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  • What is writing a letter to potential participants?

  • Why should you write a letter to a potential participant?

  • When should you write a letter to a potential participant?

  • How should you write the letter to a potential participant?

  • How do you get the reader's attention?

  • Should you use e-mail to send your letters?

What is writing a letter to a potential participants?

We believe that it's best to make personal contact when you can. The more personal the contact, the greater your chances of success. This is especially true when the potential member knows, likes, and trusts the person doing the contacting.

But letters definitely still have their place. The printed word has not yet gone out of style. Many people genuinely like opening their mail; and for many of us, a personally addressed letter, with a personal greeting and message, is a pleasure to receive. In addition, a good letter can be strongly influential, often more so than a mediocre meeting. Letters can also be kept and referenced. And certainly, letters can reach a lot of people at a small cost.

So suppose you have chosen to take pen (or keyboard) in hand and to write a letter to a potential member. This section will show you how to make your letter most effective.

A letter to a potential member is a written communication used to recruit new members for your group or organization. It may vary in format from a general form letter to a more personal handwritten note. Usually it is mailed: but it can also be printed in a newsletter or local newspaper, or even sent by fax or e-mail.

Why should you write a letter to a potential participant?

Because, as with any membership contact method, your hope is:

  • To recruit new members into your group or organization (the main goal)
  • To raise awareness of your group and the issues that are important to it
  • To ask for specific assistance on specific programs or projects
  • To give potential members a written overview of your organization that explains its purpose, highlights common interests, and suggests areas of possible involvement

When should you write a letter to a potential participant?

You should consider writing just about anytime you are trying to increase your membership size or your community recognition, or when you need more organizational help. But especially:

  • When you do not know the potential member well enough to make a personal contact
  • When it is difficult to reach the potential member on the phone
  • When you want to convey some detailed information about your organization that is too lengthy or complex for a phone call or meeting (this can go in a fact sheet or brochure, which the potential member can keep on file).

A letter can also be used in connection with a personal meeting. Letters and face -to-face meetings can work together. So write a letter:

  • When you want to have a personal meeting, and think that sending a letter will help you get that meeting
  • When you want to follow up after a personal meeting, with a thank-you; or with further information; or to confirm agreements made; or to reach agreements in the first place

How should you write the letter to a potential participant?

Before you begin, two important preliminary steps:

  • You should have a good list of potential members
  • You should have set aside the time to do the writing. It can take time to do it right!

Now, before we get to the heart of the matter, let's remind ourselves that there are different kinds of letter-writing situations:

  • Sometimes you will be writing a letter to a friend. Sometimes it will be to a colleague, or to an acquaintance. And sometimes, you will be writing to a stranger, someone you don't know at all.
  • In some cases, the letter might be your only membership contact method; it will stand alone. In other cases, the letter will be connected to a meeting, and will be sent either before the meeting, or after it -or, possibly, both before and after

Depending on which situation is true for you, the content, style, and tone of your letter will vary. Naturally, you will write to a friend differently than to the Superintendent of Schools.

But all letter-writing situations have one big factor in common. In all situations, your task is to write a persuasive letter, designed to convince the recipient to join and be part of your outstanding group or organization. To do this well, you want to use persuasive skills. There's nothing wrong with that. If you have a good cause (and it is good -otherwise you wouldn't be part of it), you have a perfect right, and maybe even a responsibility, to attract others to it.

All of us do have persuasive skills. Virtually all of us have written letters asking someone to do something. So it's not as if you've never written a persuasive letter before. But you can get better at it by following some simple guidelines.

How do you get the reader's attention?

The busier your reader is (or the less your reader reads) the more important this point becomes. Attention comes first. If you don't get attention, the reader isn't going to read the letter in the first place, or even open it. So how do you grab the reader's attention?

Design

Consider using: A distinctive envelope or stationary. High-quality stationery, which may be worth the extra few pennies. A logo, especially a familiar logo, so that the reader knows the sender. Color, now that color printers are more affordable. A slightly larger-than-average type size (for example, 13-point, as vs. 12-point or less). A distinctive typeface, as long as it is attractive and easy to read. All of this can be done without being overdramatic, or offending the reader's taste.

Content

The first sentence is probably the most important sentence in your letter. So can you write an eye-catching sentence, one that is going to stick in your reader's mind? Go for it, if you can. Your communication is like a resume, or like an advertisement for yourself and your organization. But in this day and age, the writer has less time to make an impression. Do you think your reader is going to read your letter slowly and carefully, savoring every single word? No; he or she is going to scan it quickly, if at all. The hard truth is the life expectancy of a poorly written letter is about five seconds. That's why we have wastebaskets, and people to empty them.

Personalize the letter.

  • Use your contacts. Say, if you can, "Y (a mutual friend) suggested that I might write to you, because...." This personal touch, if it's legitimate, often works well ; we'll pay attention, out of respect for our friend. But even if Y doesn't exist, you can:
  • Give the person's name in the salutation (as in, "Dear Patricia," or "Dear Ms. Prospect," as vs. "Dear Friend"). This is easy enough to do on your computer, even if you are writing a lot of letters. It's worth the time.
  • Use a handwritten signature. Sign your own name.
  • Stick a handwritten postscript at the end, or a hand-written lead-in on the top. Or add a personalized remark, on a post-it note or some other device. This might reinforce your interest, or add reasons for joining.
  • Hand-address the envelope

Do whatever it takes to get across that the reader is an important person, deserving of personal communication, for the reader alone, and that you know this, and have taken the extra care to ensure it. Now that you've got your reader's attention, your next task is to keep it.

Give the reason you are writing right at the beginning.

Get right to the point. If this were a detective novel, you might hold the reader in suspense. But now your reader is probably at the office, with less time for mystery. Get to it. Save the theatrics. Most readers will appreciate it.

