A Tale of Two Appeals: The One You Want to Write Vs. the One Donors, Prospects Want to Read

I love this letter. It makes me feel so good about what we do!” Have you had that reaction after writing or when reviewing a direct mail appeal or e-appeal? The pride you feel at what your organization is doing is almost overwhelming. “Wow! We are amazing,” you think.

If that’s what you long for when you write or edit an appeal, this article is not for you. Really?! Yes, because there is one important thing everyone involved in the process of creating a fundraising appeal has to remember: You are not the target audience. What you think or feel doesn’t matter. What matters is what the person being asked to make a donation thinks and feels. Will he or she respond because of that appeal, or will the carefully written words and cutting-edge design go straight into the recycling bin?
What’s the reason?

Before writing even “Dear Mrs. Smith,” ask yourself why. Why should anyone bother supporting this cause? What is it that is so different that it makes a contribution to your cause a far better investment than the same gift being given to another organization that sounds about the same to the reader?

Some people write a brief case statement for each appeal or rely on the case statement that was written for a specific campaign or annual fund drive. Other writers are less formal, but they take the time to jot down a few notes that say why they think donors will want to give to this need. At the very least, before you begin writing, answer these questions, “Why us? Why now? What will a gift do?”

Who’s Reading It?

Whether you are writing a letter that will go in the mail or an appeal that is being sent electronically, knowing who you are writing to is essential. And that isn’t a generic “donor file.” A fundraising letter has been called a conversation in print, so you have to write as if you are sitting in the home of a supporter, sipping iced tea and talking about your program—not lecturing, educating or trying too hard to impress.
To accomplish this conversation, what do you need to know? You need to know that one person to whom you are writing. For many nonprofits, that’s an older woman. So visualize her. Give her a name. Love her like you would a favorite aunt.

But never write your regular appeal letter to the person you wish were your donor. Find other ways to reach that person—ways that are specifically designed to attract an audience that is different from what you currently have. You can’t expect your current donor to twist like a pretzel to become your vision of an ideal donor. It’s just not worth the bother to her.

Stay on Message

Once you now know the reason you’re writing and to whom you are writing, you can begin the actual writing. One of your biggest challenges is to always make the letter about “you” (the reader), not “us” (the organization). Tell a story that is so compelling the reader sees himself or herself right in the scene. Their passions are ignited as they realize that the problem is big, but they can do something to fix it. You aren’t promising miracles, but you are showing the promise of what the reader can make possible.

Appeals are not something most people really want to read. In fact, I can’t recall an appeal letter ever being on the New York Times’ bestseller list. But a well-written appeal can raise significant money—and that happens when we don’t confuse it with a college essay.

Generally, well-written appeals use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. They never include a multi-syllabic word when a single syllable will do. They use decent grammar, but they aren’t afraid to break rules like, “Never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’” They include enough commas to be readable, but not so many that the end result is a sea of commas floating across a page.

Good appeal writing isn’t afraid to repeat itself, because a good appeal writer realizes that most readers won’t read word-for-word, line-by-line. They will scan and pick out ideas here and there. So by rephrasing the key points in a way that keeps it interesting, we increase the potential that our most important points will be communicated.

That’s also why we use indented paragraphs, underlining, bolding and paragraphs that are short (even one word). We are always thinking, “How can I make this easier for my reader to comprehend?” We choose a font that is appropriate for our audience, even if it isn’t part of our branding guidelines. We recognize that donors tend to skew to the older end of the spectrum (after all, a criteria for donating is having disposable income), so we don’t make them work too hard by using a small font size.

Tell the Story

Storytelling is big news in communications today, but the truth is, storytelling isn’t a fad. It’s a long-standing, proven means to connect with people and help them relate to an abstract concept or a condition that they have never personally experienced. What absolutely shocked you when you learned about the problem you are writing about? What person or event brought tears to your eyes or a lump to your throat? That’s the story to tell to engage your reader.

If you struggle to tell a story, remember these three things:

1. A good story gives your reader enough detail to feel part of the action, but only enough so she can paint a picture in her own mind.
2. A good story has compelling sound bites, which are often the words of the person whose story you are telling.
3. A good story leaves the reader wanting to help you write more good stories.

Good Copywriting Needs Better Editing

Once you have written your appeal, set it aside for long enough that you’ve forgotten what it says. That’s essential—you want to read it later through the eyes of your target audience.

Editing is tough, because you are willingly tearing apart your own work. There’s a good chance that if you’re honest in your editing, many of the words or sentences that you are proudest of will have to go. That’s because those often lack the necessary criteria of being conversational. How do you find those problematic words? Read your copy out loud. There’s a good chance that when you stumble in your reading, your reader will also stumble.

