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Open my (fundraising) letter, please!
By Rick's StraightTalk / February 16, 2016

Why prospective donors toss your mail, unopened

One of my favorite offerings is a workshop about fundraising envelopes. Yup, just the envelopes.
Why envelopes? Because when it comes to opening mail, the people in the room (that’s you and me, too) are absolutely no different from the people we’re soliciting. We all toss out most of our mail, unopened. Don’t you?

I always start the workshop by asking how many people dump 90 percent or more unopened. Almost everyone. Ninety-five percent? Same number of hands, minus one or two. Someone will always yell out, “I throw it all out.” And I ask, “Without opening anything?” “That’s right. I do everything online.” Well, okay.

(As I was writing this, I got a call to present this workshop for the Women in Philanthropy in Western Massachusetts. The program’s coordinator told me she tears each unopened letter in half before dropping it in the recycling bin. A good way to get your day’s exercise, I guess.)
Then I go back to the few people who hadn’t raised their hands. They generally open about half their letters or the ones from their favorite charities. And, like the person who tosses everything, one person opens every letter. “I just don’t want to miss anything.” I understand.

Well, speaking to those of us who send letters: the 90% won’t read the stuff inside if they don’t open the envelope, right?

"Your first competitor is indifference"

So says branding expert Harry Beckwith. A boring envelope signals boring contents. Sadly, experience has proven that true. I open the envelope and I find just one more lackluster appeal for money.

I'm not saying your cause isn't worthy because you don't create a compelling envelope. Of course your cause is just. But you’re competing against 1.54 million nonprofits trying to raise $1.63 trillion for expenses. (And that’s just U.S. nonprofits.) 

Here are some examples that went right into recycling after I scanned them for you to see.

This is pretty typical of nonprofits. Disabled American Veterans assumes its name alone will get me to open the envelope. It appears low cost with a cheap addressograph label and an unprofessional return address stamp. I see however, it is coming from a national office in Cincinnati. Because of its strong brand, DAV is successful in many households, but I doubt it’s turning any new heads.

The Fresh Air Fund is another great cause: summer camperships for inner city kids (no, not Terry Gross' show on National Public Radio). But, whoopee! I can give to a year-end appeal! Even NPR is capable of more excitement than that.

Love Jobs with Justice. I used to share a bathroom with them (and 12 other grassroots groups) about 30 years ago in an abandoned factory. But if I didn't know them, I'd toss the envelope in a second. I'm not the least bit curious what's inside.

Another famous name, with a see-through envelope label. But you and I know there's some slick marketing piece inside that reads just like every other national organization. First I wonder how much they are paying for this mailing. Then I toss it. Your local nonprofit has the advantage here; you can be personal, about the neighborhood, about the issues, about the people.

Okay, fewer words, more examples

Direct mail is a science, not an art. As such, marketers test everything about an envelope:
  • Color and quality of paper and type
  • shape and size of envelope
  • postage stamp or bulk mail indicia (Herschell Gordon Lewis, Direct Mail Copy That Sells, recommends a postage meter)
  • typeface (gotten any 'hand-addressed' mail yet?)

Truth is, some methods work until consumers catch on to them. Then direct mail marketers have to find something new. The current trend is, well, look at the bottom of this e-blast.

Here are some current samples that made me at least stop and think. Most should fit into reasonable budgets; you just have to pay for printing the envelope.

"Hey, I get something for free" (benefits)

The following envelopes appeal to our desire to get some kind of benefit (other than moral) from giving to charity. Your organization does have something to offer: maps of great hiking trails, 10 tips on choosing a doctor, a down-to-earth explanation of charitable giving. No, you're not going to Hell by "selling" your nonprofit. You’re furthering your mission by giving people something you want them to have.

Words you might find yourself using: "free" and "enclosed". (If you look closely, you can see when I've torn open an envelope. That means I was hooked.)

There are two "benefits" above. One is the grocery voucher. The other is the ability to double your gift through a matching challenge. Matches are very popular. As a donor, I feel like I've been given an opportunity to do more for the same price.

Not surprisingly, some statistics show that free tote bags, stuffed animals, and other giveaways lead to short, superficial relationships. But hey, who can turn down a plush polar bear?

"What the heck is inside?" (curiosity)

Some envelopes raise questions whose answers you just have to know. Nobody is better than Planned Parenthood.

