself.

I felt that Illinois Wesleyan would provide me with greater opportunities in the long run,” she said. 

Bingo. Now I know that I’m not just tossing my donation into some slush fund. On the contrary, my dollars are impacting real people named Toni and Meri.

3. Make Bold Appeals

Reality check: not everyone is going to read each and every word of a four-page fundraising letter. Most readers skim; Illinois Wesleyan’s donor writer anticipated this harsh reality by interspersing three bold appeals throughout the letter:

You are a significant part of making their Illinois Wesleyan experience possible with your gift each year. Thank you.

Martin, can Meri and other students count on your continued support this year? Will you renew your commitment to the University with a gift of $200 today?

Martin, will you continue to invest in our future leaders by renewing your fiscal year 2018 gift today?

Why are these appeals so effective? Because if I was skimming this donor letter—which is exactly what I did the first time through—the bold text would catch my eye and give me all the information I need to make a decision. You were part of this before, Martin. You’re part of it now. Here’s some people your continued support will affect.

More importantly, these are strong emotional appeals. We hear the phrase “target audience pain points” thrown around often in the copywriting world; these bolded statements are exhibits A, B, and C.

Thank you, Martin. Can we count on you again?

Will you continue to invest in our future?

Do sad puppies make you cry?

4. Ask me to do Something Specific

Ah, what a pity it would be to craft such a strong fundraising letter and fail to include the ask. As long as this letter is, everything builds up to a single, explicit call to action: take $200, put it in the enclosed envelope, and send it back to us.


“Please used the enclosed reply device or visit www.iwu.edu/give to renew your support today.”

And get this: the CTA doesn’t actually happen until the postscript.

Which leads me to the last thing key thing to include in a strong letter:

5. Create Urgency with a Strong Postscript

This fundraiser uses the postscript to create a sense of urgency while telling us exactly what to do and how to do it (you know, in case this is the only thing we read):

P.S. Don’t delay! Students like Meri and Tony are counting on you! Your gift of $200 will provide scholarship support allowing more students to choose Illinois Wesleyan. Please used the enclosed reply device or visit www.iwu.edu/give to renew your support today!

That’s Sales Letters 101, executed to perfection.

Pretty cool, huh? This is the value of studying the real-world examples of copywriting we come across every day. What is the writer doing here? What moves, strategies, and constructions can I take back with me to my own freelance writing shenanigans here in San Diego?

The answers are right there in my inbox.

PS For reference, here’s the full donor letter in .pdf form.

PSS I. Write. Sales. Letters.

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