Remember that your goal isn’t to win a literary prize; it’s to raise money for your worthy cause. So rewrite until you can give your donors the message that is easy for them to read, understand and connect with.

Don’t Forget the Supporting Cast

When writing an envelope teaser or email subject line, the No. 1 question to ask is, “Does it help the envelope or email get opened?” While it would be great if we could always mail in a hand-addressed, closed-face envelope with a first-class stamp, that’s not reality. Nor is timing our e-appeal to arrive when our donor isn’t distracted by a million other things. So we have to be sure the first copy they confront breaks through the clutter of daily living.

We also can’t neglect the reply form, landing page and donation form. There’s still time to lose a donor when they get to that piece—and conversely, there’s still a chance to change their minds and get them to say “Yes!” So don’t save the response copy for the last minute; give it the attention it deserves.

Do you want to write appeal letters and emails that raise money? Then get started. That’s how you’ll write the appeal your donors and prospects actually want to read.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

How This Donor Feels: What I Learned From Giving $25 to 19 Nonprofits

Last year at this time, I sent $25 donations to 19 organizations. Only one ranked among larger organizations in term of annual income. So, how do I, a small-level donor, feel 12 months later? Would I want to give again (and maybe a larger amount) based on the relationship that was built in 2016?

First, some background: In January 2015, I invited organizations to send me a note about their donation acknowledgment programs. I would send a year-end donation to the first 10 that replied. (I couldn’t help myself. I actually chose to support the first 20, but one didn’t have any contact information or even a website telling me how to give. So I arrived at 19.) I mailed in a check and did not provide my email address. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in e-appeals, but I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by them. So I set the “rules of engagement” to be mail only.

Of the 19, all but one receipted me. I received the receipts within five to 28 working days. (By comparison, I also sent $25 donations to four large nonprofits that I have given to for several years. Only one of those receipted the gift, but all have been very aggressive in mailing to me throughout the year.) One of the 19 sent a welcome kit.

One of the 19 was a large organization that uses an outside mail service, so I will exclude them from this analysis. So, what happened with the remaining 18?

First, seven of them never contacted me again. Six of those did send a receipt, but beyond that, I never heard from them again. I can guarantee that when you don’t bother to contact a warm, breathing donor for 12 months after she gave a gift, you can pretty much write them off. If my little experiment has any application to the wide world of nonprofits, I’d say a 39 percent “failure to do anything to build a relationship” rate looks like a pretty significant factor in donor attrition.

Takeaway: Want to build loyal, repeat donors? Talk to them! (I know some of you are saying “Duh!” but my experience says this message isn’t being heard throughout the sector.)

Two of the remaining 11 only mailed to me once. One sent a mailing in April that made a good case for a donation. The other organization sent a short letter in late October telling me what my donation helped accomplish. There was no ask, but as this was a local public radio station, I’m guessing they do their asking on-air, and this letter was a nice set-up for a membership drive. Given that they have a good means of fundraising outside of the mail, the lack of regular appeals isn’t concerning, but a mid-year report (even a postcard) could have been a nice touch.

Here’s how the other nine communicated over the year, sorted by how many mailings I received:

  • Organization 1: Two newsletters (April and October), one appeal (August)
  • Organization 2: One newsletter (March), one annual report (November)
  • Organization 3: Three appeals (March [two] and December), one information-only mailing (October)
  • Organization 4: Two magazines (August and November), one self-mailer appeal (December)
  • Organization 5: One appeal (September), one apology for a data processing error on the appeal (October), one catalog of donation options (November)
  • Organization 6: Two appeals (June and December), one postcard thank-you (August), one hand-written thank you note (November), one informational self-mailer with no financial ask (November)
  • Organization 7: One invitation to event (May), three appeals (August, October, December), one event calendar (August), one informational brochure with remittance envelope (November), one magazine (December),
  • Organization 8: Two newsletters (April, August), two appeals (May, November), one annual report (June), one event invitation (July), one survey (July)
  • Organization 9: Seven appeals (March, April, May, June, August and November [two]), three newsletters (May, September and December), one calendar (October), one unique newsletter that was about a special program that had its own website

So, based on all this, what are my other takeaways?

1. When you receive a gift from a new donor, send out a newsletter or some kind of impact report as soon as possible (this can even be an evergreen mini-newsletter that goes in a receipt), and follow it up with an appeal within the first two months. I made my gifts in December, and the soonest I heard from anyone was March. By then, I’d pretty much moved on. My experience in the past was that if a first-time donor didn’t give a second gift in 90 days, the window of opportunity was pretty well closed. You have to be “courteously aggressive” with a new donor if you are hoping he or she will give again (and again).