And what is your reason for writing? Your basic reason is to encourage X (X, meaning either gender) to become a member of your organization, in one way or another. There may be variations in how you say this; but membership is almost always the bottom line, and stating it should come close to the top.

Give your reader good reasons to become a member.

These reasons should be presented through X's eyes, as best you can see through them. What are the benefits for X? Why is it in X's interest to work with you, or even keep reading further? Important: You need to be clear on those reasons before putting finger to keyboard.

There is a common list of benefits -reasons for joining -that applies in most cases. In your communication, you should be able to choose one, and usually more, from the list below:

  • The chance to address an important problem which concerns X or X's organization
  • The chance to help others that X is concerned with
  • The chance to meet people through your group that can benefit X
  • The chance to learn about new sources of funding for X's organization
  • The chance to stay current about what is going on in X's field
  • The chance to stay current about what is going on in X's community
  • The chance to meet new people
  • The chance to improve one's social status
  • The chance to strengthen one's self-worth or esteem
  • The chance to be part of a pleasant social group, and have fun

If you cite these reasons well, X may think, "I am a lucky person to have gotten this letter." That's exactly what we want.

Now here's a tip for all letter-writers, to make life much easier: The benefits you list will not change much from setting to setting. This is because benefits are keyed to human motives, and human motives are fairly constant and uniform. Still, there may also be specific benefits that apply to your particular organization. What are they? Don't hide them. Set them right out, very concretely.

In your letter, you can include a few sentences about your organization, and about the issues that it is dealing with. But don't include too much detail in the letter itself; it's not likely to get absorbed, and it may take away from the letter's overall strength. Instead, put your detailed information in a brochure, fact sheet, or flyer that will accompany and supplement the letter, and which also can be duplicated for others to read.

Make a request.

What is it you want X to do? You don't just want good will from your letter. You want action. So let X know what action you want him or her to take. Is it to come to a meeting of your group? To sign up as a formal member? To get involved in some specific project? To send money? To support you in some other way? Or is your letter more of a preliminary contact, one which seeks a meeting, or which is a prelude to a call?

Be thoughtful in advance about what you are requesting. Of course, you can shoot for the moon, but the moon is far away. Instead, successful requests tend to have common characteristics:

  • They are clear. X knows what is being requested.
  • They are specific. X is asked to perform a particular act.
  • They are limited. Lifetime commitments are mainly for marriage.
  • They are immediate. They ask for something X can do right now, or very soon, rather than in the indefinite future.
  • They are doable. X can comply with your request without a large expense of time, energy, money, or other resources. The request is feasible. Its cost is low, or at least affordable. X says, "I can handle it," or "I can do this much."

Examples:

Instead of: "Become a member of our organization"

Try: "Come to the meeting next Wednesday at 7:00."

Instead of: "Help us in our campaign."

Try: "Spend an hour making calls before Election Day."

Instead of: "Distribute flyers around town."

Try: "Distribute 50 flyers on your block."

Be clear about how the recipient can fulfill the request.

What is the next step to take? Again, make this very specific. By this time, X may be sympathetic and willing. Let's hope so! Now, make it easy for X to act.

  • If it's a matter of returning a form, enclose the form with an addressed envelope.
  • If it's a matter of coming to a meeting, make sure the time and place are prominent.
  • If there's a deadline, state the day and date.
  • And have you included your address, phone/fax, and best time to call?

Express your appreciation.

Thank X for considering your request, and for X's anticipated support. Do this in a natural way; say what you feel. You can also strengthen your appreciation by personalizing it at the end of the letter. There's no need to overdo it.

But if there are any rules of social behavior, they are:

  • We like to be appreciated
  • We never grow tired of being appreciated
  • Showing appreciation increases support

Much of social life follows from this simple wisdom. You should be appreciative; someone is helping you out, and showing appreciation here is the right thing to do.

Proofread your letter.

For many recipients, spelling, grammatical, and factual errors will lower your credibility and take away from the impact of your letter. You've come this far; finish things up in good form.

Sign your letter. Mail it today.

The persuasive principles above don't have to be included in exact order, by -the-numbers; but your letter (or fax, or e-mail) will be stronger if they appear somewhere. This is because basic principles of persuasion do exist; they apply almost universally; and they work. We've given the principles; your task is to use them.

There's a large bonus, to make things a lot simpler: the same basic principles generally apply to face-to-face and telephone communication, as well as to letters.

But for now, let's see how these letter-writing principles might work in practice, by showing several examples. See Examples.

Should you use e-mail to send your letters?

Doing so has several advantages:

  • It is much faster than normal mail. This also makes it possible for the recipient of your letter to respond, via e-mail, much more quickly
  • It saves the trouble of addressing an envelope, buying a stamp, and mailing your letter
  • The letter is much less likely to get lost on the receiver's desk

Note, however, that e-mail also has disadvantages:

  • For some recipients, it has less stature than a formal letter. It may carry less weight, and seem less impressive
  • If the recipient does not read e-mail regularly, your time savings are lost
  • It may be gone forever with one tap of the delete key -- and gone from your recipient's mind as well

Of course, your e-mail can be supplemented by other recruitment techniques. But if you are thinking about using e-mail to recruit potential members, take special care to make sure that your message stands out.

Do the same persuasive principles apply when sending e-mail? Yes, they do. Maybe even more so, if you want to ensure that your e-mail message stands out from all others.

Contributor 
Bill Berkowitz

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., Young, J. (1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., Max, S. (1991). Organizing for social change: A manual for activists in the 1990s. Minneapolis, MN: Midwest Academy.

Homan, Mark. (1994). Promoting community change: making it happen in the real world. Pacific Groove, CA: Brooks / Cole Publishing Company.