Posts Tagged ‘How to write fundraising materials that raise more money’

Battle of the appeal letters: Four-pager versus two-pager

If I’ve heard this one once, I’ve heard it a thousand times…

Dear Tom:

My boss wants to know which is better, a four-page letter or a two-page letter?

Signed, Direct Mail Novice.

This is one of those great “it all depends” questions.

First, you need to distinguish between acquisition letters and renewal letters. Which are you sending out?

Four-page letters, I would venture to say, are not all that common when you’re renewing gifts from current donors. But they are common for acquiring new donors, especially when professional writers are running the show and there’s a lot at stake. It’s pretty axiomatic in the direct mail industry that a four-page letter will outpull a two-page letter, when you’re trying to acquire new donors. For this simple reason: a four-pager gives you four times as much space to fill with interesting stuff as a one-pager.

Current donors already know who you are, thanks to your newsletters and other “relationship- building” communications. Assuming you’ve done a good job keeping your current donors informed of your cause’s accomplishments and needs, a brief appeal letter should work.

But people who don’t know you at all (those whom you’re trying to acquire as donors) need a lot more convincing to take the plunge.

For the average person (a boss who hasn’t read up on direct mail fundraising, say), the idea that a four-page letter often gets a better response than a one-pager is painfully counterintuitive. The average person thinks, “Four pages? That’s crazy. I wouldn’t read one. It’s far too long and a big waste of my time.”

This is the place for a caveat: true enough, a four-page letter filled with uninteresting stuff and tedious writing will not work. But professionally written four-pagers are marvelous experiences, filled with drama, human interest, surprises, and hope.

People do not read direct mail in the way one might read a novel or news story. With direct mail, they skim. And if your mission and organization is new to them, they will skim your letter to see if you have anything to say that interests them.

Which, incidentally, puts a high premium making things easy to read. Use lots of bullet lists, short paragraphs, etc. Successful direct mail writers favor one- and two-sentence paragraphs for that reason: because people can speed through them.

Do four-pagers always work better in acquisition mode? Nothing always works in direct mail. It’s an empirical medium. You test, test, test. And on some rare occasions, a one-page acquisition letter ends up outpulling a four-pager. Rarely, but it does happen.

This is a brief answer to a complex question. For those who want to learn about direct mail letter writing from a real expert, I highly recommend Mal Warwick’s How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters. Good direct mail fundraising is a sophisticated form of advertising; it is only superficially similar to ordinary correspondence. The more training you have, the more effective you’ll be.

See also:

How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money

Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes

Content Marketing for Nonprofits

Image credit: GettyImages,

This was originally cross-posted at CausePlanet on 4/26/2011 with special thanks to Tom Ahern.

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The message is trust: how to build loyalty with your donors

This post first appeared in Tom Ahern’s newsletter, Ahern Communications Ink.

Donors have no idea what you do with their money. And frankly? They suspect the worst!!! How loyal is the average donor? Not very, it seems. “In many large national programs fueled by direct mail,” Mal Warwick observed in 2005, “no more than 25-35% of newly acquired donors ever give so much as a second gift.” And that was then. These numbers never go up; they always get worse. A 2012 report from the Direct Marketing Association found that response rates to direct mail had dropped “nearly 25%”over the past nine years. It’s relatively easy to get a first gift. It’s consistently hard to get a second gift, especially during a worldwide economic downturn that leaves everyone feeling poorer.

There’s more bad news.

“Public confidence in charitable organizations … continues to stagnate and shows no signs of recovering [from a 2001 decline], according to the Brookings Institution,” the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in September 2004. Only 11% of Americans thought charities did a “very good” job of spending money, said Brookings. The other 89% had their doubts. In fact, more than one-quarter of Americans in 2004 believed charities were inept at managing money, according to the report. And that was before the Great Recession made everyone grumpy. As I said, these numbers never get better.

Be aware: charities are guilty until proven innocent. Part of the problem is the name, I suppose. We call ourselves “nonprofits.” And what does that label say subliminally to the lay person? That we really don’t care about money.

UK researchers once asked donors to guess, “What percentage of your gift does your favorite charity spend on its fundraising activities, rather than on programs?” Prepare yourself. Donors–yes, donors–believed that most of their gift–fully 65%–never went into the field. It was instead plowed back into fundraising and related overhead, leaving only a small share–a mere 35%–for changing the world. And yet they still gave. Imagine how much more they might have given had they only known the truth.

