14 Important Tips for a Successful Annual Appeal

14 Tips for a Successful Annual Appeal, Library Consulting, Library Strategies Consulting Group

Of all the kinds of support activities your library or its fundraising organization can undertake, one provides the underpinning for all the rest. That is the annual appeal (or annual fund). It’s been called “the cornerstone of fundraising” because it connects to all of the rest of the library fundraising that you do.

An annual fund is simply a fundraising campaign, organized on an annual basis, with the goal of soliciting unrestricted donations from private individuals. It’s often conducted by direct mail, as well as through personal requests (“asks”) by volunteers who are willing to ask people they know for donations. Usually, an annual fund campaign involves a short, well-crafted, personalized letter that highlights your library’s accomplishments and contributions to the community, along with some kind of response mechanism, such as a donation card and return envelope. Many annual appeal campaigns are conducted in the late fall months, when prospective donors are thinking about the tax-deductible donations they wish to make before December 31.

Why is it the cornerstone of fundraising? An annual fund keeps donors loyal and invested because they remain informed about the good work your library is doing. It raises unrestricted funds—those dollars that can be used in any way your library requires—and it can become a stepping stone to deeper levels of interest and higher levels of giving, such as major gifts, capital campaign gifts, and planned gifts.

To make the most out of your fundraising efforts, consider doing at least two solicitations for individual support per year—a membership campaign in the spring or summer, and an annual fund campaign in the fall. (Read whether membership is right for your organization.) Your loyal members already know you, so they are likely to contribute to your annual fund. But the annual fund campaign is distinctly different from a membership campaign. For example, membership campaigns usually seek donations in small amounts (under $50) and do not emphasize tax deductibility. They are handled largely through direct mail or online, are not personalized, and they can take place at any time during the year. People often think of them as their membership “fees.”

An annual fund campaign, however, takes place through personalized letters and face-to-face asks. It seeks larger, tax-deductible donations, and (more importantly) works to establish a philanthropic relationship between your library and a donor. In other words, while a membership campaign connects a donor to your library in a small way (through a membership card or a “swag” gift) an annual campaign gift makes a real connection between a donor and the library. An annual fund gift is usually larger than a membership gift. It feels like a charitable gift, not a fee. It also feels truly philanthropic because it emphasizes the personal investment that a donor is making to his or her community.

The annual fund has something else going for it: It’s easy! Here are fourteen practical tips to help you get your annual fund campaign off to a great start.

  1. Brainstorm. Gather a group of library insiders (staff, Trustees, volunteers, library users) and talk about a fundraising appeal. Establish a fundraising goal and budget.
  1. Get names. Ask each of these insiders to write down the names of five to ten individuals to whom they are willing to send a letter asking for a contribution to your library or its fundraising organization.
  1. Get more names. Will your library’s governing entity allow you to solicit library cardholders? Find out.
  1. Draft a compelling letter. Keep it to one page, but use that space to sing your library’s praises. Use bullets to make the letter clean and succinct. Leave the reader thinking, “Wow! I had no idea.” To get a better idea, see the sample solicitation letter at the bottom of this post.
  1. Personalize the letter whenever possible. Remember the names of prospective donors your group of library insiders supplied? Be sure the letters sent to these prospective donors—and to anyone to whom you send a solicitation letter—are personalized (“Dear Steve” not “Dear Library Friend”).
  1. Have the letter signed by the person who supplied the prospective donors’ names. A familiar name at the end of a letter is one more level of personalization. Close “Steve’s” letter with, “Your fellow library fan, Cindy.” Ask Cindy to add a short, handwritten note, too.
  1. Include a response card and self-addressed return envelope. Capture the donor’s contact information and gift amount on the response card. You can suggest gift amounts for a donor to check off ($50, $100, etc.). Be sure to include an additional blank line for donors to handwrite an amount. You do not need to put a stamp on your return envelope, but it may improve response rates.
  1. Personalize your outside mailing envelope. Hand-address all outside mailing envelopes, if possible, and use a first-class stamp, not an indicia that connotes bulk mail.
  1. Ask the volunteer who signed the letter to put his or her name above the return address on the outside mailing envelope too. Seeing a familiar name increases the respondent’s likelihood of opening and reading the message.
  1. Use the phone, email, or even personal meetings to follow up the mailing. Ask “Cindy” to call or email “Steve” and the rest of her prospective donors and tell them she hopes they’ll read an important letter from her and consider joining her in supporting the library. Maybe “Cindy” will also be willing to chat about library support over coffee with a friend or colleague.
  1. Have a system for tracking donors and donations. It can be a simple database. Enter all the information the donor supplied on his or her response card. This is a critical step because each donor and gift you enter will build the database that you will use next year.
  1. Thank your donors immediately. Immediately is the operative word here. Timeliness cannot be underestimated. It is a genuine reflection of your gratitude. Acknowledge all gifts with a thank you letter within forty-eight hours of the gift’s receipt.
  1. Thank them again! Follow up your thank-you letters with phone calls expressing gratitude. In general, thank you calls from volunteers like Cindy are more effective than those from library staff.
  1. Consider holding a special “thank you event” for your annual fund donors. It can be a low-cost gathering for everyone who made a donation, or something a little more special for your highest donors.

The beauty of an annual campaign is that it can be as small, large, simple, or elaborate as your goal, budget, and the size of your community allow. It is truly one of the easiest ways to incorporate private fundraising into your library or its supporting organization’s operations. And here’s another bonus: Once your annual fund has been up and running for several years, you will notice that individuals often increase the size of their gift as they deepen their relationship with your library and come to understand all that it contributes to community life and learning.

How great is that feeling that your library is now part of donors’ ongoing charitable giving? Pretty great!


Sample Annual Fund Letter

[on your letterhead]

Dear [personal name]:

The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library is fortunate to have supporters like you. Because I know you value the Library and the services it provides to our community, would you please consider a year-end gift to The Friends? It is all about continuing, and even increasing, your support for the Library—an essential institution in the City of Saint Paul—and a personally-important destination for many who live here. Your generous past gifts have enabled The Friends to:

  • Provide the Library with funds needed for after-school programs and homework assistance for thousands of children and teens;
  • Continue strong annual support of the Summer Reading Program, children’s events, adult cultural programs, and the purchase of thousands of books and other materials;
  • Assist the Library in offering computers and Internet access to patrons who would not otherwise have digital access.

We have made certain that the Saint Paul Public Library is there for everyone to use and enjoy. If we want the Library to continue to be there, now is the time to make a gift. In 2014, your year-end gift was $[insert amount]. This year, I hope you will consider a gift of $[insert larger amount]. If you can give even more, I would be very grateful.

A donation form and return envelope are enclosed for your convenience. The Friends’ goal is to raise $180,000 during this yearend campaign, which will provide much-needed annual support for Friends’ and Library programs.

Thank you for your continued generosity and support. Your gift ensures that the Library will be there for you now and for generations to come.

Best regards,



Read more about sending an effective solicitation letter here.