The Lost Art of Letter Writing

At the same time that fundraising is approaching lightning speeds of communication - viral crowdfunding campaigns, livestreamed virtual events, and sleek customized videos - the timeless value of receiving a handwritten letter grows. Donors understand the demands of cost and efficiency for nonprofits who email their solicitations and thank you notes. They also appreciate, more and more, receiving something handmade, deliberate, and special in the mail.

To read letters from the 18th or 19th century is a fine pleasure. They are elegant creations, with artistic flair and a manner of speech that adds gravity to the words on the page. I remember watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and being struck by the impact of the letters he wrote to George Washington. Correspondence between statesmen, generals, and nobility shaped history, and the written word was a powerful tool of relationship building and enlisting support. 

Here are some reasons to consider a handwritten letter as a way of conferring a message to a major donor, whether it is a thank you note, accompanying a funding proposal, or even an invitation to meet or attend an event. 

Letters take time to write.

All of the kind turns of phrase in the world can be copied and pasted instantly into an email. To deliberately put pen to paper shows total focus for several minutes - giving value to the contents of the message. It says to the donor, “what I’m saying to you was worth my undivided attention” which shows intention and respect. 

Letters can be kept and reread.

We all have a stash of saved birthday or Christmas cards in a drawer somewhere. The aesthetic appearance, monetary cost, and personal significance of these pieces of mail make them something to hang up on a bulletin board or display on the mantle. We should want our donors to be reminded of our gratitude again and again, and giving them a reason to keep and reread messages from the organization is very strategic. Whenever I receive a letter or note from a donor, I hang them up at my desk - they are very special to me!

Letters show vulnerability. 

Practicing cursive used to be a dreaded chore that my mother, a schoolteacher, would enforce every summer break while we were out of class. I never used cursive in middle or high school in the early 2000’s, and thought it was a complete waste of time. Now, I find it hilarious that handwriting has become a vital skill in my career. Showing someone your handwriting introduces some personal vulnerability. Handwriting is inimitable, but many people are embarrassed by their clumsy style. Mine is far from perfect, but I believe when I write someone a letter, it shows a bit of trust and earns relationship points. 

Letters are exclusive.

The sheer fact that you don’t receive handwritten notes from every charity you support shows that not everyone gets that kind of treatment - it’s exclusive. One key purpose of giving societies, dialogue dinners, and other invite-only engagement opportunities is to make donors feel like they are in a special inner circle. Knowing that they are esteemed, needed, and among the greatest advocates for the cause helps to build loyalty and cultivate support. 

Letters are classy.

Know your audience! If you are trying to get a hold of your 15 year old grandson, don’t call - send a text. And if you are trying to get the attention of a wealthy, older philanthropist and pillar of the community - send a letter. Use your best judgment and discretion regarding what kind of etiquette a donor might prefer, but this kind of classic decorum might be more familiar to members of the Silent Generation.

Letters are compelling.

This is your best opportunity to put your vocabulary and persuasive writing skills to use. You might have crafted the most convincing message about your nonprofit mission - that it is important, transformational, and inspiring - but your words will be cheapened if they are read off of a cracked smartphone screen while sitting in the bathroom. The difference between telling your donors that their support matters and making them believe it can come down to small differences in how that message was conveyed. Put your best foot forward and give your message the best format possible. 

As letter writing has fallen out of common use with fundraising and other office professions, the market has responded with convincing automated substitutes like Handwrytten, Scribeless, and SimplyNoted. To me, this shows that receiving a handwritten letter is still an effective and distinct way of holding the attention of a donor and making your words memorable. 


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