Prime messaging opportunity

Of course you’re protesting: “That’s so unfair! We pour almost everything we’re given directly into programs. We spend as little as possible on fundraising.” You know that. I know that. But your donors don’t know that. You have to remind them of your organization’s dedication to transparency, accountability, and financial health frequently on your website, in your direct mail, in your face-to-face solicitations and in every issue of your newsletter.

Go ahead, check right now. I’ll wait.

Bruce Campbell, a pioneering researcher into donor attitudes and behavior, found that “information regarding how finances are used” was among donors’ top concerns. They wonder: “Did you spend my money on paper clips and business lunches? Or did you really use my gift to change the world?” Don’t leave your donors guessing on this point. They will guess wrong…and not in your favor. One real reason renewal rates, retention rates and long-term loyalty stubbornly remain so abysmally low is because donor skepticism has been left to fester.

What an opportunity….

How you can win

I teach that “the charities with the best ‘thank-you’s’ win.” But it’s the same with trust: the charities that establish amongst their donors a strong sense of trustworthiness will win in the long run.

See also:

Seeing Through A Donor’s Eyes

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Playing to lose

What happens when know-nothings are allowed to outvote the fundraiser? A sure-fire recipe for failure.

I blinked. Yet the dreaded words didn’t change.

“The internal team,” the email stated, “has some concerns about the direct mail you wrote. We need to talk.”

The internal team? Here we go again, said the frustrated little general in my brain.

Fact: I know the résumés of this particular “internal team.” I know that no one on this “internal team” has any training in direct mail. Not one iota. Which makes their opinions, ipso facto, professionally worthless.

Untrained staff and board cannot accurately judge professionally-crafted direct mail. It’s impossible. Mailed appeals are a counter-intuitive enterprise, based on neuroscience, decades of testing, empiricism, and acquired skill sets of surprising depth and complexity.

The opinions of the untutored simply do NOT count in direct mail. Quite the opposite: acting on untutored opinions can only decrease or eliminate income. Direct mail is a sales medium that brutally punishes presumptions. You either know what you’re doing. Or you don’t. And direct mail virgins guess wrong 110% of the time.

That doesn’t mean an untrained internal review team is powerless. On the contrary: their silly, ignorant opinions can easily – often do – destroy any chance that a direct mail appeal will succeed. Makeshift, unfounded opinions (“We can’t have a P.S. on our appeal. It’s undignified.” True story.) cost charities untold fortunes in unraised gifts around the world. I see it all the time.

I’m talking to you, Mr. Boss. I’m talking to you, Ms. Board Chair. And I’m talking to you, carping colleague.

Personally, I insist on the Verbatim Rule. New clients looking for a direct mail writer must promise me that they will send out what I create without changing one word.

It’s the only sane policy.

And that’s also why I strongly advise that development directors have sole and tyrannical control over all donor communications.

No colleague veto. No boss veto. No board-chair veto. Again, it’s the only sane policy.

Let me repeat: ONLY the chief fundraiser gets to approve donor communications … appeals, newsletters, and thanks. Period. No exceptions.

In a sane world.

…. And then there’s real life ….

Remember the “internal team”?

They had three “concerns” with my direct mail appeal.

First, the boss was concerned that the letter didn’t sound like him. So he was reluctant to sign it. “Could it be,” he ventured, “written to sound more like me?”

If you think that this is a reasonable request, then you need to revisit a good how-to book like Mal Warwick’s How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters or Jeff Brooks’ groundbreaking new book on direct mail writing from Emerson & Church.

Direct mail doesn’t “sound like” people.

For one thing, the machinery of persuasion is always grinding away in the background of a direct mail appeal. A competent writer is focused on inserting all sorts of emotional triggers that can lead to “yes.”

Also, there are loads of technical demands that must be met, for the appeal to raise the most it can: multiple asks on every page, for instance; and huge infusions of donor love.

People don’t talk this way. So, no, Mr. Boss, it cannot “sound like you.” This is not ventriloquism. A direct mail appeal is not your hand puppet.

Second, the VP in charge of this client’s education reform effort – which was the subject of this particular appeal – was concerned about the tone.

He didn’t like the heavy use of the word “you” in the appeal. He wanted the charity’s PR consultants to rewrite the letter … in a proper, elevated corporate tone: “We did this great thing. We did that great thing.” Impersonal.

See, this is what I mean. This knucklehead’s presumption about tone has been wrong since the beginning of fundraising – yet, he doesn’t even suspect that truth.

Not only are people like this ignorant, because they don’t know the subject at hand (how to properly talk to prospects and donors). People like this are also stupid, because they don’t know that they don’t know.

