Fundraising Letters - Getting Results Through Direct Mail Appeals

"Yesterday I received a call from the head of the state's Department of Human Services. I was flattered and a little surprised that she would be calling me. Unfortunately, the news wasn't good. After telling me how much she admired our initiatives and was impressed with our year-end results, she let me know that the budget for our programs would be cut..."

That's an example of the opening of a fundraising letter. It is designed to engage the reader in a personal way. Read on to learn how to create fundraising letters to generate significant income for your organization.
In the age of email and text messages we still check to see what the mailman brings each day. Often it contains an appeal. Nonprofit organizations have used this method of fundraising for many years because it works. It is primarily a way to ask friends of your organization to make a contribution. Let's explore seven components of a successful direct mail appeal.
1.  Creating and Maintaining Your List

Before you write the first word of your letter, make sure you have a great mailing list. Your database needs to in excellent shape so you can easily print out letters and/or mailing labels. If you are building your list all year long by adding new friends, updating addresses and names as needed and then you are always ready to go. If not, make it a priority before you mail!
It is possible to pay for lists of names to mail your appeal to. If you choose to do this you will want to know as much as possible about your key prospects, by understanding who is currently in your database - the profile of who cares enough about your organization to have given money in the past - you will be able to look for others like them.
There are two types of lists available: compiled and direct response.  Compiled list are taken from directories, phone books, motor vehicle records, etc.  They are available by zip code or, to be more targeted, you could also specify income level, age or other criteria.  A direct response list includes people who have responded to direct marketing or fundraising appeals similar to yours (note: you could sell your list so other organizations might use it).  You could research these lists online, at the library or through a list broker.
2. Mailing Your Letter

Postage is a major expense and an important consideration. Many nonprofits are eligible for reduced postage rates. Explore that possibility if you haven't already done so. These rates only apply when you are doing a mass mailing. If your mailing is large and to a very limited geographic area (for example, you are mailing to every home in your town of 5000 households) this may work quite well.
You can probably expect quicker delivery if you use first class mail. Placing a stamp on a letter adds to its value in the eyes of the receiver. The same is true for a printed or hand written address, rather than a label. The more mail resembles personal correspondence the better the chance it will be opened.
3. Writing a Letter that Works

There have been many, many tests done to show what gets the best results in direct mail. The overwhelming winner is a long letter. Not a postcard, not a brochure, nothing fancy - just an old fashioned letter. 
Don't overlook the word "long." Logic tells us that shorter is better. Ignore logic because a long (more than one page) letter has been proven to work best.
Start with an attention grabbing device: a quote, a personal story, an amazing fact, a heartbreaking statistic. Your letter should be personal and engaging. It should quickly draw you in and make you want to read. While it is true that the recipient may not read every word, he will generally read the beginning and the end. The end is a strongly worded call to action in a postscript (or two). 
The reader will also look for a signature, ideally from someone they know and respect. The letter should be signed by the person whose voice makes the most sense for the story your letter is telling. 
A letter allows you to speak directly to your prospect. The words "I" and "me" and "you" are important to create a one-on-one feeling. Remember just one person is reading your letter at a time. So don't write in the plural, even if your mailing is going out to thousands of people. Write it like you are talking to a friend about what you care about and what desperately needs to be done.
The letter does not have to be on letterhead. Something that looks like your personal stationary would be ideal.  The size could be smaller than 8.5 x 11, again so it looks like stationary.
4. Asking for a Contribution

It must be clear what the purpose of your letter is. You want a contribution. You might stipulate exactly what that money will do. Let donors know that $500 will provide a special program for your daycare center, while $250 will provide safety equipment for the playground. This can be stated in the letter and repeated on the remittance envelope.
Let the reader know exactly what next step to take.  A remittance envelope is important! Make sure it is easy to use and ready to go and it is postage free or pre-stamped.
5. Timing Your Mailing

Most nonprofits send an appeal letter in November or early December, timed with the holidays and year-end giving habits. Try to avoid mailing arriving too close to a holiday. You may test sending two appeal letters a year and carefully measure the results.
Donors do respond to special needs. Going back to the opening of this article, that sample letter may be sent out this week to ask for contributions to continue funding a popular program that has lost state funding due to budget cuts.
Repeat mailings may also work just because you may reach the person on a better day, a "friendlier" member of the household may receive the mail that day or the timing may just be right.
6. Attention Getting Inserts

Surprise them by putting something in the envelope.  Insert something small, lightweight and relevant in the envelope of an appeal letter.  You may include a small insert of brightly colored paper with a fact, an offer or an additional appeal printed on it.
I wrote appeal letters for the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts  and contributions increased by 50%.  We enclosed wood shavings in the envelope (the opening story made reference to the shavings). The next year we used sheep's wool. These were free, relevant and they worked!
7. Testing

Always measure the response you receive to your mailing. You should have figures from previous years to use as a starting point or control. There are several ways you can test direct mail. You could start with a small sampling and measure the response. You might do two different letters and do what is called an A/B split. Or you might change just one factor (size, who signs it...) to see what the results are.
Be sure to track your expenses and the income your receive. Not only will you measure it against other mailings but you may want to look at whether this is the best way to get money from all or part of your list. And do not send an appeal asking for $100 to your $20,000 a year donor!
Sending fundraising letters is a proven method of fundraising. Spend time evaluating and rethinking yours before you start writing.

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