You have only five seconds to grab the attention of your donor with your fundraising letter. That’s why your opening sentence is the most important sentence in your letter.
If you want to lose your reader immediately, start your letter by talking about yourself. That works every time. For example, if you are a children’s cancer hospital and you want your readers to ignore your fundraising letter, start it like this:
St. Peter’s Children’s Research Hospital is internationally recognized for its pioneering research and treatment of children with cancer. Ranked one of the best pediatric cancer hospitals in the country, St. Peter’s is the first and only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center devoted solely to children.
Start your letter with yourself and pile on the statistics, and you are guaranteed to lose your reader immediately.
But if you want your donors to read your letter from top to bottom, and donate when they are done, then start with drama. Write your opening sentence as if it was the opening line of a John Grisham novel.
For example, if you are a children’s cancer hospital, hunt down a young patient who has been helped by your hospital. Interview the parents. Discover their story. Then tell their story in a dramatic way. Open your letter like this:
Bellinda Cartwright was sitting in the emergency department of the Metro Hospital in Seattle. The clock had finally struck 6:30pm. That meant Bellinda and her husband had been on this rollercoaster for 12 hours straight. She was exhausted. Sleeping in Bellinda’s arms was Samantha, their nine-month-old daughter. The doctor walked in. He looked down at her baby. He looked at Bellinda. “Your baby has cancer,” he said.
See the difference? Feel the difference?
Remember, you only have your donor’s attention for five seconds. During that five seconds, your donor decides if she wants to continue reading your fundraising letter. So you must work as hard as you can to grab your donor’s attention, and keep it.
There are many ways to start a fundraising letter, of course. You can use an intriguing quote. Or an arresting statistic. Or a provocative question. Or many other devices.
But the big advantage that a dramatic story has over most other openings is that it compels your donor to keep reading. A dramatic opening not only arrests your donor’s attention. It also compels them to continue reading to discover how the story ends.
Make sure that when you tell your story, you dramatize it. Don’t just recite the facts. Dramatize them. Take the donor to the place where it happened. Set the scene. Introduce your main characters. Make them human. Create tension, suspense, conflict, in your opening sentence so that your donor simply has to continue reading to the end to find out how it all ends.
Dramatic stories are irresistible. Everyone likes a good story. So look for the drama in your work. Find the people who have been touched by the work you do, the cause you champion, and open your fundraising letters with one of their stories.
Donors respond to dramatic stories by reading. And donating. The end.