The answer is “the list, the list and the list”. Can you guess the question?

If you said: “What are the three most important things in fundraising” you are correct!

In real estate it’s location, location, location. In fundraising it’s list, list, list.

You can have brilliant copy and design but if you use the “wrong” list your mailing will bomb. On the other hand, you can have mediocre copy and design, but if you use the right list, you can still have great results.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the list. Choosing the list should be the first thing you do for an acquisition mailing. The list you use should influence the nature of the creative. Strategy, copy and design should be tailored to the list. For example, if your list has a lot of seniors, the type size should be larger than average.

Here’s how the right list can generate a great response, with virtually no copy or design. A fishing lodge sends out a postcard to its best customers with just two words: “They’re biting!” The mailing gets a 100% response.

Your best list and the one you can truly rely on is of course your own donor/member list. But there’s a limit as to how many times you can ask your loyal donors for money in a year. Plus no matter how effective your donor retention strategy, some attrition is inevitable. You will lose donors each year, so you must have an ongoing program to replenish and add to your donor base. Also a strategy for lapsed-donor reactivation will usually pay large dividends, even if it has been years since their last gift.

Building and replenishing your list should be an ongoing high-priority project. The goal of gathering names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses must be top-of-mind at every opportunity and whenever there is an interaction with the public. And remember, every name you collect is valuable until proven otherwise. You never know where your next major donor is coming from.

There are various ways that you can amass a list of names. You can create some kind of a special event and invite the public to attend. You can advertise and offer a free newsletter on your website and on any print materials you produce. You can ask your donor/members, your board members and your staff and volunteers to supply prospect names and/or to recruit members.

In other words, use every method you can to get the names, addresses, etc. of potential donors. And be sure to promise that you will respect their privacy and that you will never sell their information.

Donor lists generally do best. While carefully selected compiled lists can do well, donor lists generally do best.And that makes sense. Someone who already gives to a charity will have a “propensity” to give. That means they will be more likely to give to your charity than someone who does not already give to charity.

Back in an earlier newsletter (#4) the notion of “writing to responders” was discussed as a way to get better response. Mailing to a donor list is doing exactly that – writing/mailing to responders.

And if you can find donor lists that are targeted, they will usually work even better. That’s why you should have an accurate profile of your typical donor – so your list broker or agency can better target.

A good list is an investment that may take time to pay off

Response rates these days can be quite low – anywhere from ½% to 1%. If you can do better than 1% you are doing well. With response rates that low, it is very possible that you will not receive enough revenue in the first mailing to pay the total costs of the mailing. The better your list, the better chance you have of receiving enough funds to cover the cost of the mailing.

But your primary goal in an acquisition mailing should not be to cover the cost of the mailing, If you do, wonderful! If you don’t, no problem. You should view that acquisition mailing as an investment in future revenue. Remember – all those who responded are now your donors. You earned those names and you can mail to them as often as you like.

Each one of those newly acquired donors represents a stream of revenue for your organization – a Lifetime Donor Value. The LDV is important because it gives you revenue parameters to use when you’re evaluating acquisition costs.

Ideally, a list should be tested before rolling out with a large mailing. If you’re a smaller fundraising organization this can be hard to do. To have a reasonably reliable result – a number you can count on when you roll out – the rule of thumb is to have around 50 responses. That means if you’re response rate is in the typical 1% area, you’d need to mail at least 5,000 pieces.

Smaller mailers sometimes try testing smaller amounts. Trouble is, you just can’t rely on the result to repeat on a rollout. Using a small statistically invalid test to make a decision is not much better than flipping a coin. And flipping a coin is a lot easier.

Components: What should you include in your fundraising package?

The three essentials – the outer envelope, the reply form and the return envelope.

1. Every fundraising package must have one: THE OUTER ENVELOPE

Your outer envelope is critical. No matter how heart-warming your story or compelling your letter or noble your cause, it is all to no avail if the envelope doesn’t get opened. That decision – to open or not to open – is made in just 2 or 3 seconds. And sadly, most direct mail envelopes lose that decision. They get tossed without even being opened. And that includes fundraising envelopes.

Of course if you are mailing to existing donors, this is not the case. Your donors will open just about anything you send them. But when you are doing an acquisition mailing, your envelope is the vital first step in getting a new donor. In fact, your envelope strategy is so important we’ll soon be devoting a newsletter entirely to it.

The two workhorse outers for fundraising are the #10 (9 1/2 x 4 1/8) and the #8 (6 1/2  x 3  5/8) window envelopes. Sometimes, if the situation calls for it, another approach, such as a 6 x 9, a 9 x 12 or invitation type of envelope can be effective.

The big question is, should your envelope have teaser copy on it? This is one of those situations that can be answered only through testing. The only thing you can assume with reasonable certainty is that a plain envelope will probably work better than an envelope with “lame” teaser copy. Simply, no teaser is usually better than a lousy teaser.

2. You have to offer them an easy way to give you their gift: the REPLY FORM

It is critical to personalize the reply form so the person merely has to fill in their credit card number or enclose a check. This is far more important than personalizing the letter because it makes responding so much easier.

