I had the privilege of interviewing a young fundraising professional yesterday for an online article that I am writing. In that interview, we talked for almost an hour about direct mail and her passion for learning as much as she can about that industry’s best practices and how to apply it to her non-profit fundraising work.
We spent a good long time talking about her passion for “mail merge“.
I know, I know. To those of you who don’t do much work on the snail-mail side of the fundraising profession, this probably sounds a little funny. After all, isn’t mail merge simply a word processor function?
The reality of direct mail and targeted mail is that the more personalized you can make your mail piece the more effective it will be in raising money for your organization. In other words, a letter that begins with “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Friend” will raise significantly less than “Dear Erik” or “Dear Mr. Anderson“.
Of course, for many of us, mail merge begins and ends with the salutation at the top of the letter. But this was NOT the case for my energetic young interviewee yesterday. The following are just a few of the ways she was using mail merge in her fundraising letters:
- Customized salutation (as described above)
- Customized signatory (board member with a relationship to the donor)
- Last year’s gift amount
- This year’s ask amount
- Customized gift level check boxes on the response card
- Customized message on the outside envelope
To say this fundraising professional is in love with the mail merge as a tool would be an understatement. As would be my admiration for someone who exhibits that much passion for her work with donors and the art of philanthropy.
You might be wondering about the last two bullet points pertaining to the response card and the exterior envelope. Let me try to clarify in the space below.
With regard to the check boxes on the response card, there is some good evidence that indicates that the numbers you use psychologically factor into the donor’s decision.
For example, if a donor gave $275 last year and you’ve asked them to consider a $350 gift this year, some experts say you should not provide check box options with big gaps (e.g. $250, $500, $1000) because the donor will likely round down if last year’s gift is closer to that number instead of rounding up. To combat this psychology, using mail merge to customize the options (e.g. $275, $350, $500) can help increase the effectiveness of your upgrade strategy.
With regard to the customized message on the outside envelope, there is good evidence that people open mail from people they know. For example, an envelope that simply indicates there is something from your non-profit organization is less likely to be opened because donors can guess it is likely a solicitation and treat it like they do other direct mail. However, mail merging a message such as “A message from [insert BD vol name] is inside” will increase the odds of the donor opening the envelope because we all give consideration to our friends.
There is no doubt that direct mail and targeted mail are complicated and involve proven practices (aka the science of direct mail), which is why talking to young, enthusiastic fundraising professionals about this topic always does my soul some good.
So, my tip for today as it relates to direct mail is MAIL MERGE is your friend!
The following are a few older DonorDreams blog posts on the topic along with a few other resources:
- CMO Council: Data/Metrics on Direct Marketing
- DonorDreams blog: Tips to Improve Your Direct Mail Strategy
- DonorDreams blog: Because you know it’s all about that list
- DonorDreams blog: Get over your fear and ask for a specific contribution amount
- DonorDreams blog: Things to consider before sending your next direct mail solicitation
- DonorDreams blog: What’s in your mailbox? Part 1
- DonorDreams blog: What’s in your mailbox: Part 2
- DonorDreams blog: What’s in your mailbox: Part 3
Here’s to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
On Tuesday, I wrote a post titled “Things to consider before sending your next direct mail solicitation” and there appeared to be great interest from DonorDreams readers. So, today I decided to drill down on one specific mail solicitation topic — “asking for a specific donation amount” — because it is something few people seem to feel comfortable doing.
Everyone I’ve ever talked to about their mail appeal swears that they are good at asking for a contribution in their letter. However, the truth is that many of the letters I receive default to what I call the “passive ask.”
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
- “But we can’t do any of this without you. We need you to make a contribution today.”
- “All gifts are appreciated and needed to continue this important mission. Small or large, your gift makes a difference.”
- “Say YES to making a donation today to XYZ agency and being a special part of the XYZ family.”
These were real solicitations that I received from organizations.
Many of you are probably asking: “What is so wrong with this approach?”
The truth of the matter is that this donor (and I suspect many other donors) want to know:
- what is a reasonable gift for donors like me?
- what contribution amount from me will help you hit your goal?
- what level of donation will help you make a difference with your clients?
Put me in a ballpark. Make a suggestion. Bottom line? I don’t really want to think too hard about this. Throw out a suggestion (based upon what you know about me). I’ll consider it. If it is something I can and want to do, then I’ll do it. If it isn’t something I can or want to do, then I won’t.
In my opinion, there is a darker side to this entire question . . .
Stop putting your donors on the spot and making them guess what you need.
This is, in fact, exactly what you’re doing. Right? Let’s think about this situation in a different light.
What if your spouse or friend approached you and said, “I am really hungry and I need you get me food and make a meal before I starve.” However, they didn’t tell you:
- How hungry they are?
- How much time they had left before they starved?
- How much food would satisfy their need?
- What they want to eat?
- How they like their food prepared?
You’ve been put on the spot, but you have no idea what is expected of you or what needs to occur to solve the problem.
In my book, that is frustrating! And the last time I checked, it is never a good idea to do things that frustrate your donors and supporters.
So, you’re probably wondering what’s the right way to respectfully make an ask in a mail appeal?
