Why Did Doris Buffet Personally Answer This Fundraising Letter?


You won’t believe it but my friend Jacqueline wrote a “cold” letter appealing to Doris Buffett – and Ms. Buffett actually responded with a PERSONAL phone call. And, ultimately she made a gift.

When Jacqueline told me about this, I didn’t believe it could ever happen.

Until I read the letter.

Then I understood.

I’m sharing this letter with you (with permission).

I’m presenting it in its entirety – so you can see the level of detail.

What worked so well?

Remember, this is an exploratory letter. A letter of inquiry.

And she skipped over many of the introductory formalities and courtship steps – and went right to the point.

As an experienced consultant, I certainly would have smoothed out the letter and softened it up.  I think you have to be very careful with emergency appeals.

But her directness is what gave the letter such power.

1. Transparency = credibility.

This letter is a perfect example of the kind of transparency we need to show to our donors.

She was explicit about the school’s challenges.

She didn’t try to smooth the problems over. She was breathtakingly honest.

How could you not trust her, with the tone of this letter?

What would happen if you were this honest in your communications with key donors??

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2. Simplicity.

Her approach was extremely simple.

She didn’t clutter her note up with jargon and the usual “nonprofitese” that says absolutely nothing.

Every word and sentence in this letter is plain, simple and thereby powerful.

3. Utter lack of bull.

But what I like most about this letter is her complete, utter lack of bull.

She was completely frank about the pending doom ahead for the school and how it might impact the students.

She courageously shared her situation – with all its warts – with a powerful potential donor.

And it worked. Boy did it.

I don’t know a lot of nonprofits who would be so very frank.

How are you talking about YOUR financial needs?

I’m getting fundraising letters these days from nonprofit colleagues who are facing the same kind of dire financial situation.

And I’m getting generalities from them.  Their tone is more distant, more formal, and far, far less gripping.

If there ever was a time to be explicit, NOW is that time!

Take a look at this letter:

What does it have that encouraged such a lady to actually pick up the phone and call Jacqueline to discuss the project?

Dear Ms. Buffett and the Sunshine Lady Foundation:

One of your former scholarship recipients recommended that I write to request funding for an emergency shortfall.  I am the Head of School at The XXX School for Children with Autism in xxxx NC.  I was hired in September 2007 as a last ditch hope to keep the school alive.

A parent of a child with autism started the school nearly eight years ago.  She invested an amazing amount of time and energy to get the school off the ground.  The school has grown over the years and outgrew her strengths and expertise particularly in the arena of business management.

It wasn’t until I was hired that we really discovered just how much of the basic business foundation was missing.  I have spent the last eight months untangling and restructuring the school to have the business in compliance with all applicable employment and safety laws.

In the meantime, I have not been able to focus on developing the program until I knew that the school was on the road to stability.  Fortunately, two weeks after I started, we received a grant from the state, which provided funding for 10 new students and covered a significant portion of our operating costs.

This was a curse and a blessing with all of the other work that needed to be done.  Anyway, the grant cycle is coming to a close and the funding ends at the end of June.

We have reapplied for the grant but will not know until the legislature votes in July or August.  Then, we will still need to wait for the money to become available – which may be months.

So, I actually have two concerns.

One concern is that we will not have enough operating income to make it through September this year.

The other is that these 10 grant students will not be able to continue their programming unless their family can afford the tuition, and many of them cannot.

I have developed some new educational programs to bring in additional income but these programs need time to grow to become profitable.

There is no question in my mind that I will be able to make this school financially independent given some time, and grants will merely be able to add to what we already offer. With the number of children with autism growing so drastically, the need for services is going to grow as well.

I have found a local donor who is willing to match up to $50,000 donation to cover our emergency shortfall.

Your financial support will provide us with the time needed to develop additional quality programs that are so desperately needed for children with autism.

As far as the students who are in financial need, if The Sunshine Lady Foundation is willing to provide any tuition assistance to them, it would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Dr. Jacqueline XXX

Head of School

Ok, so what do you think?

Would you have answered this letter if you were a philanthropist?