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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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It's February. Time to make another appeal.
Tom Ahern

January, 2009

It's February. Time to make another appeal.

Limit yourself to an annual appeal? Don't. Appeal to your supporters at least four times a year. Show them they matter: ask for their help.

And, by the way, four times is probably the minimum if you're at all serious about raising money through the mail. Less is dabbling. A single annual appeal is not a program, nor is it donor-centric.

Which is not at all the point of this e-news.

I have a few direct mail tips. From various experts. Maybe something here will help you raise more money from your next direct mail appeal.

Start your letter with an ultra-short paragraph.

A dense first paragraph: it's one of the more common mistakes made by would-be direct mail letter writers.

But a dense first paragraph -- I've seen them as long as 100 words -- looks suspiciously like work, which ends the meeting right there. You do not win new readers by giving them work. You win them by intriguing them -- blazingly fast.

It doesn't much matter what you say to open your letter, as long as it's short. "The purpose of the first sentence," writes Joseph Sugarman in his pretty fabulous Advertising Secrets of the Written Word, "is to get you to read the second sentence." Every sentence is its own paragraph. "Each sentence is so short and easy to read that your reader starts to read your copy almost as if being sucked into it."

Here are the complete and unabridged opening paragraphs from three successful direct mail letters:

• Welcome...I hope. (For an organization seeking new members.)
• This Memorial Day, you and I will share something special... (This was paragraph one in its entirety, ending in an ellipsis. Paragraph two finished the thought, beginning with an ellipsis: "....a memory of what Sharp HospiceCare did for a person we hold dear.")
• Here's my promise to you.

Make sure you're sending the right kind of letter.

I field a lot of inquiries in my three dozen or so workshops a year. And I confess myself a bit astonished. Many fundraisers, to judge from their questions, seem to assume you can send pretty much the same letter both to (1) prospects (anyone who hasn't recognized the organization's existence with a first gift) and (2) current donors.

One letter does not fit all. A basic direct mail program needs at least two kinds: renewal letters to solicit previous donors, and an acquisition letter to solicit prospects.
Renewal letters go to those who gave you a gift last year. These people have already demonstrated their interest in your cause and their willingness to fund it. They've seen your newsletter. You've kept them reasonably well informed. Chances are good they'll write you a check again, without giving it much thought. Expect a HIGH response rate, between 50% and 85%.

Acquisition letters go to people who have never given to you ... but for some reason you think they might. Be prepared: these people will be skeptical. They won't automatically write you a check. Even if you get everything right, expect a LOW response rate, as low as .5% (one out of every 200). If you do better that that, break out the champagne. You're above the industry standard.

Ask for an increase if it's a renewal letter.

Wise renewal letters don't just ask for another gift, they ask for a sizeable increase.

Why? Because most times you'll get what you ask for. It's easy money.

Chicago-based expert, Barbara Talisman, suggests you ask donors to double their previous gifts. If over the course of a year a person gave $25, this time ask for $50. If the total annual gift was $100, this time ask for $200. (Of course, if the previous gift was really big, pick up the phone.)

Try this. Gather a roomful of volunteers to write and sign a quick note at the end of each letter (or on the reply device), something like: "Your gift of $50 will mean so much. Thank you for considering it. - Molly Trumbull." A hand-signed note almost guarantees a stronger response.

Try a teaser on your envelope.

Mal Warwick hates (I'm paraphrasing) putting teaser messages on envelopes because they often don't test well.

But Bill Jayme -- by any measure also among America's all-time best direct mail copywriters -- firmly believed in teasers. His words: "Your outer envelope is where your prospect decides to stop, look and listen."

Look. What is the envelope's real purpose? Not to protect the stuff inside. The envelope's real purpose in life is to be opened. When someone opens your envelope, she's taken the first real step toward making a gift. And if someone doesn't open the envelope ... well, you get the idea.

This envelope teaser ultimately led to millions of new dollars for a community foundation:
Inside: A circle of influential friends awaits the pleasure of your company.

This envelope teaser brought in record amounts from prospects who'd made memorial gifts, typically an unresponsive group:
If you believe in Hospice as much as I do, open immediately...

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit and donor communications. His "Love Thy Reader" workshops win rave reviews at fundraising conferences across the U.S. and Canada.Tom's workshops have trained thousands of nonprofit staff and board in the revenue-building secrets of psychology, marketing, writing, and graphic design.

In 2005 he joined other world-class experts as a faculty member for the IFC's weeklong conference in the Netherlands, attended by fundraisers from 80 countries.He is the author of The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, released in October 2005 by Emerson & Church.

A second book titled How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money. John Wiley & Sons, the premier publisher of books for the nonprofit industry, in January 2006 contracted with Tom (and his wife, consultant Simone Joyaux) to produce a new book with the working title, Nonprofit Fundraising Communications: A Practical and Profitable Approach. Tom is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health, women's rights and other social justice issues. Visit


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