Funding Change Consulting Blog Advice

Don’t Make These Mistakes with Your Year-End Appeal: Direct Mail Bootcamp (part 1 of 4)

Direct mail bootcamp: Don't treat donors like strangers

I get a LOT of solicitation letters in the mail. That’s not a complaint. It actually makes me better at my job.

In fact, my prime motivation for donating to a few places is just so I can be on their list. Mind you, I support their mission and programs…but it’s their communications that pushed me from mere admirer to active supporter.

Point being—if you’re in the charge of writing your organization’s fundraising letters, I strongly encourage you to be a direct mail donor yourself. You’ll learn a lot by what you get back (or, in some cases, don’t get back!) in the mail.

Today, to kickoff September’s Direct Mail Bootcamp, I’m going to walk you through two very different appeal letters I got in the mail. Consider it…The Battle of Good vs. Evil: Direct Mail Edition. (Or at least, The Battle of Good vs. Meh.)

One was strong, compelling, and quite effective at drawing me in. The other was, well…not.

I’m not going to name names, but I will tell you what I liked and didn’t like about the appeals.

Here’s what the winning letter had going for it. Do this yourself and you’ll raise more money…

  • The appeal started with a story. If your letter gets opened, the first line will most likely be read. Make it count. Jump right into the topic with a story or a compelling offer. Don’t give me statistics. Neuroscience research shows that we make decisions with our emotional nerve center and then get a stamp of approval from our rational brain. So, please make me feel something. It’s the only way you’ll get me to keep reading.
  • They started asking for support on the first page. You must make your request for donations several times. Don’t wait until the end. You can have both “soft” asks for “continued support” and direct asks for a specific dollar amount. But, be sure to ask early and ask often.
  • The benefit of my gift was crystal clear. Tell your donors what they will get in return for giving. What impact will their donation have? What change will occur thanks to their generosity? What new opportunities will be created? And, if your supporters get tangible benefits for giving, talk about those too.
  • The letter was wonderfully easy to read thanks to the serif font, generous margins, indented paragraphs, bulleted lists, short sentences, and strategic use of bold and underlining.
  • The “ask” was urgent. Give people a deadline to respond by—either a hard deadline imposed by a matching gifts drive, or an internal deadline driven by a campaign you’re working on. It may take a little creative thinking, but there is always a reason for people to give now!
  • They told me exactly what my money would buy. There was an insert that explained what $50, $100, $250, etc, will pay for. This could have been even stronger if they hadn’t used perfectly round numbers. It feels less like a gimmick and more like a real expense if something costs $47 rather than $50.
  • The amounts they asked me for on the reply device were based on what I gave last time. You can take this type of personalization to the next level by incorporating mail merge fields into the letter itself that talk about—the date and amount of your donor’s last contribution, the city or state in which they live, their interests, how you acquired them as a donor, and so forth. The more donor-specific information in your letter, the better your results will be.

Now for some points about the not-so-great appeal. I beg you to avoid making these same mistakes…

  • It was all we, we, we. “We” sounds institutional and leaves the reader out entirely. This is not the tone you want to strike. You aren’t writing a grant proposal. You are one person writing a letter to one other person. Make it personal and conversational. Use the words “you” and “I.” In fact, “you” should be one of the most frequently used words in any letter you write. This will give your letter a more personal feel.
  • They wrote to “Dear Friend.” Personalize your salutations. There should be none of this “Dear Friend” business. Everything should be “Dear Tina,” unless the person’s name isn’t Tina, of course!
  • Jargon! Virtually every sentence I read hit me in the face with jargon. Write like a human being. Please. None of this “nonprofit-ese.” Your letter should be informal and chatty. That’s not possible when it’s laden with words like sustainable, benchmarking, and infrastructure. Just kill me now.
  • The signature was electronic and the quality was terrible. It was blurry and pixelated. You should personally sign as many letters as possible. Sign in blue ink. That will make it stand out as a real, live, human signature. For those you can’t sign by hand, make sure you have a high-resolution version of your signature. For best results with the scanner, use a felt-tipped pen. Again, print the digital signature in blue if you can afford it!
  • The “P.S.” talked about something totally unrelated to the appeal. Like your first line, your P.S. is one of the most commonly read parts of any mailing. It’s where you repeat the urgency of your request and the benefits of giving now. Don’t waste that space talking about something else like an event you’ve got coming up. It will only distract your readers and you’ll raise less money.
  • There was no reply card, just an envelope. Your direct mail package should have a minimum of four parts—the letter, the reply device, the return envelope, and the outer envelope that your package is mailed in. Your reply device serves many purposes. It allows you to reiterate the heart of your message and your call to action. You can suggest how much you’d like the person to donate. And, it’s where you ask for additional contact info from your donors, like email addresses, which are missing from far too many of our databases.

Clearly, one of these groups got a contribution from me and one of them didn’t.

Look at your latest fundraising appeal. Which category would it fall into? And more importantly, where will your next appeal land?

Tina Cincotti, owner of Funding Change, is a donor communications expert and general nonprofit nerd.
September 4, 2018

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