Donation Request Letters: Are You Making These 3 Critical Mistakes?

Charity auction organizers know the importance of connecting with generous businesses to find silent auction items.

However, it’s cumbersome to write hundreds of online donation request letters (not to mention the cold-calling) hoping enough generous business owners say “yes.”

How do you make your charity auction stand out when requesting donations?

In this post, we cover the top mistakes to avoid when requesting donated auction items from companies.

What Is a Donation Request Letter?

For the purposes of this article, we’re referring primarily to online donation request letters and forms, where an organizer visits a page on a business’s website to request a donated item for their auction.

The company typically asks you to include:

  • Nonprofit
  • Event
  • Contact info
  • Connections to the business

Then, someone at the business reviews your request to see if you meet their donation criteria.

3 Mistakes to Avoid When Sending a Donation Request Letter

Mistake 1: Putting Every Company on Your List

If you’ve ever applied to a job online, you may have been tempted to submit your resume to as many companies as possible. Pursuing that strategy, however, is a sure way to waste a ton of time only to get virtually every application rejected.

Like job applications, the key to getting donated auction items is not through the quantity of requests you make. Rather, it is the quality of the requests.

Quality entails asking the right company at the right time in the right way. We’ll cover “right time” and “right way” later in the post, but for now let’s focus on building a list of great prospects.

Start with the companies you know

There’s no better place to start your list of target sponsors and item donors than with businesses that have previously contributed to your nonprofit.

On the flip side, any businesses to which your organization has contributed should also be on your list. Include every business that benefits from your nonprofit’s work or any vendors where your nonprofit regularly writes a check.

Additionally, leverage your personal connections: yourself, family, friends, coworkers, neighbors & anyone who owes a favor. Identify where they work, shop or otherwise have a meaningful connection, and ask for an introduction.

Then add the “top” cold prospects

After listing your organization’s contacts and personal connections, then it’s time to expand your reach. Rather than applying to every business in the phone book, filter targets based on where you can make a compelling pitch.

For examples:

  • Do you meet the company’s giving criteria (often listed on their website)?
  • Does the business’s target customer overlap with the interest and demographics of your attendees?
  • Have you seen the business sponsor other organization’s events?

If the answer isn’t “yes” to at least one of these questions, the business isn’t likely worth your time.

Mistake 2: Asking Too Late

Requesting a donated item at the wrong time renders the rest of your donation request irrelevant. If it’s the wrong time, the response will always be “no.”

There are two main considerations when it comes to timing your ask:

When does the business make giving decisions?

Many businesses make decisions about charitable giving in the same month every year. They identify the causes they want to support (and don’t want to support) and then distribute a fixed amount of inventory in a first-come-first-serve process.

If you are making your ask well after their giving decisions are made, other nonprofits may have scooped up what they have to offer for the year.

Does the business have time to fulfill your request?

Last minute requests for auction items are truly an unforced error. At a minimum, you should allow 30 days for a company to respond to and fulfill your request.

Conclusion: Both the above considerations should motivate you to ask as early as possible. If you ask early and it’s the right time, then great! Otherwise, the company will tell you “ask again in two months” which is also a good outcome.

Mistake 3: Sending the Same Donation Request Letter to Everyone

While it’s easy to copy/paste your boilerplate donation request letter to each business on your list, it’s just as easy for the recipient to reject your request.

Rather, you want to personalize your message. Here’s how:

Reference any connections you have to the business

Remember when you made your target list and started with the businesses where you have a personal connection? Now’s the time to leverage those connections.

Ideally, you’ve leveraged your connection into a phone call with the decision-maker at the business. If you are filling out a donation request form, make sure you reference your connection at the top of your request.

This will build your credibility with the business and give them one certain reason to pick you over the hundreds of other nonprofits who have requested a donated item.

Focus on each business’s primary reason to give

The two most common reasons for a business donate an auction item are:

  1. You will promote their business
  2. They care about your cause

For each business on your list, make your best guess at whether they care more about reason 1 or reason 2. By default, each business should be categorized under reason 1 unless you see something on their website that indicates they have specific causes they support (and you happen to be one of them).

Then craft your message accordingly. For the Reason 1’s, emphasize the promotional benefit and quantify the reach if possible. Emphasize how the business’s target customer, whoever that is, will be in your audience.

For the Reason 2’s, emphasize what you do and why your nonprofit is best positioned to deliver. Build credibility with the business that you are a legitimate organization with track record of making a difference.

Ask for something specific

Don’t ask for “something,” ask for something specific. Asking for “something” puts the burden on the donor to be creative, which will decrease your conversion rate and get you a lot of items you may not want.

Asking for something specific lets the donating business know that you’ve thought about how you best promote them, so they have better confidence in the promotional value you are pitching.

Of course, let the donor suggest an alternative if your first choice isn’t an option.

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Pro Tip: Record every piece of information you get from each business you contact, even the rejections. Knowing when each business makes their donation decisions, the causes they support, etc. will be a huge asset to whomever is auction chair next year.


Al McDonald is the Chief Product Officer for TravelPledge and author of the e-book “The Definitive Guide to Silent Auction Fundraisers.” Al has helped thousands of nonprofits exceed their auction goals through auction item procurement and advice. Al understands that successful auctions are hard work and is committed to delivering practical advice that will move the needle for you today.

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