Direct-Mail Writing That Raises Funds, Part 3

Writing direct-mail letters (or e-appeals that support or replace a mailed appeal) requires you (the writer) to get inside your reader’s head for a few minutes. Last week, I provided six tips to help you accomplish that—making the potential reader want to open the envelope; focusing copy on the reader; having a “conversation” with your reader; showing the reader the problem that needs his or her gift to help correct; giving the reader a vision of the difference that’s possible with a gift; and making it obvious to the reader that his or her gift is needed.

The following contains additional tips for writing direct-mail fundraising copy that raises funds—and is a tool that helps build relationships between your donors and your organization.

Don’t send the audience down rabbit trails. These are those interesting copy additions that don’t really help you accomplish your goal, which is to secure a donation from the reader. Some rabbit trails seem harmless enough—“be sure to go to our Facebook page and read what people are saying about the good work we do,” for example. Another may be to talk about an upcoming event that is important to your organization, but not germane to the project for which you are raising funds.

Yes, these are good things, but they will lead your readers astray; they may put down the letter and go to your Facebook page to see what others are saying about you. Then check their own notifications, respond to a friend request, write a clever reply to their sister’s post and check on what an old boyfriend is up to. In short, doing anything but continuing to read about your organization’s need and how a donation can help solve it.

Again, rabbit trails are not necessarily bad; they simply do not belong in your fundraising copy. You have a single goal: to secure a donation. Anything that has the potential to deter a donor from giving right now in response to the need you present needs to be purged from your direct-mail copy.

Focus on messaging to the audience, not the length. You can send me a one-page letter or an eight-page letter; if it is about a subject I am not interested in, it won’t matter—I won’t read either letter. However, if you send me a well-written letter about a problem I genuinely wish I could do something about, you have a chance to get me to read your letter, regardless of length.

Arbitrarily deciding that a letter has to be “x” pages long or insisting that no one reads a letter that is longer than one page are not formulas for success. You have a problem to present, an opportunity to give to help solve that problem, and a clear case to lay out showing why I should give now. Your letter needs to be as long as it takes to accomplish that.

If your letter is boring or you are mailing it to people who really aren’t interested in the solving the problem you present, it is doubtful you will have an impact whether you write 150 or 1,500 words.

Make your letter as easy to read as possible. If your reader makes it past the outer envelope, he or she will be more likely to stay engaged if your letter screams “Easy Read!” Few of us, after a long day at work or a busy day at home, want to have to get out our magnifying glass and thesaurus to wade thought an appeal letter.

You may personally hate these techniques, but the underlining, bolding, indenting and other formatting techniques actually help guide the eye through copy. And given that many of us are scanners (not readers), using these judiciously can fairly easily help a person capture the essence of the problem and the opportunity his or her gift will make possible. Read what you have bolded, underlined, indented or otherwise formatted to stand out (this can be a larger font size, a different font, etc.). Does the person who scans just those components get the gist of the entire message?

Additionally, use 1 inch margins (minimum) and a font that is readable, both in terms of size and style. About three in five Americans have to wear reading glasses; your challenge is to make your letter look worth my while to put on a pair of readers (which a large percentage of women have said make them feel “dowdy”). If it looks fairly easy to read, it has a better chance of being read.

Make sure your P.S. and the copy on your reply card restate the case. Some people will just read your opening paragraph and the P.S., and others will toss the letter but keep the reply card to mail in with a gift when they are ready to do so. These two copy areas often get overlooked or treated perfunctorily—but they are very important to achieving the goal of raising money.

The P.S. can briefly restate the need and what my gift will do to help solve it, and thank me for my donation. Note that I didn’t say “thank me for considering a donation.” Don’t provide an easy way out—well, I considered a gift so I did what I was asked.

Those “Yes, I want to …” statements on reply cards may seem silly to you, but in reality, they should restate the case for the donation: “Yes, I want to help feed hungry children right in my own community. Here’s my gift to provide meals.”

Avoid editorial committees. Former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg said, “If Columbus had an advisory committee, he would probably still be at the dock.” The same is true with your fundraising copy; if you have a committee editing it, it probably never will go as far (raise as much) as it would have without their intervention. Remember what I said last week: your fundraising copy is a conversation between two people—the reader and the letter-signer.

Sometimes copy-editing committees are impossible to shake off. In that case, establish who is the final say and then do all you can to help that person understand what makes fundraising copy work (and what makes it fail). Don’t expect people to instinctively know what works; they most likely will fall back on what they like, forgetting that they are not the target audience. Also, preface your letter that your editors will read with a cover sheet that explains who is the target audience, what is your intention for them to take away from reading the letter and what is your income goal.

Read what’s good, and learn from it. If you are not donating to organizations for the sole purpose of getting their mail, you are missing out on a bargain in terms of educational opportunities. You should be regularly reviewing direct mail and emails from groups doing similar work, national leaders in fundraising, groups you admire and hope to be like when your organization “grows up,” etc. You can also subscribe to Who’s Mailing What! and have access to a huge library of emails and direct mail packages if you prefer that to becoming a donor yourself.

As you review mail from other organizations, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What stood out in the pile of mail on your desk or in the mailbox?
  2. What makes you want to give?
  3. What made you cry (or feel strong emotion)?
  4. What makes you feel manipulated or otherwise “turned off”?

Writing direct-mail copy, like most things, gets easier as you practice. Don’t expect perfection on your first try—or probably your 10th try, either. But also don’t stop writing; this old dog knows that a lot of us are not born fundraising copy writers. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to write copy that will—even in a small way—help change our world for the better.

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?
  • Have I avoided anything that could divert my reader’s attention (rabbit trails)?
  • Is my letter the right length to make a compelling case for giving?
  • Does my letter look easy enough to read?
  • Do the P.S. and the copy on the reply form provide a concise reason to give?
  • Did the editing help make the letter better?
  • What have I seen and read lately that made me want to donate?

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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