And they’re not just cute and annoying. They are toxins. If they were suddenly gifted with self-awareness, they’d fire themselves for incompetence. Instead, they congratulate themselves for sagacity.

Finally, the new hire in production spoke up. He was concerned that the letter was too long. To lend weight to his opinion, he claimed to have direct mail experience.

Working for the Good Lord’s House of Failure, I guess.

This ninny offered to take all my one-sentence paragraphs and bullet lists and everything else that made the letter easy to skim … and pack it all down into tight, dense paragraphs, so the letter would fit on one page rather than two.

“And we’ll save money on printing!”

I’ll be blunt: what an idiot. And he’s the new hire, so get used to it.

This is a big charity. It presents itself to its donors as a major change agent, a home for innovation and smarts.

And yet the “internal team has concerns.”

Talking about change in the cozy, self-congratulatory world of staff meetings – and actually welcoming the sometimes horrifying unknowns of change – are very different enterprises. One of my favorite fundraising analysts, Jonathan Grapsas, has some wise words on change inside nonprofits.

See also:

How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money

Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes

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Don’t “blandify” your message, be bold

I read a blog post today called “Why Steve Jobs and I Hate Charity” by one of our featured authors, Joe Waters, who has generated a lot of mixed responses with this post, some even angry. I can’t help but be happy for him. Call me crazy, but this month I have author Tom Ahern backing me up on this one. We’re currently featuring his new book, How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money (Emerson & Church Publishing, 2011) at CausePlanet.

“Content that interests your reader is mandatory,” says Ahern. He says we should ask if our message is bold and passionate. (Not bland, predictable or boring.) I would say Joe Water’s post meets these requirements on all counts.

One of Tom Ahern’s chapters in particular had me jumping out of my seat because it’s so rarely discussed, much less overcome in the workplace. The chapter is called “On the delicate subject of committee and board approvals.” Tom’s remarks in this chapter further support the priority we must all put on preserving communications that are bold, controversial and surprising. Tom argues that your board and committee’s instincts and good intentions aren’t enough. Effective communications are, in Ahern’s opinion, 99 percent science and one percent art. You are a professional. You’ve done the research and understand what makes communications effective. Committees tend to “blandify” the piece and scrub away the bold, the controversial and the crazy surprises you’ve worked hard to incorporate into your piece, says Ahern.

I was so enthusiastic about this opinion after having survived numerous direct mail pieces written by committee over the years that I asked more about the subject in our interview and here’s what Tom had to say:

CausePlanet: We love chapter eight about how to mitigate the influence of committee or board approval on the written appeal. How liberating! Would you say the same rules apply for management?

Tom Ahern: There are two kinds of bosses: those who trust their employees and those who don’t. The trusting boss says to the fundraiser, “Look, this is your area of expertise. And it’s your neck on the line. Do what you think is best.” If that’s not your kind of boss, start looking for a new job.

Tom explains his book that there are seven ways you can guarantee poor results. I would argue that number seven needs to added as I’ve done below. Then again, he did dedicate an entire chapter to the subject.

  1. You don’t target your audience narrowly enough: You must sharpen your message by grouping your constituency by donors (at least two gifts), prospects (shown some interest or lapsed donors) and suspects (might yield a gift but show no proof yet of interest). The second layer of grouping is segmentation by demographics (age, sex, income, educational level, number of children or zip code) and psychographics or “lifestyle traits” (values, beliefs, attitudes and interests).
  2. You don’t know what your BIG message is: Choose one message for each target audience and beat that message to death for a few years. That’s how you get results, says Ahern.
  3. You don’t repeat your messages often enough: Marketers cite the “rule of seven,” which means you must bring the same message to a target audience at least seven times in an 18-month period in order for that message to penetrate.
  4. You don’t have real goals: Every goal should be concrete, measurable, achievable and worth doing.
  5. You think “bland” is a safe choice: You have to be BOLD to capture a person’s attention in today’s hyperactive messaging environment. Bold always outsells bland.
  6. You have unreasonable expectations: You hope for blockbusters. Instead, have patience with the slow trickle of interest. It will soon amount to a river of support, says Ahern.
  7. You use a committee and board approval process: Your board or committee’s instincts and good intentions aren’t enough. Effective fundraising communications are, in Ahern’s opinion, 99 percent science and one percent art. Professionals on staff have done the research and understand what makes a communications piece effective. Committees tend to feed each other’s doubts; they “blandify” the piece and scrub away the bold, the controversial and the crazy surprises you’ve worked hard to incorporate. (See # 5.)

Thanks, Joe, for the great post and keep your readers guessing. You have us in your court. Visit

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