It’s always helpful to study how the big boys do it, even though most of us aren’t in that league. Most of us struggle with small budgets and only a local outreach.

However, if we look carefully enough, the “big boys” do teach us many important lessons that we can scale down and apply to our own situations.

Like millions of other people, I have had the occasion to use the online resource, Wikipedia. I’ve needed to research something quickly, and Wikipedia has done an adequate job in providing me the information I require. I’m aware of the arguments against Wikipedia and the kind of user-generated and edited facts it offers. However, in my own limited experience, I’ve never really had a problem with it.

In the past few months, however, whenever I’d visit Wikipedia, I’d notice a very prominent message displayed at the top of every page I searched for. The message is placed inside a box, and there is a picture of a very hopeful-looking man. The bold text next to him says, “Please Read: An Urgent Appeal from Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales”. The text is also a link to his donation request letter.

When I first read the letter, I was impressed by many things, right off the bat. Here is the text of the letter. Take a minute to scan it and see for yourself if there’s anything that stands out to you. (There should be. The guy has raised 12.5 million dollars so far this year!)

I’m a volunteer.

Like the thousands of others who write and edit Wikipedia, I don’t get paid a cent. But I have been here from the beginning, and I can tell you, we weren’t prepared to get this big.

We are a non-profit, but we are the fifth most visited website in the world. Last year we operated with around 30 staff and dangerously few servers. The other top ten websites are hundreds of times bigger than us.

This year we are finally adding critical technology and people we’ve needed for years. We can’t wait another year to take this step.

Last year about one in 1,000 people who use Wikipedia donated. To reach our goal this year, we need two in 1,000.

It’s a stretch. We’re the only major website in the world that is primarily supported by its users. It’s worked for 10 years, but this year we are struggling to reach our goal with only 7 days left of 2010.

Please help us keep Wikipedia free and stable with a donation of $10, $20, $35 or whatever you can afford.

Jimmy Wales
Wikipedia Founder

Ok, so what do I like about this letter? Here are eight things that I think smaller non-profits can learn from Wikipedia’s example for effective donor solicitation through an online appeal letter. Please feel free to add your own thoughts in our comment section.

1. The “ad box”. It’s clean, simple, and to the point. No wasted words or unnecessary fluff. I also like his picture- I know it’s a little corny, but he’s looking up, toward the future, with a very hopeful look in his eyes. That’s something we can all do. It sends a good, subliminal message to potential donors.

2. I like the very fact that he’s asking for donations online. How many of us really use our website to raise funds? I know Wikipedia is entirely Internet-based, and most of us operate in the real world, but we should not ignore the power of a “Donate Now” button on our sites. PayPal works.

3. He starts the letter right off with a statement- “I am a volunteer”. He avoids using the “Dear Friends” platitude. If you have one New Year’s resolution this year, let it be to never write the words “Dear Friends” again.

4. The letter is thankfully short- only 183 words. We should all strive for more brevity.

5. He makes himself identifiable to the readers by claiming, “I’m a volunteer.” Right away, he’s putting his arm around us and saying in effect “We’re all in this together.”

6. He sets up his need very effectively, basically saying “We grew unexpectedly. Not enough staff. Not enough servers.” Sound familiar? He reminds us that sites of similar size are “hundreds of times bigger” We read this paragraph and realize that his need is legitimate.

7. He gives us an excellent way to visualize his goal. He says that 1 in 1000 visitors donated to Wikipedia last year. Then he issues a seemingly “do-able” challenge- make it 2 in 1000 who gives. Even though that’s a 100% increase in donors, the scale seems reachable. Heck, it’s only 2 people out of 1,000. That’s nothin’.

8. Lastly, he leaves us with a sense of urgency by saying that they are still short of their yearly goal, with only a few days remaining in 2010. Then he clearly asks us for money. He is specific in what he’d like. We know he’s not seeking the $1 million donation. His goal is achievable in increments of $25 gifts.

Well, I think there is a lot in letter to like. If you’re struggling with how to craft a donation letter, this isn’t a bad place to start thinking about it. Really, it’s not too complicated. There’s nothing fancy about his ask. But it has proven effective to an incredibly diverse group of donors, so there’s something working for it.

Do you have any thoughts? We’d love to hear them!

Posted on 24 December 2010

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