August, 2010God, I love direct mail.
In my opinion, flattery is the thing donors need/crave most from the charities they support. It's what donor-centricity is about, really, I think. Yet, flattery is the thing I notice is most often left out of fundraising appeals written by beginners (and many "experts," too).
Flattery is not distasteful. Nor is it fake. You DO need your donors. And you SHOULD thank them richly for their support.
For the last couple of years, I've been trying to figure out a specific problem: Can local nonprofits with small-to-tiny mailing lists successfully use direct mail?
Absolutely! is the verifiable answer. I have had modest-sized clients with limited databases succeed shockingly well with direct mail (they wrote it; I didn't). I have had workshop attendees report extraordinary results, after applying a few simple rules.
What rules? Here's my checklist...
Is your letter a real conversation with the reader -- or is your "letter" actually just a brochure in disguise? A conversation has an "I" talking to a "you." There are two people on the page chatting about something wonderful: helping others. A brochure, on the other, lists all the agency's programs, offers a bunch of service statistics, and mentions the donor in passing if at all. Writing brochures rather than real letters is the most common direct mail mistake I encounter.
Is your letter personal or impersonal? The word "you" should be plastered everywhere in a fundraising letter. If it isn't? Rewrite.
Does your letter make a promise? When donors send a gift, they are in essence buying your promise. For example, "With your help, I promise, [XYZ] will end homelessness among our military veterans - and prevent other veterans from becoming homeless. That's a pretty big promise, I agree. But we've been working on this particular problem since the 1980s...."
Does your letter boil with urgency? Face it: inertia is the real enemy in fundraising. Getting people off their keesters to write a check or make an online donation is tough; it's always easier NOT to act than to act. Urgency says two things: (1) Just do it (thank you, Wieden & Kennedy, Nike's ad shop; if nothing else, read the "Wiedenisms"); and (2) Get it done. Because you'll feel better immediately. I feel better when I pay my bills. A donor will feel better when she makes the gift -- and adds her mighty (no matter the amount) shoulder to the wheel. (See how this flattery thing works?)
Does your letter ask at least 3 times? I try to get my first ask into the very early paragraphs, then again at the end of page 1 or the top of page 2, then again near the closing, then again in the P.S. And sometimes also in the Johnson Box. And even on the envelope. Again, it's an inertia thing. Getting someone to act requires the repeated application of a well-swung two-by-four. Make your asks clear and direct, "I am writing today to ask you for your gift."
Does your letter entertain? Is there news value in it? Does it tell a personal story?
Is the donor the hero of your letter? See the section on "flattery," above.
Is your letter fast and easy to read? Successful direct mail tests at the 6th-or-so grade level. This isn't a vocabulary issue. This is a "how short are things" issue. Lots of short words. Lots of short sentences. Lots of short paragraph. My letters almost never contain a paragraph longer than 3 lines. And I have lots of 1 sentence paragraphs. My opening paragraph is a few words long: "Welcome ... I hope." That one was conspicuously successful. The faster people can read, the more likely they are to stay. And the longer they stay, the more likely they are to give.
Leaern lots and lots more at www.aherncomm.com