Here’s a few real examples:
- Smile Train: “We hope you can send a donation of $25 that can cover the cost of sutures for one cleft surgery . . . $50 that can cover the cost of anesthesia . . . $125 that can pay half the costs of one surgery . . . or a most generous donation of $250 that can cover the cost of one complete surgery to save a child forever.“
- Council of Indian Nations: “Mr. Anderson, do you realize that for $10, we have the ability to provide over 90 servings of food to hungry Native Americans?“
- Michelle Obama: “So please, without waiting even a moment, rush your contribution of $1,000, $1,500 or whatever you can afford to Obama for America today.“
- The Washington, DC Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation: “But Founding Sponsors who contribute $150 or more will also receive a limited-edition, numbers photograph of Dr. King and his ‘American Dream’ speech.“
- Boys & Girls Club of Elgin: “Would you consider making a $25.00 donation to the Boys & Girls Club of Elgin to help underwrite educational and technology programs?“
A few observations:
- Technology is amazing and easy to use. Mail merge allows you to personalize every letter and change the solicitation amount for each donor and prospect.
- If you don’t know the person receiving your solicitation letter, you can always ask for consideration in a range.
- You can also lay out a variety of giving options with an explanation of what each option helps underwrite.
With all of this being said, I understand the following:
- this isn’t easy
- there are times when you shouldn’t ask for a specific contribution amount
- some people insist there is a science to these issues
If you want to explore this question in more depth (and I encourage you to do so), you might want to investigate the following resources:
- [Working Paper] Griet Alice Verhaert & Dirk Van den Poel at Universiteit Gent: “Improving campaign success rate by tailoring donation requests along the donor lifecycle“
- Steve Hitchcock at Contributions Magazine: “When Not to Ask for a Specific Amount“
- Roger Carver at Agitator blog: Flat Earth Fundraising: Asking Amounts“
How does your agency tackle the issue of setting suggested ask amounts in your targeted and direct mail solicitations? Please scroll down and share your thoughts and experiences in the comment box below. Because we can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
A client called and asked for a little help with their upcoming direct mail solicitation. As a result, all I’ve had on my mind over the last few days is direct mail. So, it only made sense to blog about it today. I’m breaking this post down into small sections, and I’m doing so in the order of highest importance (e.g. the first section has a bigger impact on the performance of your mailing than the second section, etc)
Before I begin, I offer this disclaimer (and then a disclaimer to the disclaimer) . . . I am not a direct mail expert. However, with that being said I believe all of us are “quasi-experts” because we all receive mail and if we’re paying attention then we know what works and what doesn’t work (at least from our perspective). Don’t sell your intuition short and always remember to: “Use the force, Luke.”
Perhaps, the biggest factor in the success of your direct mail appeal is your mailing list. The following are just a few donor segments that I’ve mailed to throughout the years:
- current donors
- lapsed donors
- donors to a specific special event who you are trying to crossover into an annual campaign
- new donor prospects (cold lists being used for acquisition purposes)
Your response will vary depending on your audience. For example, you will most likely get a better response rate and raise more money by mailing to people who already give to you. Why? Because they know you. They love you. They know what they’re investing in and understand the return on investment.
Which donor niche most likely to yield the lowest response rate? Your cold list of prospects . . . people who don’t contribute yet.
Not only does the character of the list, in and of itself, typically determine campaign performance, but it should also inform your strategies and tactics. Here are just a few examples:
- letter content will likely be different for lapsed donors compared to new prospects
- follow-up recognition and stewardship messaging and strategies might look and sound different for new prospects compared to returning donors
The Outer Package
Your beautifully crafted letter means nothing if the recipient of your mailing doesn’t open the envelope. Right?
For this reason, you need to put some thought into what the package looks and feels like. Here are just a few strategies I’ve read about and experimented with throughout the years:
- use pictures and teaser phrases on the outside envelope to encourage people to open the envelope
- use actual stamps (e.g. first class or non-profit bulk stamps) because they allegedly get a higher open rate than an envelope using an indicia
- use color enveloped because get opened more regularly than a standard white one (or at least put color on the white envelope)
- use an odd sized package because they allegedly get opened more often than a standard #10 envelope
- hand address envelopes (when practical) because those letters allegedly get opened more often than those with labels and windows
The psychology of direct mail is complex and every expert has their own opinion. My suggestions are:
- Google around, read some of the data out there, and develop your own point of view
- Test, test, test . . . try different approaches and track your results
- Pull together focus groups of donors or prospects and ask their opinions
Always remember that the more you personalize your mailing, the better off you will be.
If you are lucky enough to get someone to open your envelope, a good rule of thumb is to design your letter with the understanding that most readers will spend 10 seconds or less with your appeal.
I suggest you focus on making the following parts of your letter pop because these are the components most commonly viewed by readers in the first five to 10 seconds:
- salutation (make it personal and get it right)
- first paragraph (don’t beat around the bush and ask for specific contribution amount right off the bat)
- signatory (customize who is signing the letter based on relationship with reader or secure well-known and respected person in your community)
- post script (most people read the PS so use it right by reiterating your call to action and tell them how to participate)
Lots of experts have lots of advice when it comes to your letter. Here is some of the advice I’ve personally subscribed to throughout the years:
- tell a story and make it emotional (focusing on heroes and villains puts you on the right track )
- ask for a specific contribution amount
- bold/italicize/underline a few words or sentences that are most important and convey your message
- don’t pack the letter with lots of words . . . less is more
- write the letter using a conversational style (don’t worry about what your 7th grade grammar teacher told you)
- focus more on the donor and less on your agency (use the word YOU)
- when referencing yourself and your agency don’t use the “royal WE” . . . make it personal and use “I”
- white space and pictures of people (especially cute kids and animals if applicable to your mission) are preferable to lots of words
- larger fonts and more space between sentences accommodates your more mature donors
I could literally go on and on and on, but you don’t have time for that this morning. If you are interested in doing more research, the following are a few of the people I love to read on this subject:
What has been your organization’s experience with targeted or direct mail? Please scroll down and share your thoughts and experiences in the comment box below. Why? Because we can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC