Style Files: Writing for Philanthropists


Anyone who works in fundraising or development will tell you that asking for money is hard. Even if it’s your job to do so.

A lot of time and effort goes into building relationships with prospective givers. As a communications professional, it’s your job to help make sure that when it comes time to make the ask, information is delivered in a thoughtful and elegant manner.

One of the best ways to do this is by creating a proposal. Many of the best proposals I’ve written — one of which helped bring in a $5 million dollar gift! — have these things in common:

Personalize It

Everyone wants to feel special, like they made a lasting impression on this Earth. And while the idea of a legacy might not tempt some, it does appeal to a wide majority. What better legacy than a scholarship named after them? Or for animal lovers, a pet care fund named after their beloved dog? An entryway christened in memory of a departed loved one?

I know, this might seem like a cheap shot. But in my experience, it’s the type of thing donors respond well to. They don’t want to imagine their $250,000 gift thrown into a pile with everyone else’s money. They want it to mean something. Give it meaning by giving it a name. (And if you can incorporate a picture of the donor/dog/departed loved one into the proposal to create a visual tie, all the better.)


Make Them the Hero

Tone and approach are critical in a gift proposal. You must remember from the outset that it is not about your organization. It’s not, “WE need this new cultural center.” Or, “WE need scholarships to support students in the face of the rising cost of education.”

It’s about them. Make them the hero. For example, “YOUR gift would bring art, music, and culture to disadvantaged children for miles around.” Or, “YOUR gift will make a difference to the hopeful first-generation college student, who has dreams of escaping the cycle of poverty and violence.”

style_alumniIf you’re specifically targeting alums for donations, make your message more effective by trying out some of my tips on writing for alumni.


 Give Them Options

Just because they can afford to make a $500,000 gift to an institution or organization doesn’t mean it’s easy to part with such a large sum of money — especially if they worked very hard all their life to get it.

For whatever reason, breaking that $500,000 down into several options helps prospective donors process the idea of giving such a large amount away. And even if they don’t take issue with that aspect, some donors respond really well to the idea of spreading the good around.

So if you propose…

  • a $250,000 gift to create an endowed scholarship
  • a $100,000 gift to a major university initiative
  • another $100,000 gift to rehab the building their graduate program was housed in,
  • and a $50,000 gift to the football team that they have season tickets to watch every year

…that’s still a $500,000 gift. It’s just broken down into pieces that are much easier to swallow. Granted, you’ll need the blessing of your fundraising director or development officer to take this approach. But if they don’t bring it up, it might be worth suggesting.


It goes without saying that proposals like these should be well laid out, on heavy paper stock, with high-quality images. Treat it like a business proposal, because it very much is one.

Hit a wall when it comes to ways to ask for donations? Share your situation in the comments below.


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