What's worse than coming after you with "everything they've got?" I have to know!

Come on, don’t you want to know the six easy steps to unintended pregnancies? I mean, I only know one of them.

Note the ripped envelope. I know BJs is a business, but I had to know: what could possibly be "The Ultimate Offer"? 

Sometimes the envelope itself just begs to be opened. The United Farm Workers sent me a paper bag.
Copywriter (not the poet) Robert Bly suggests you include something that can be felt in the envelope. It doesn't have to be expensive, something like a calendar magnet. Gets me every time. I mean, every time.

"I'm special" (exclusivity)

Make me feel special, even elite, and you’ll get my biggest gifts (think about how you got your biggest donors). Herschell Gordon Lewis says four words are key: "private", "advance" (as in “advance notice”), "invitation", and "exclusive".

I was just out of college when I got my first select "invitation" from the Smithsonian to join its Society. (It was written on papyrus with sheep's blood.) Glad to see that four decades later I'm still part of a "select group", even though I've never joined. Note that the Smithsonian offers "exclusivity" and "2 free thank you gifts" on one envelope.

I have friends in high places. I regularly get mail from the Clintons, Obama, and Jimmy Carter. Used to get mail from the late great Paul Newman, now it comes from his wife Joanne Woodward. I get letters from famous writers too. Says so, right on the envelope. Jealous?

Doesn't get any more obvious than this, does it? "We're not for everyone..." My son scored quite high on the SATs (must get it from his mother) and he got four or five letters like this every day for months. A good time to give a shout out to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which has been fighting the inherent racism and sexism of standardized testing for at least 25 years. I take every opportunity to credit Bob Schaeffer as one of the two most important mentors in my professional life. Hey Bob!

"Uh, oh!" (fear)

I'm disappointed in Consumer Reports (logo on opposite side). Getting reliable information is harder than making healthcare decisions? Really? That's just silly. But slightly different wording and an offer could have been a homerun given everyone’s concerns about healthcare (except the Republicans, I guess).

A different kind of fear. This IRS-like envelope had no further identifying information on the reverse side. It was from the local Subaru dealership. (Comes in a government-brown version, too.) My next car was a Honda.

"To dream the impossible dream!" (a call to arms)

Nonprofits should excel at enthusiastically stating the essential challenge. That's what makes the boring envelopes above so unforgiveable. Tell your prospective supporter what he or she is fighting for when they support your organization.

"I'm so embarrassed" (guilt)

Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving. Lots of nonprofit folks believe that anyone who isn’t supporting their cause should feel guilty. The topic would make a great panel discussion.
That said, guilt can be used in strange ways. Here are a couple:

Can you really ignore this plea? Al Gore made it clear that you (personally) are responsible. This envelope always splits my workshop participants violently. Half want to send money then and there; the other half calls such pictures pandering. (Either way, you can get the free plush toy on the other side, shown above.)

There's no way I'm throwing away an envelope that has money showing. Plus, I can always use address labels. But apparently many donors feel obligated (another shade of guilt) to send a donation in exchange for the nickel. Personally, I can get the nickel out of the envelope without unleashing (too much) guilt.

Boston’s public radio begs you not to recycle

This envelope (both sides) consistently gets a lot of votes from my classes. It takes the issue of recycling right on: 



And the (current) winner is… 

…a blank envelope. A surprising number of my workshop folks were willing to take a chance and toss out an envelope with no identification, but most were not. Until, of course, we all catch up to that ploy, too.

Other taglines

Other envelope lines from direct mail genius Mal Warwick

  • ENCLOSED: Your first real chance to tell the National Rifle Association to go to hell... (Handgun Control, Inc)
  • Would you go to jail to keep a puppy from being tortured? WE ARE! (Last Chance for Animals)
  • Why don't woodpeckers get headaches? (Boston Public Library Foundation)
  • How Sister Alice became GRANDMA (Missionary Sisters Of The Immaculate Conception)
  • Will you be killed by a handgun in the next 23 minutes? (Back flap): Someone will be. (Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control 

Two last ideas

  1. Save sample envelopes you love (and hate), and
  2. Test ideas on your friends and family. Don't give them more than four seconds to look at the envelope.

That’s it. Thanks for reading. I’ll write Part 2 of this eblast – 9 basics about the inside of a direct mail – pretty soon.

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