2. A few times during the year, send some kind of “here’s what your gift did” information that isn’t couched in an ask. Yes, that’s expensive. But it makes a difference. Just like you may try on clothing before you buy it, donors want proof that they got a good deal before they invest more money in your organization.

3. For lower-level donors, skip the expensive mailings like annual reports, magazines and calendars. Yes, I know volume is what brings down the unit cost. But it just feels like excess. I used to get letters from donors saying this, and I thought they were just whiny. Now I get it. I’d rather know you used my gift to benefit your mission than get too much information about things I’m not committed enough to really care about.

4. Don’t squander the year end. While many of these organizations probably have an aggressive year-end online strategy, there is almost always a portion of your list for which you don’t have a valid email address. And even if you do have a valid email address, a portion of the list is simply ignoring your e-appeals. (Gasp!) People typically give more to charity at year-end, so save some budget and mail a donation request to your donors (at least those who have given in the last 12 months) in December.

I think my biggest takeaway is realizing how differently I feel when I’m thinking about fundraising from an organization with which I have no professional association. It was easier to dismiss donors’ comments on mail as “uninformed” when I was responsible for the mail program. So ask yourself, “After a year, do our first-time donors feel like they know more about our organization and what they made possible? Do they even remember they gave a gift to us? Does seeing or hearing the name of our organization make them feel good inside, or does it just drift past without any recognition?”

This old dog is just one donor. And yes, I think about the donor experience more than your typical donor, but take some time as the year comes to a close and think honestly about how a donor who gave a first gift to you in December 2016 will feel one year from now. That’s the place to begin to determine if changes are needed to make sure they feel appreciated, informed and willing to give again.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

The War Between Fundraising Copywriter and Editor

I recently attended a benefit for a nonprofit organization featuring two comedians—a nerd and a weatherman. (This is not the beginning of a joke. I assure you this is real.) Both contributed to a very enjoyable night for a great cause. Plus, the nerd, Don McMillan, addressed a common problem in fundraising: meaningless statistics.

I won’t give away his routine, but he explains that he takes the time to graph and chart his jokes, because he likes his act to be “technically correct.” Does that strike a familiar note with you? How often does someone take your well-crafted direct mail appeal or e-appeal and edit it to make it technically correct—and totally donor unfriendly?

Our job as fundraisers is to tell a story in a way that makes the reader want to be part of that story by making a gift. It is not to provide false information (even if that increases income, it’s still a lie). It is not to turn the reader into an expert (he or she probably has no interest in becoming one). It is not even to give equal space to each point in the story.

So, for example, we write “one in four people” instead of “24.3 percent.” We tell a story of a single person and ask the reader to help more kids like Tommy, instead of overwhelming the reader with a massive need that, somehow, his or her $50 is supposed to solve. We talk about the amazing work we do and its end result—people no longer hungry, land preserved for the next generation, etc. But we don’t get into all the details.

Our challenge: writing to the donor in the donor’s language. Simple enough, until you are faced with someone who doesn’t accept the challenge. So we have to battle against the editor or copy approver who forgets that fundraising takes head and heart.

When you find yourself in this battle, here are a few strategies I use as needed:

1. Explain right away when you submit the copy why you did or did not do something. Stick with the big issue (or two) and just toss it out there. Don’t apologize. Instead, explain that you deliberately chose this strategy to communicate with the donor and have a positive impact on income raised.

2. Document your sources on the cover page. You want to prevent even the smallest seed of doubt from creeping in. Once someone has decided you are making things up, it’s hard to move them away from that misconception.

3. It’s all about location. If you know someone is going to expect to see X, Y and Z, decide if you can put them into your letter where they will do the least amount of harm. For example, don’t open the letter with a complicated statistic or put it in the P.S. Instead, bury it in what Jeff Brooks calls the “dead zone.”

4. When you get agreement on something that was controversial, remember it and continue to do it. That way, when it gets questioned again, you can politely say, “You know, we talked about that before sending out the August e-appeal, and we agreed it would be more effective—and sure enough, that e-appeal was one of the best ones we’ve done all year.”

5. Give a little. You can write the best fundraising copy ever, but if it never gets used, it isn’t effective. It’s a delicate balancing act—sticking to best practices in fundraising without alienating those who have to approve it before it gets sent out into the world to do its job.

Good editing is golden. Bad editing is painful. But it’s a fact of life as a fundraiser. We have to work together if we want to accomplish anything. This old dog knows how painful it is to “give in,” but also has great memories of when a previously unconvinced person realized that fundraising isn’t something just anyone can do, but rather is an art and a science.

