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Holding the readerís interest
Deborah Block and Paul Karps

June, 2009

We’re often asked to write a donor appeal where our job is to describe a number of the organization’s projects and programs. Sometimes, these efforts are related to each other by a specific theme—which would then be the overall theme of the package.

For example, we might write about an array of services that bring both emergency aid and longer-term assistance to the needy. Or we might need to discuss various attempts to protect a certain type of ecosystem. Regardless, these are really individual case studies (aka success stories) of the group’s work.

The trick is to organize and describe the projects in such a way as to maintain the flow of the letter, hold the reader’s attention, and keep her reading to the end of what usually turns out to be a lengthier letter (typically four pages).

So if you ever find yourself in this situation, here are a few tips that should help you in this process:

Use indented paragraphs as segues

Once you complete the description of the first project, write a short introductory paragraph before each of the subsequent projects . . . and indent to set it off. This will serve as a physical cue that you’re making a transition from one case study to another.

Then, after you’ve described your last example, include a wrap-up paragraph that, once again, is indented. In effect, you’re telling the reader you’re done with the case studies and about to move on to the next phase of the letter—which is generally the buildup to the final-page Ask.

Use subheads

One alternative to the indented-paragraph segue is to use subheads to move from one project to the next. To make the subheads really stand out, they’re usually centered and boldfaced. Sometimes they’re also underlined.

In terms of copy, try to include an action-oriented verb (or verb form) in all of the subheads, which emphasizes the organization’s role as a “doer.” Remember, though, to use a different verb each time—even if they’re just synonyms. As in, “protecting,” “preserving,” “conserving,” “safeguarding,” “defending,” “championing,” or “saving.”

Use bullets

Bulleted copy in many ways combines the elements of the indented segue with the subhead. Copy can be one line or an entire paragraph. It can also be indented, boldfaced, or underlined.

The main thing is that these sections serve to transition physically from one example to the next.

The main caveat about the use of bullets, however, is not to go overboard. One set of bullets within a letter is fine, even if the bullets themselves are spread out over a couple of pages. Two sets of bullets are probably one too many.

Involve the reader

One key way to hold the reader’s interest throughout is to involve her directly in each of the various examples. “Through your generosity, we were able to feed X hungry community members during the past year.” Or “Thanks to your support, in Georgia we were able to . . .” or “With you by our side, we launched a path-breaking project in Montana to . . .” That sort of thing.

The idea is to place the donor in the middle of the action and make her feel as though she’s playing a vital role in all these successes (which, of course, she is).

Ask questions

Another way to involve the donor in the copy—and keep her reading through programmatic detail—is to ask questions. Does this actually work? You betcha! Short, snappy questions can reel in a reader whose mind may be wandering a bit. Sort of like throwing water on your face to wake up. Just not as wet.

And, as always, the more “yous” in the copy the better, don’t you agree?

Copywriters Deborah Block and Paul Karps are partners in BK Kreative, 1010 Varsity Court, Mountain View CA 94040, phone (650) 962-9562, email


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