Write Hundreds of Letters: Is there a Better Way? (Free book to best suggestion)

When I started my organization, I wrote hundreds of letters to people who I thought would be interested in donating and had the means for bigger checks ($5k+). The list included donors from GWU (where I went to school), City Year (the AmeriCorps program I served in), and Pittsburgh (where I from).  Basically, any group of people where I could make a personal connection and/or who is likely to already like our product (selling nuts to squirrels).

I recently read Wendy Kopp’s first book. When she was launching Teach For America, she wrote hundreds of letters to corporate leaders about the idea of a national teacher corps.

Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, two of City Year’s founders, did the same with finance professionals in the Boston area. Alan discusses this in his book, Big Citizenship.

And I remember reading that Billy Shore, founder and CEO of Share Our Strength, wrote 1000 letters to chefs when he was launching. And then did it again.

In each of these cases, initially getting one or two replies (three if you’re REALLY lucky), is a huge success.

A lot of people would hear this and say: “There’s gotta be a better way.” or “Cold calling is a bad idea.” Indeed, it’s tedious, monotonous, and a meager 1% response rate is considered a success. That begs the question:

When you’re 21 years old, with limited experience, a limited network, and an unproven idea that requires some early seed money, is there a better way?

My short answer: No. I think this is a necessary and even important grind that aspiring social innovators must pursue. Let me explain:

1) As I talked about in my last post and will talk about more, the seed funding ecoystem for nonprofits is barely existent. Writing hundreds of letters is one of the few options you have.

2) The research in determining recipients is a critical exercise to build a pool of prospects. If you’re lucky enough to have a couple early funders to get you going, they will want to see others investing before they keep writing checks. You’re going to need a handful of others that will give you $1k-$10k early on. They have to be found and pitched and closed.

3) The monotony and even pain of this process is a good indicator if you have the discipline to purse your idea and the gall to ask strangers for money. I always find it a bit uncomfortable, but if you can’t get over it, think hard about moving forward. It’s only harder in person.

Important: the follow-up to the letters is just as important as the letter itself. If you aren’t going to follow-up with a call, email, or another letter, then don’t write the first. I can almost guarantee no one will reply to your first letter. But don’t despair. Send a fax, write them a message on Facebook, take out a Google alert on their name and go to a conference where they’re speaking and introduce yourself.  Whatever it takes.

With that said, this should not be your only approach. Find one of two well connected people who can make personal introductions to potential donors, go to conferences and meet people directly, etc. ServeNext, my organization, doesn’t go far if we only relied on one of these approaches. It took these and others.

As for the free book, the ones referenced above are must-reads for any aspiring social entpreneur. I have an extra copy of Big Citizenship. I’ll send it to the person who leaves the best comment about other ideas to get fundraising off the ground OR who best challenges mine.

This is only the blog’s 5th post, so competition shouldn’t be too steep if you chime in…

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