So, as you write copy for your year-end efforts, remember when you tell a story that sometimes numbers are OK, as long as they don’t crush the reader’s heart under the weight of information. Let’s help our readers fall in love with what we do, over and over and over again.

Originally published in NonProfitPRO.

It’s Not Too Soon to Plan Year-End Fundraising

There are 142 days left in 2016. That sounds like a lot—and it is, if you start thinking about year-end direct response fundraising now. But if you wait, there’s a good chance you will leave money on the table because of missed opportunities and no time to give it your best effort.

Yes, the large retail stores only have Halloween merchandise out now, but once back-to-school leaves the shelves, we’ll most likely see their early efforts to get us to “plan ahead” when it comes to our holiday shopping. So, for those of you who, like me, want to enjoy the holidays knowing that you’ve done all you can to maximize the income your nonprofit will receive, here are some things to work into your year-end planning.

Thanksgiving

Yes, this falls on Nov. 24 in the U.S. this year, but it’s also a reminder to make sure your donors know that you are so thankful for their support that helped accomplish some wonderful things in 2016. In addition to just being the right thing to do, this is a great way to excite your donors about doing even more before midnight on Dec. 31. Adding a brief article about your gratitude to them in your e-news or printed newsletter in late October or early November can pay dividends for year-end giving. Include short “thank you” messages from people who benefited in recent months, if possible.

Giving Tuesday

Thanksgiving is earlier this year, so Giving Tuesday will happen in November (Nov. 29). While we can argue all day about whether or not Giving Tuesday is worth it, it’s the one day a year media just might be reminding people about supporting their favorite charities. Why not be in front of your donors then? All it takes is a single email. If you want to stack the deck in your favor a bit, try setting a (realistic) goal for Giving Tuesday income, announcing it to your supporters, and then following up a few days later to report on how great they were to help you achieve it.

Direct Mail

A direct mail letter needs to stand out in the mailbox at the holiday season. A standard #10 white window envelope is not going to do that. Make sure you plan in advance so your letter arrives in-home with enough time for someone to actually respond. That means allowing for slower delivery times if you are using nonprofit rates, or using first class postage for your more generous donors. If you do use first class, go to the extra trouble (and small expense if you use an outside mailer) to affix an appropriate commemorative stamp. That will make it stand out even more.

e-Appeals

The first thing to note about this inclusion is that I used the plural. Year-end is not the time to send just one email. People are busy. They are worn out. But many are also thinking that they want to do something else to help a cause they believe in (or just to get a tax deduction). Either way, you benefit if you have more than one email arrive in the last week of the year. I’ve seen everything from one (or more) a day to one or two during the week and two more on New Year’s Eve. If you hardly ever talk to your donors, now is not the time to make up for a year of neglect by sending out too many emails. But two during the last week will not raise ire—especially if you keep them short, present a compelling reason to give now (other than just “get a tax deduction”; seven in 10 Americans don’t itemize on tier taxes), and make it easy for them to give online.

Online

If your website is left over from the 20th century, isn’t mobile-optimized or gives donors a headache if they try to give online, you need to fix it now. Every year, a larger percentage of people give online. No, it’s not as big a slice of the pie as those who mail in gifts, but 10 percent to 15 percent is nothing to ignore. In December, include a bold (but tasteful) reminder on your homepage about year-end giving. If necessary, improve your auto-responder message to be conversational and warm after a person gives, instead of sounding like it was written by an unfeeling robot.

Yes, you have 142 days, but making each one count is essential if you are going to have the best holiday season possible in terms of donation income. This old dog knows how easy it is to have your time swallowed up by the pressures of being a fundraiser. But carve out time right now to plan your year-end giving strategy, and then review and move forward on your plan every week until Dec. 31.

And then you can start browsing those store aisles for holiday merchandise you can’t live without.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Bridge the Communication Gap (Podcast)

 

Pamela’s Podcast, June 22, 2016

On this episode of The Beacon Podcast, Dr. Pamela Barden, a well-respected 35-year successful fundraising executive, is interviewed by Lighthouse Counsel President Jeff Jowdy to discuss communications in fundraising.

Pamela addresses some of the most critical issues when it comes to communications, including:

  • What is the number one job of fundraising communications?
  • What are the three most important things that we need to communicate in fundraising messaging?
  • How do we communicate with different generations?
  • How often should a nonprofit be communicating with its donors?

Grasping the role of fundraising communications and how and when to deploy it are necessary components of nonprofit success. “It’s not enough anymore to just send out a direct mail letter and hope for the best,” Pamela says. Listen to this episode as she explains what she’s learned over her impressive career.

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.

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.