Direct-Mail Writing That Raises Funds, Part 2

Last week I promised to provide practical tips on writing direct mail. For some of you, writing direct mail is something you enjoy, and for others, it’s something you just have to do. But I think we can all agree on one thing: the direct-mail letter that doesn’t get read (or at least scanned) is unlikely to raise much income. People need to read the words we’ve carefully chosen to convey the need and our solution, but we can’t demand that of anyone.

So how do we write a direct-mail letter that screams, “Read me!”? Here are some tips based on what I’ve learned over the years. Caveat: I try to be very judicious about saying “always” or “never” because someone can always find the one exception. However, to avoid having to wrap everything in disclaimers, please know that these are suggestions based on best practices and if you search long and hard enough, you may find an exception—but the majority of the time, these will be true.

First impressions matter. If you wait until the last minute to figure out what to say on your outer envelope (the “carrier”) or just use the standard office No. 10 window envelope, you are most likely reducing your potential results. Flip though a stack of mail that came to your office or home mailbox. Does some of it just scream, “Throw me out!”? Does some immediately catch your eye and make you curious?

The promotional copy on the envelope is called the “teaser,” but some teasers don’t tease—they tell too much and the reader makes a decision about reading it or not before he or she even opens the envelope. If you are putting copy on the envelope, make sure it is intriguing and increasing an average person’s desire to open the envelope. The same is true for photos; they need to make a person want to look inside, not scare them away.

You can always go with the combination that feels personal and intriguing: hand-addressed, no return address and a real, live first-class stamp. If that’s over-budget, go for closed-face (no window) and computer-addressed, the return address on the back flap (and maybe the letter signer’s signature in the upper left corner of the front) and a live, nonprofit-rate stamp. Nothing says “junk mail” like a printed indicia or a meter (exception: when it’s on an oversized envelope that is intriguing just by being big).

Start off with the reader, not the organization. OK, now we have them in the envelope, so what’s next? We need to immediately let them know that the letter is for them, not just about us (the nonprofit). “This is a busy time of year here at XYZ Organization, and we are all working hard” may be true, but it doesn’t say to the reader, “Hey! Pay attention! This matters to you.”

Instead, talk about the reader. For example, “No doubt, you are busy getting ready for the upcoming holidays, just as we are here at XYZ Organization. In fact, we’re planning to serve more than 250 people this Thanksgiving season. That’s going to be a lot of turkey!”

Avoid opening with a question that the reader can’t answer or an assumption that they may not share. “Do you know how much turkey to buy for 250 guests?” is one of those questions. You don’t want to make the reader feel stupid, but you also don’t want to send him or her elsewhere to look up the answer. Assumptions can backfire, as well: “I know you are very concerned about the . . . .” If they are not (or are not yet because they haven’t read your letter), you may lose them before they get past the first paragraph.

Remember, your job in the opening paragraph or two is to say, “Keep reading; this is interesting and it matters to you!”

Keep it conversational. If your letter doesn’t read like people talk, they are more likely to give up. Read over every word and when in doubt, substitute words for those that have fewer syllables and are more common in everyday language. The direct-mail appeal is not the time to show off the letter-signer’s fancy vocabulary. (The exception might be if you are writing to a group of people who use “fancy vocabulary” in everyday life.) You want your reader to feel comfortable reading the letter, and not feel like they walked into the classroom that is only for geniuses.

Don’t solve the problem without the reader’s help. “We’re going to feed 250 people” suggests it will happen with or without my help. However, “Our goal is to feed 250 people this year, but we need your help!” let’s the reader know that he or she is part of the solution. You don’t want to create a sense of helplessness or hopelessness in terms of responding to the need; instead, you want the potential donor to see how he or she can be part of the solution.

Make the offer obvious. You want people to give money to help your organization accomplish something. That needs to be as clear as possible. “Your gift of $XX will help us feed an additional 10 hungry men and women this Thanksgiving season” will likely lead to more action than “Your gift will help us accomplish our mission.” You can’t assume your reader remembers what your mission is; spell out what he or she can accomplish in words that make sense to someone who does not live and breathe your cause 24/7.

Make it clear that you are asking them to give. The “ask”—what you want your reader to do—needs to be completely obvious. Yes, you have to ask them to give. “Consider how you can help us impact this need” doesn’t cut it. “Please send your most generous gift today so we can make sure that we don’t have to turn away a single hungry person this Thanksgiving” tells them what you want them to do. Then repeat this ask in the letter and on the reply piece. A reader may choose to say “no” to you by not giving, but at least that won’t be a result of a vague ask.

Many of you are using email to raise funds, and most of these tips apply to (or can be adapted to) eAppeals, as well. Oftentimes when something fails to raise money, it’s because we failed to ask, whether it’s in the mail or in an email.

Next week I’ll cover several other best practices (that means “stuff that works” in my book) for writing direct mail. Meanwhile, here’s the start of your checklist, based on this old dog’s guidance for direct-mail writing:

Checklist for Writing Direct Mail

  • Does my envelope beg to be opened?
  • Does the opening paragraph (or two) focus on the reader, not on the nonprofit?
  • Am I talking conversationally to people instead of writing too formally?
  • Have I explained a problem that won’t be solved without the reader’s donation?
  • Can the reader easily see what difference his or her gift will make?
  • Have I asked the reader—more than once—to give a donation?

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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