How to Read a Direct-Mail Fundraising Letter
A fundraising letter (or e-mail, or any other direct communication) passes through a lot of hands before it reaches its intended audience. And everyone in the approval process has the opportunity to express an opinion.
If you're one of those people, you've probably heard the general admonishment to remember that "you are not your donor," and to avoid judging a letter based on your own personal preferences.
It's good advice but not very specific. So, here are a few tips that might be helpful as you review fundraising copy.
- Read fast. Scan the opening paragraphs, look at the P.S., glance through the body for highlights and key points, and take a quick peek at whatever inserts are enclosed. Spend less than a minute. That's how the letter will be read by the person who opens the envelope. And the vast majority of readers will decide whether to give without going any further. After you've gotten the gist and the feeling, then you can go back and read with scrutiny (see No. 6).
- Don't trust your feelings. A well-written letter pushes the emotional buttons of certain carefully selected people. You're not one of them. No matter how well you empathize, you're too close to your work to see it from the donor's perspective. If you hear yourself thinking, "I wouldn't give to this," or, "I like that," or anything else that draws your personal opinions to the fore, it's time to step back and either trust the writer or ask her to explain why she wrote something the way she did.
- Read out loud. Direct-mail letters are meant to be very personal. There shouldn't be anything formal about them. If you read the letter aloud, you ought to hear one person talking to another about something important. Nothing fancy or complicated. If it doesn't sound like that, it needs work.
- Make sure the letter says just one thing. A good letter moves in a straight line from intro to ask to close. It keeps the reader focused on a single topic. It's tempting, especially in acquisition, to tell readers all kinds of cool things about your organization: your history, how many puppies you rescue each year, details about your programs, and on and on. Don't do it. Tell them what they need to know, or more accurately, what they need to feel, to make them want to support you. No more and no less. If the prospect becomes a donor, you'll have plenty of time to give him all the compelling details — one at a time — in future appeals (meanwhile, that's why you have a website).
- Recognize that all that repetition is a good thing. The old speechmakers' advice, "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you've told them," is true for direct mail too. Readers read carelessly, so there's a rationale for revisiting important points again and again.
- Read gullibly. When you're in "approval" mode, it's important to scrutinize every detail of a package. There may be typos, errors of fact, or brand or messaging issues. But once you've found them, stop. Remember, the most likely donors have been prequalified. Either they're already supporters, or they're on a carefully selected list of likely prospects.
- Make sure the letter doesn't try too hard. If the lists you're mailing to are any good, the letter will already be preaching to the choir. So the copy shouldn't try too hard or sound apologetic or protest too much. It's safe to assume the reader already wants to help you. Your job is to provide him or her with a compelling reason to do so now.
One more thought: It wouldn't be a bad idea to take an hour or two to brush up on some copywriting basics. Next time you're at a conference, visit a copywriting 101 presentation. Or read one of the many great books out there. Understanding some core strategies and techniques can give you a lot of insight into why writers do some of the strange things we do (or it can help you call us out when we get something wrong!).
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.