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.

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.

How to design your fundraising letter for maximum response

In the last newsletter we extolled the virtues of long copy. This newsletter will go over a few design guidelines that will help ensure your long copy gets read. And that in a nutshell is the sole purpose of design in direct mail – to get the copy read. Design on its own does not sell. But it is critical because if it doesn’t do its job, the copy will not get read and response will suffer.

In general, design plays a very secondary role in fundraising. When you’re asking for money to support your cause, expensive looking packages may seem wasteful to the reader and convey the wrong impression.

On the whole, most of the same design rules that apply to all direct mail apply to fundraising. One major difference is that the format and the components are not as variable as in other direct mail. You will rarely see self-mailers, postcards, catalogs, magalogs or the like. They don’t work in fundraising because they don’t have the personal feeling and can’t trigger the emotional reaction that only an envelope mailing can provide.

And that’s why in fundraising the format is generally the traditional direct mail package – an outer envelope containing a letter, a reply device and a BRE (business reply envelope – postage paid) or CRE (courtesy reply envelope – postage not paid). Here are a few basic design guidelines for these components that will help maximize response:

White space: How to make your letter look easy to read

As in all direct mail, the letter is by far the most important element. It does the main job of selling. You have to design your letter so that it looks like it will be easy to read. And that means for starters, your letter should have lots of white space. Nothing turns a reader off like staring at a page that is dense with type. It looks like a challenge and hard work so they don’t even begin to read.

To create that spacious look your letter should follow the same basic rules as in other direct mail letters, such as:

  • Short sentences and short paragraphs. Long sentences and long paragraphs will give you that dense look you want to avoid. I try to keep my paragraphs no longer than 3 lines, 5 at most. And sometimes for emphasis, the paragraph may be only 1 line.
  • Indented paragraphs. Again, this will give you a little more of that vital white space.
  • At least a 1.25″ margin on the sides of an 8 ½ x 11 page. Again, more white space
  • Double space between paragraphs. This again creates more white space for easier readability.

7 design tips for your fundraising letter

  • Use black ink. Blue ink may be pretty but black ink is easier to read and it is what people are used to.
  • Use a serif typeface. Designers often like to use a sans-serif face because it is cleaner and more modern. And that may be true but a serif face is more readable. Case closed.
  • Underlining is good but don’t use color, especially don’t use red – it’s too much like “junk” mail. And don’t underline whole paragraphs – just key sentences and phrases. Remember, too much emphasis is no emphasis.
  • One tactic worth testing is to use handwritten notes in the margin of the letter. Just make sure they’re in the same handwriting and the same ink color as the signature (preferably blue). And as with underlining, be careful not to overdo – use a maximum of 2 or 3 notes in a letter.
  • Avoid all caps in the letter. All caps screams your message and screaming is not what you want to do in fundraising.
  • Remember that people who give to non-profits are usually older, so keep type sizes a bit larger – no smaller than 11 point Times Roman, better is 12 or 13.
  • Be careful not to look too expensive, especially with your choice of paper. Stick with inexpensive bond in white or near white color.
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