Writing Winning Direct Mail Appeals
Conversations with a few clients have led me to believe that if you ask 10 different development professionals what goes into great direct mail appeals, you will get 10 different answers. The biggest source of disagreement is the length of these letters. Here is some of the feedback from fundraisers and CEOs:
The appeal letter must be one page. It is like a résumé, and if you can’t get your point across in one page, you need to work on your pitch.
Your appeal must be at least one and a half pages. If it doesn’t go onto the back of the first page, it won’t be as effective.
Our donors are loyal and will read five pages if we send it, because they really want to know.
I tend to be in the one-page camp, and I am never in the five-page camp. (If you need five pages, you may as well make it an annual report). But, just because I respond to one-page appeals doesn’t mean Bob-the-awesome-and-generous-donor feels the same. We should not fall into the trap of believing that everyone thinks like we do. People receive and react to information differently, and we should therefore send information in a variety of ways.
If you send four appeals a year, then vary the style you use. Change up the length. Add photos. Use various “call outs” as visuals to draw attention to important concepts or quotes. Use a PS on some and not others. If every appeal you send is the exact same length, format, writing style and ask, then you might be stuck in an appeal-writing rut.
While it is important to use visuals that draw people in, keep in mind that the delivery vehicle (letter, postcard, snazzy marketing piece) is only part of the equation. It is often effective to tie pieces together with a common thread. If you keep a common theme for your appeal letter, the remittance card, a follow-up email to those who haven’t responded, and a thank you/acknowledgment letter, it can ring the recognition bell in your donor’s mind and up your chances of receiving a response.
What it is vital to understand, though, is that the story is what's most important. Here are two examples featuring different approaches.
1. “I hate having to ask for money, but it is that time of year again. We’ve done a lot of great things this year and it is because of your generosity that we were able to serve 3,000 clients.”
2. Included with the picture shown here at right: “This is the face of hunger in the U.S. Not what you expected? Lydia’s and her sisters’ main meals during the week are from free breakfast and lunch programs at school; they often go hungry on weekends. But because of you, little Lydia brought home a backpack full of nutritious food from school for the weekend. She and her sisters will go to bed tonight with full stomachs.”
Which would be more likely to receive a gift in response? I would bet on example No. 2 any day. People want to know that they are changing lives. They want to make a difference. We may contribute in different ways—donating, volunteering, working on staff—but we all want to help Lydia and her sisters not go to bed hungry, metaphorically speaking.
Now look back at the beginning of example No. 1. Never apologize for asking for money! There is nothing to be ashamed of. As the representative of a nonprofit, you are offering a way for people connect their generosity with their passions. Use positive and unapologetic language, be clear and concise, connect to the reader’s emotions and make the ask. Statistics and accomplishments should generally be reserved for annual reports. Connecting humans to how they can make an impact in an area they care deeply about—that is the stuff great appeals are made of.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a Florida-based training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 20 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership and a graduate certificate in teaching and learning. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive and an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.