If you want to personalize both the letter and the reply form, you can it do it economically by using 8 ½  x 14 paper and creating a perfed 8 ½ x 3 reply form at the bottom of the letter. Letter and reply form can then be personalized and printed at the same time. Just be sure to design it so that the address shows through your outer envelope window.

3. You have to give them an easy way to send their gift: the BRE and CRE

You want to make it easy to respond so a reply envelope should always be included. It’s worth testing whether you should use a BRE with postage paid or a CRE where the responder has to use their own stamp. If the response with the CRE is close to that with the BRE, it will likely pay to use the CRE, considering you have to pay first-class postage plus a handling fee for each envelope you receive back.

Two extra steps you can take with the reply envelope are . . .

Print on the front of the BRE or CRE “To the attention of . . ” or “Please forward to . .” [the person who signed the letter]. It adds a touch of immediacy and urgency.

On the BRE, the words “Your stamp will save us money” under the postage-paid indicia, will motivate some responders to apply their own stamp.

Two common non-essentials: the BROCHURE and LIFT LETTER

When do you need a brochure? Certainly not all the time. Tests have shown that a brochure can actually depress response because it can take readership away from the letter. A person will spend only so much time with a direct mail package. If too much time is spent with a brochure, that takes time away from the letter. And since the letter is the strongest sales tool, response can fall. In fundraising, the old adage “the brochure tells, the letter sells” is particularly true. The key to response is to appeal to emotion, and the letter format does that better than a brochure.

An effective brochure could be a report printed on inexpensive paper showing how funds raised are spent. Or if your cause has been written about in the media, articles reprinted on newsprint add big impact and cost little. Your brochure solution may be as simple as adding a photocopied article into the package with a handwritten blurb at the top.

There are some situations where a brochure may be necessary. For example . . .

  • If you have to teach the reader
  • If you have too much necessary information for a letter
  • If there are photos or visuals that will help your case

Bottom line – you should probably test to see if you need it.

And finally, the other common component is the lift letter. Unlike the brochure, the lift letter can be used to appeal to emotion and it usually works to lift response. My experience has been that a well-crafted lift letter with an effective message and signed by the right person (different from the person who signed the mail letter) can add valuable impact and increase response far beyond the cost. In fact, it’s one of the few things you can confidently do in this direct mail business without testing. It’s almost a sure thing.


11 more design tips for maximum response

Last time we looked at how to design your fundraising letter for maximum response. This time we’ll look at a few other aspects of design in the fundraising package that will help you achieve maximum response. For example…

1. If you have an element in your package with a photo or illustration, always use a caption with it. The visual will attract attention so you should take advantage of that by having a caption that relates to the photo or illustration plus builds the case for a donation. Simply, a photo or illustration without a caption is an opportunity lost.

2. Do not make the mistake of running a headline or even worse, running body copy across photos or illustrations. It reduces the effectiveness of the visual and makes the copy hard to read.  Usually best to have the headline above the visual with a caption below.

3. And speaking of a lost opportunity for copy, most mailers don’t use the back of the envelope. Think about it. In order to open the envelope, you have to turn it over to get under the flap, so you spend a fair bit of time on the back. It’s a good place to write some extra copy.

4. Here’s a small tip that will help get the letter read in its entirety. It’s a tactic that takes a bit of effort but should help get the reader to turn to page two. What you do is, ensure that the first page of your letter ends in the middle of a sentence and if possible in the middle of an important thought. This forces the person to turn the page to find out how the sentence ends. One problem is that the “board” or others who must approve the letter will tell you that you shouldn’t do this. But they are the same people who tell you not to begin a sentence with “and” or “but”. And they must be reminded that they are not professional copywriters.

5. Usually we want the reader to read the letter first because it is the most powerful selling tool in the package. One way to help that to happen is to repeat the envelope copy at the top of the letter. That way, especially if the letter is nested in the envelope properly, the first thing the reader sees when they open the envelope is something familiar. They go to it and read from there as a continuation of the process that enticed them to open the envelope.

6. Here’s something that is not a “must” but is almost sure to increase response. If your budget can afford an involvement device, like a sticker, use it. It almost invariably will increase response. But it does add cost so you have to test to be sure that the increase in response pays for the increased cost.

7. Here is something to avoid – setting type in reverse (white type on a black or coloured background) when there is more than just a sentence or two. More than that and reading is too difficult. Readers hate copy set in reverse but unfortunately, designers love it and continue to use it.

8. And another thing to avoid – not having enough contrast between the type and the background. Setting blue type on a 20% blue screen background may look nice but it won’t get read. You need to have lots of contrast and best of course is black type on a white background.

9. Do not put a period at the end of a headline, even if it is a sentence. The purpose of a headline is to attract attention and motivate the reader to read more. A period is a subconscious message that says “the end” so the reader is getting a mixed message. Granted this is a very small thing but all the small things can add up to make a difference.

10. Avoid numerous type-styles and faces within your package. Some people are still smitten with the ability to use various faces and then reverse, bold, italicize or outline each one of them. Remember, the best typesetting is never noticed by the reader.

11. And finally, avoid using too small a type face in the letter or in the brochure. This is absolutely critical when your audience is older. And if you absolutely must use a small typeface because of space limitations, use a sans serif face – it is easier to read when small.

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