Last year, the Tenement Museum in New York City sent a letter that reached back into their history to deliver a compelling story that was timely and highly relevant to their members and supporters.
It’s a great look at how to:
- Communicate with more purpose, focus, and intention, and,
- Craft an engaging story that makes people, listen, care, and take action.
We created a visual analysis (download here) and also wrote out an in-depth narrative analysis.
Here’s a look at the actual letter:
Fundraising Letter Analysis & Breakdown
We looked closely at the elements used to help learn the WHY and HOW of this letter. Read along as we observe the key pieces of a seemingly simple letter. Click here to download a visual analysis of this letter.
Note: In analyzing this letter we had to make some assumptions. There might be alternate versions of the letter based on testing, recipient data, and past direct mail results. We also don’t know the results of the mailing or its success.
Take note of what the letter does NOT mention. The Tenement Museum is always offering new exhibits and exciting tours. Yet, they chose not to mention those features or any specific benefit to the reader. It also makes clear that the support it needs is for students. It’s not for an expansion or a new exhibit, but for educating.
It wastes no time and jumps right into a powerful story.
In 1902, at just eighteen years old, Eleanor Roosevelt began her career in social work…
Instead of listing benefits, the letter reaches back to the roots of the Museum’s cause and mission with a story featuring a recognizable central character. We love this letter because it ties the reader’s interests and abilities to influence the future to one of America’s most influential and respected women: Eleanor Roosevelt.
The most powerful line in the story is her choice between living a comfortable live and dedicating her life to human rights. The line is dead center on the page and provides a subtle choice to the reader who is almost certain to live a comfortable life in NYC too.
With her social position and affluence, she could have lived the comfortable life of a debutante, but her exposure to the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side helped to inspire her lifelong dedication to human rights.
The letter places the reader into the story. Specific locations and addresses are mentioned three separate times.
If you look closely, each location has a different purpose where she worked, she volunteered and where she lives. Although the Tenement Museum appeals to visitors from around the world, its core donors and audience live in NYC and know the neighborhood.
Working: College Settlement on Rivington Street
Volunteering: 97 Orchard Street
Living: 56 West 37th Street
While this letter is powerful in its own right, it was sent in 2016 during a national election that debated the experiences, intentions, and lives of immigrants — present and future. Rather than stating the obvious, it infers relevance and assumes the intelligence of its readers.
Again, it’s important to see what the letter avoids. It avoids an argument and debate about the topic of immigration. It correctly assumes the reader already values the immigration experience and is exhausted by the political debate.
Instead it offers a simple and powerful solution: giving students a “a window into the immigrant experience” and a new perspective. It’s the same solution that changed Eleanor’s views at 18! The juxtaposition is clear, simple and easy to follow.
[Eleanor Roosevelt’s] exposure to the immigrant experienceon the Lower East Side helped to inspire her lifelong dedication to human rights.
[the] Museum provides a window into the immigrant experience to more than 55,000 visiting school children each year … [to] gain new perspectives on immigration and social justice.
If we were writing (or re-writing) this letter, we’d include a specific call-to-action here. Because the solution is simple and straightforward, it’s an ideal time to connect a dollar amount to the solution and help the donor answer, “How many more kids can gain a new perspective if I donate?”
Room for Improvement
Let’s take a look at how the letter differs from traditional best practices for fundraising letters:
- Unlike many appeal letters, it avoids a personal “chatty” style. There is no mention of personal pronouns (I, me, my) and only uses “you” once at the very end.
- There is no specific donation amount mentioned or requested. It’s not clear how much is needed or what a specific amount can accomplish. If we were to re-write the letter, we would include a specific ask based on the donor’s history and potential.
For example, “You can help us educate 15 students & help them gain a new perspective with just $250.”
- No post script (P.S) emphasizing and reinforcing the need and call to give. We recommend always including a P.S. that includes new information or something worthy of extra attention. The post script is one of the most read lines of any letter.
- No urgency or deadline is given. We recommend including a specific date whether it is the start of the school year (tied back to a specific audience) or an artificial deadline for responding. However, the political climate surrounding the letter also makes a convincing argument for urgency.
- Only one line is in bold. Many appeal letters make use bold and italics to highlight the essential elements of the letter and appeal. We’d like to see the letter format other key lines including this line:
Today, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum provides a window into the immigrant experience to more than 55,000 visiting school children each year.
Key Takeaways to Use in Your Next Development Letter
There are some good takeaways and action items to consider from The Tenement Museum’s letter that can help any museum or non-profit write an effective appeal letter with an engaging story that makes people listen, care and take action.
1. Elevate story.
Crafting compelling stories for your appeal letters can be challenging. Often organizations and museums don’t know their stories and need help crafting them or have stories but aren’t sure how to use them and frame them.
This is not just some story that was dug up for this one use. The museum shares this story on its tours every day and knows it so well. The development department has been able to “hack” the story because it knows it inside and out and can rearrange it into an effective, short letter that compels the reader to support the museum.
2. Use what others know & can identify with.
The Tenement Museum could have easily told a story about a student that recently visited. That would make a good story, but it lacks the rich context and history provided by a historical and monumental figure like Eleanor Roosevelt.
The letter places itself in the heart of the Lower East Side and New York City with specific addresses and locations.
We can assume that many of the museum’s donors have visited, know the tours and have experienced that “window into the immigrant experience” — they already know how their donation will be used and can place themselves in the students’ shoes.
3. Infer relevance.
Whatever story you choose, craft the narrative to be connected to what is happening in the news and is on the top of your donors’ minds. But do so without calling it out.
Your readers and donors are smart and sophisticated. There’s no need to point out the obvious. Although the letter never mentions the political climate or the election, it is clear that it is highlighting how important, timely and relevant the museum’s mission is.
Send us your letter
This is a well-written letter from a local and famous institution.
We’d like to share and review other development letters in the museum world. At Museum Hack, when we see a great story our natural response is to look closely at the exact elements and “hack” it to better understand it.
Have a letter you love? Send it to us at [email protected] and we’ll consider reviewing it in a future post.
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