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Posted 08/07/2023 in fundraising by Mazarine Treyz

4 Design Mistakes to Avoid in Your Year-End Giving Letter

4 Design Mistakes to Avoid in Your Year-End Giving Letter

The end of the year giving season provides the most momentum for individual fundraising. So you’ve got to get your year-end giving letter design just right. Why is it so important to send a letter at year end? Donors are looking for a tax write-off at this time of year. Sometimes the Christmas season makes people feel more generous. An article called “10 year-end giving statistics every fundraiser should know” states that “One third (31%) of annual giving occurs in December.” Is this true? Let’s see. Here’s what the Blackbaud Giving Survey from 2021 says:

So, generally, yes, you’ll get most of your small donations from individuals at year end. It may not be 31% but it’s certainly a significant amount, depending on the sector you’re in, as you can see above.

Planning your next year-end giving letter ahead of time will make your letter have a better design, and a well designed letter can, and should, help you reach your fundraising goals. In this regard, the design of the letter and corresponding emails is just as important as the content therein.

Here are 4 typical mistakes that you should avoid in your year-end giving letter design:

  1. A “normal” white envelope
  2. The wrong quantity of pictures
  3. Bad font and typesetting
  4. Design not targeted toward your donor


1. A “normal” white envelope

PLEASE don’t just give me a plain white envelope! The envelope of your year-end giving letter is the first thing your readers will see. People DO judge a book by its cover, and this is your moment. You can use the cover of your letter to generate some curiosity before it is even opened.

So why should the envelope be a boring old white rectangle?

Why not use it as part of the message and story that you want to convey? Create a design that generates emotion. Follow these tips to help you design an envelope that is torn open FAST and read IMMEDIATELY!

  • SIZE:

Any size that isn’t the standard letter envelope. Stand out from the rest of the junk mail!


The next example shows the importance of considering a type of copy that makes it urgent or interesting to your donor.

In the letter to the left, you can see that both headlines use the “YOU” pronoun. This speaks to your donor and personalizes the letter.


A great example of this is the following envelope from Audubon. On the back of the envelope, there’s the image of a bird. It gives the sensation of having this beautiful, small bird in your hands. It also aligns with the bird story the organization is telling in the letter.

year-end giving letter design

This letter from “Save the Children” is another great example of an envelope. It may look like a simple black and white letter with the logo on the left top corner but…

save the children year end giving envelope

But on the back of the envelope, you can see the picture of a kid looking into your eyes. Having the image of an animal or a child looking into the viewer’s eyes creates a feeling of guilt in the viewer. Studies have shown that two eyes looking at the reader makes the person want to do the right thing.

This image invites readers to give. It even has the word “Urgent” on it.

year end giving letter design save the children

More Examples:

This next Salvation Army Holiday appeal shows the image of a man sitting in the streets with the word “Lost”. It sets the tone and hints at this man’s story. And the reader will want to hear about this person or a similar story in the letter.

pretty cool envelope from salvation army with the story beginning right on the outside

The use of powerful words instills a sense of urgency in the reader. The use of the word “PLEASE” in bold and capital letters from this letter from Greenpeace would make any reader want to take action.

greenpeace year-end giving letter design

This envelope from the NSPCC is another great example. It only says “An Apology”; the simplicity creates curiosity and gets your letter torn open!

brilliant way to ease someone into a year end appeal letter, with tjhe right words on the outside of the envelope

2. Having no pictures or TOO MANY pictures in your year-end giving letter design

Images are important! People are visual animals and pictures allow readers to connect better with the cause and your organization. Have at least one image in your letter. Preferably someone looking directly at the reader.

Include the image of your nonprofit organization accomplishing its mission in the letter.

Here’s a good example:

year end appeal design, a person with a sewing machine

This is the photo from an organization that helps with microfinance. This is the image of a person who is in the sewing business or otherwise using a loan to learn a new skill.

Use names, tell a story, and explain what the fate of this person would be if your organization were not supporting them, and in turn, how your donors themselves are supporting them.

Pictures to avoid:

  • Photos of administrators working
  • Photos of people waving
  • Photos of men with mustaches (FOR REAL, I AM NOT KIDDING!)

