Elements of an effective fundraising appeal

Direct mailIn this age of social media and digital marketing, old-fashioned fundraising letters (or, “direct mail”) seem slow, expensive, and out-of-place. But mail still gets results. The Direct Marketing Association’s Yory Wurmser is quoted in Direct Marketing News as saying that direct mail boasts a 4.4% rate, compared to email’s average response rate of 0.12%.

It should be pointed out, though, that email costs almost nothing, so while the response rate is lower, the return on investment is higher. It makes sense then, if you do decide to take on the printing and postage expenses of a traditional direct mail campaign, that you do what you can to ensure success.

I’ve spent much of my career helping nonprofits raise money, and I’ve learned that successful direct mail campaigns have a few elements in common:

1. Actual stories

People give to people. You may be very impressed with your organization’s mission statement or organizational structure or brand positioning, but I’m not. I want to know whose life you are changing. Tell me the story of someone who was cured, educated, saved, or fed because of the money I gave you. Show me the difference you and I are making together.

2. Earned trust

When I worked for a nonprofit called the Bible League, we had a team of Regional Field Directors who personally visited donors to share results, thanks, and needs. I remember one of those RFDs telling us the key to his success. He said, “Yes, these people give to the Bible League because they believe in the work the Bible League is doing. But really, to them, I am the Bible League. They give to the Bible League because they have a relationship with me. They like me. They trust me.” Trust is earned through relationship. Every communication with a donor—in print or in person—should build on trust you’ve already earned in relationship with that donor. They should know things about you, and you should know things about them.

3. Authentic creativity

Creativity is what can help your letter stand out in a mailbox full of bills and junk mail. But creativity should enhance your message, not compete with it. This appeal from the Greater Chicago Food Depository is a great example of creativity that serves a purpose.

Fundraising appealFundraising appealIt’s a brown paper bag. And the letter is printed on the outside, so I didn’t even have to open it to get the message. They lead with, “Can you believe there are more than 800,000 people here in Cook County who don’t have enough food to fill this lunch bag?” The bag supports the message. On the other hand, when I received a similar brown-paper-bag mailing from a car dealership (“Payments are less than the cost of lunch each day!”), the tie-in was weak, so it felt like a gimmick.

4. Appropriate ask

If you are asking me to make a major gift, make sure the medium you use shows respect for my hard-earned dollars. Don’t send me a cheap postcard at bulk mail rates to ask for a $10,000 sponsorship. An ask of that size demands more “heft.” Write me a letter several pages long—I might not read the whole thing, but I’ll believe that the details are there if I want them. Send me photos of the project, and charts, and graphs, and lists. A big gift is a big decision, and it deserves a bigger envelope and a little more postage.

5. Achievable results

If you’re counting on me to make a difference, then I want to see the difference I’ve made. If I keep giving and giving, and I never hear that the goal has been met or the project has been completed, I lose heart. I want some assurance that we’re making progress. And, frankly, it’s just bad manners to come to me only when you need more money. You should also be thanking, reporting, and touching base in between asks.

What about you? Which nonprofit organizations do you donate to? If you receive mail from these organizations, do you notice any of the above elements in their communications? What other elements would you add to this list? Or, what kind of direct mail do you hate? And why?

P.S. If you work for a nonprofit, and your current fundraising appeals are not resonating with donors, let’s talk. I won’t be able to solve any deep strategy problems or integrity issues, but if the other pieces are in place and you just need a strong writer, that’s a need I can meet.

5 thoughts on “Elements of an effective fundraising appeal”

  1. Excellent post, Melanie. Powerful example from the food depository, wow. I rarely open mail or give to places like Samaritan’s Purse. For me as a donor, it really boils down to two things, relationship and passion for a cause. With so many places I could give to, donating has to be about something deeper.

    • Amanda, what makes you mention Samaritan’s Purse specifically? Is that an organization you receive mail from? Also, since you “rarely open mail,” have you found that the organizations you support are using other ways to develop their relationship with you?

  2. A few years ago I ordered “a brood of chicks” from the SP Christmas catalog in honor of my marcomm team at Trinity. Since then, I’ve rec’d mail here and there and the catalog every Christmas. As far as the organizations I support, I rarely receive mail from them because I have very personal relationships with each. One emails me personal messages a few times a week. One sends a year-end appeal. And I’m on the board of the third one.

  3. Thanks for your post, Melanie! I feel your points can be applied as well to email pleas for donations and fundraising. It’s true that I donate only to those organizations with which I feel a bond of some kind. Building relationships goes a long way toward the trust factor, which, if it’s missing, would be a cliff I wouldn’t walk toward.

    • I think you’re right, Viv. In fact, trust may be even more important in email than in snail mail simply because email is such a cheap, easy medium. If I know you haven’t invested anything to send me a message, you’ll have to work a little harder to overcome that “cheap, easy” reputation. Plus, as more and more marketers abuse email and turn it to spam, the more important it is for “real” email from trusted sources to stand out.

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