Copy that engages and connects

by Rachel Zant


I recently wrote direct mail and email appeal copy for a local theatre company, and thought it might be helpful to share some of the process with you! I’ll also compare examples of what they’d sent out in the past with parts of the appeal letter I wrote for them.

First: Starting the process

My new client sent over a few examples of letters they’d sent out in the past as well as some thematic ideas they had for the appeal. They mentioned that World Theatre Day was coming up, plus they had a big show in the works, ready to launch in the Fall… but that was about it.
I asked if I could speak with the main staff person (managing producer) to get a better sense of what they really needed and how I could best communicate that to donors. I also wanted to understand more about the people they had on their list and the real deal on what the money would be used for.

Second: Getting the details

I had a wonderful, open conversation with Natalie, the producer, who expressed her personal passion for the art of theatre and of dance, as well as the passion and history that the Theatre Company’s founders had for the wonderful art of visual storytelling.

She shared that their productions were visually stunning, with extensive multimedia displays along with professional actors and crews who were often flown in and always paid industry standard rates. She also said that ticket sales didn’t even begin to cover the cost of the production, and that they currently had a $120,000 shortfall to cover what the production was going to cost.

Boom! There was our ask, our urgent need, right there!

Natalie also shared that the majority of people on their mail and email list were ticket purchasers — and only a small percentage were past donors.

Third: Who should sign the letter?

Past letters had been signed by one (or in one case, ALL!) of the company founders. I suggested that Natalie sign. At first, she was resistant to this idea, thinking that she might not be perceived as the ‘right’ person to sign. But, as the person most intimately involved with the running of the company, I felt confident she was the perfect to speak to urgent the need for funding.

Fourth: Your letter intro matters!

Here’s the beginning of the letter they sent in a previous year:

Dear Jane,

As a group of artists collaborating around big ambitions and ideas, we have been working through this crisis, finding hope and inspiration during these uncertain days, uncovering our path forward in our shared new reality. The last six weeks have been an unique opportunity for reflection on our history as a company and the audiences and supporters, like you, that have made everything possible. We are more committed than ever to exploring, devising and pioneering new ideas that will bring us together again.

For the letter I wrote, I wanted to start out by celebrating and acknowledging the reader as a theatre-lover.

I wrote a personalized Johnson Box * A Johnson Box is commonly found at the top of direct mail letters, containing the key message of the letter. Its purpose is to draw the reader’s attention to this key message first, and hopefully grab their attention, enticing them to read the rest of the letter.:

Thanks for your exceptional love of theatre <Jane>!

Then the letter began:

Dear <Jane>,

You do love theatre, right? Exceptional, world-class theatre, of course!

Perhaps, like our passionate, creative founders, you love being drawn into the magic of a powerful story. Maybe you enjoy how this wonderful art form can ignite your imagination and appeal to all of your senses.

Perhaps you have other reasons for loving the theatre. Whatever your reason – we are so glad you’re here as a passionate supporter of XYZ Theatre! You are a vital part of the magic and passion that have made this a world-renowned theatre company for more than 30 years!

When you compare the two letter introductions, what do you notice?

I’ll point out right off the bat that the copy I wrote has 9 “you’s” (not including the Johnson Box) while the previous letter has one.

You is GLUE. You connects and draws the reader in to keep on reading.

My introduction has a variety of sentences, short, longer, bolding and different punctuation.

Their introduction is one long paragraph with long words and sentences.

Varied sentence sizes and formatting, using white space, all of this helps to draw readers in – it makes your letters easier to read and to scan, versus having to work harder to read every word in the second example.

Fifth: Making the ask

This is the reason you’re writing these people, right? And yet so many times I see a vague, inconclusive sort of ask, that tries to cover everything and anything. Compare the ‘ask’ in the past letter:

Your support has propelled us on our artistic journey and we are so grateful. In these uncertain times, we are turning to our friends and supporters, like you, to continue helping us move forward if you are able. A contribution of any amount will make an impact, helping ensure we can come back together again around something new.

Consider joining our 20 for 2020 campaign, becoming a monthly donor for the coming year, supporting our new work and new ideas. For just $20 a month, you can play a pivotal role in bringing artists back to stages with brilliant and electric new visions.

To the ask that I wrote:

I’m writing today because, as you may know, it takes a lot of time, energy and money to put on these spectacular shows. Unfortunately, the financial cost is simply not covered by ticket sales. We depend on donations from kind and generous theatre lovers like you to make sure these shows are the very best they can be.

I’m truly grateful for your last generous gift in support of XYZ Company.

<Jane>, will you consider making a gift [of $XX or $XX] today?

We currently need to raise $120,000 in funding for our upcoming show.

If you and every person reading this letter today gave just $35 – we’d be able to cover that cost.

The second version is much more specific, tangible and direct. The donor/prospective donor knows exactly what you are asking for and why.

This post is getting long! While there’s more I can write about this letter, I’ll save that for another day.

I’ll leave you with the five points above to consider as you start to write your next appeal letter.

Take some time to think it all through ahead of time. Consider what you should be asking for, why your donor should care, and how you can engage and connect with them a little bit more with every word that you write.


About Rachel Zant

Rachel has been helping nonprofits raise more money for their important causes since 2001. A direct response expert, she has extensive experience in creating and implementing integrated fundraising campaigns. Her passion is writing engaging and emotionally inspiring direct response copy that connects charities with their donors.

You can visit her website to learn more: