Lately I've been seeing a lot of donor appeal letters whose opening sounds like it came out of a can: You know, something like, "When Mary came to our office, she didn't know what to do. A terrible industrial accident had severed all her limbs, she couldn't work, her husband had left her, her children were hungry . . . . "
It's not that any one letter writer is doing something terribly wrong. They're trying to follow the standard - even solid - advice saying you should start with a hook, ideally drawing the reader in with a personal story.
The problem is that we've heard so many of these stories, they all sound alike. We can predict what's coming before getting five words into the letter. And we all know that the letter will have a moderately happy ending - the nonprofit can help Mary, or others like her, if the reader just sends a check, preferably today. All of this adds up to a good excuse to toss the letter into the recycle bin and go make dinner.
Unfortunately, there's no one perfect solution - and if there were, everyone's letters would start to sound alike all over again. The best advice I can give is to be aware of the problem and on the lookout for ways to vary your letters' openers, even in some small way. Also try to avoid the dirge-like rhythm that I created in my mock opening, above!
To stir up your brain cells, I suggest laying out your organization's most recent appeal letters on a table and comparing their opening lines. Be prepared to find that they're turning into a parody of themselves. Then, before sitting down to write the next letter, ask yourself what's different this time - perhaps a new law that's made your work more difficult, a matching grant deadline that adds particular urgency, or a new societal trend that has your donors worried, too. Once you find that angle, work it into your opener, and you'll have an easier time catching the readers' attention.
For more great tips on how to use the most effective language for your organization, check out Every Nonprofit's Guide to Publishing: Creating Newsletters, Magazines & Websites People Will Read, by Cheryl Woodard & Lucia Hwang (Nolo).