Pictures to use:

  • Photos that show the need. Ex.: A baby crying, a wounded animal, a terrible disaster
  • Pictures of your staff interacting with a person/animal being helped by your nonprofit.
  • Photos that provoke emotions such as:

State of Emergency: This is a great example of a compelling fundraising picture. A sad photograph of an animal that needs your help or asks you to take action.

incredible year end appeal letter design environmental pictureGratitude: The following photo of this woman captures the gratitude and sadness in her eyes. This powerful, yet simple image holds your attention and makes you want to give.year end appeal letter design with a woman looking directly at the reader with gratitude

Real photographs of your cause are high-value. A paid photographer is a sound investment in any fundraising campaign.

Photos that tell a story: This is a picture of a man with a blindfold on, the blindfold says Shrapnel, and it’s obviously a staged photo but the starkness of the colors make it tell a compelling story and create a powerful introduction to the motif of a campaign.

a man with a blindfold for a year end appeal letter envelope


A year-end giving letter design needs to include photography. Images can express what words cannot. This summary is a quick guide to a good year end letter photograph.

A picture that tells a story.Test two different types of pictures in your next appeal letter. Happy versus sad, distraught versus hopeful.
Quality photographs of your cause are worth what you pay for them.Paying for a professional photographer will pay high dividends in fundraising for years to come.
A personal touch goes a long way.Make sure to put a caption in handwriting font under your picture.

3. Having tiny writing with no margins in your year-end giving letter design

When speaking about your year-end giving letter design, formatting can mean the difference between your letter getting read and your letter getting thrown in the trash. This video is an extract of a webinar I made about formatting.

These are the most common formatting mistakes:

  • Big, long paragraphs: Short, concise, and direct messages are best. Keep a clear narration and get to a call to action as soon as possible.
  • Too many links: Don’t get bogged down with stuffing your email with links. In a year end letter, only provide links to the donation page you wish donors to go to.
  • Using Stock photography: Original photos from your organization or the work you do are always going to be better received than stock photography.
  • Tiny font: Format and consistency in font size and type are necessary.
  • Small margins: Spacing and keeping margins help readers to get a clearer message and feel more comfortable when reading the letter.

Example of a poorly designed year-end letter.

here are some common formatting mistakes in a year end appeal letter

A year-end giving letter should show your organization’s efforts and ask donors to collaborate with the cause. These letters should work as annual reports that have a short and clear message.

The following list of tools recommended by Dan Kennedy will make a long letter easier and faster to read.

Increase the readability of your year-end giving letter design:

  • Using bullet points
  • Numbering 1, 2, 3, etc.
  • Underlining
  • Boldfacing
  • Varied Type (E.g.: Using Italic)
  • Simulating handwriting – in the P.S.
  • Lines made of asterisk ***
  • Yellow overprint
  • Screens
  • Photograph with type around them
  • Subheadings, lots of them

Here’s the previous letter but with an improved design using some of these elements.

how to fix the formatting on a year end appeal letter design

This is what the letter looked like after I corrected the design. The format is clearer, there is a header, the image is from a real person they assisted, there is more space, and there is even a testimonial.

4. Not designing your year-end letter to your target donor

When writing a letter, you need to know who you’re writing to. You need to know your donors and design a letter to specifically attract those person to your cause.

Who is your donor?

Your donor is most likely to be a woman over 60 years old. Thus the bigger fonts, clear typesetting, large images, and testimonials for a personal touch.

How to talk about your accomplishments in a donor-centric way?

  • Use the word YOU:
    • Put asks with the word YOU throughout the letter
    • Couldn’t YOU help us?
    • There is hope, and that hope is YOU, (donor first name)
    • Will you do this for us, now?
  • Focus on the donor committing a heroic act:
    • How has the donor changed the world for the better? Instead of saying:
    • “WE took care of 50 sick green herons in 2021”, say: “YOU took 50 herons and made them well with your donation, and now YOU can do more.”


Designing a successful year-end giving letter is more than focusing on the text within. It is about putting together a clear and effective letter design that speaks to your target donor. Now hopefully you know more about your year-end giving letter design. And you’ve got lots of ideas!

Keep in mind the following tips:

  • An envelope can be part of the storytelling and message you’re trying to convey.
  • Pictures speak louder than words. The right one can make all the difference.
  • Formatting your email and giving everything the necessary space is key.
  • The design of your letters and emails should take your donors into account: who they are, what they want to see

Free Resource:

Still, looking for more tips to design your next year-end fundraising appeal letter? Download this year-end free template letter.