The blank outside envelope – is it a good idea for your fundraising appeals?

People say that if you want to increase the open rates for direct mail fundraising, use a blank outside envelope. No teaser. No organization logo. Nothing to signal that it’s a fundraising letter or even whom it’s coming from.

Or, you use teasers and other markings (like “Time sensitive”) that are so vague they provide no indication about what might be inside.

The theory, of course, is that the mystery of the blank or the intentionally vague outside envelope will entice donors to rip it open to see what’s inside.

That theory is probably right. After all, who can resist the blank outer envelope? Not many of us! You just have to know what’s inside, don’t you?

But … what happens when you do open the envelope and realize it’s something you don’t want, don’t need, don’t care about, or don’t see the relevance of, and you simply toss the whole appeal? What have we really achieved? It’s the fundraising equivalent of ‘made you look!’

Another way to approach the whole outside-envelop thing is to take a piece of advice from DM guru George Duncan. He maintains that direct mail is theater in print. And the outside envelope is where we set the stage.

One of the most important parts of the outer envelope, George says, is the corner card, the return address in the upper left-hand corner. It’s one of the main things recipients look at. Is this from somebody I know or want to know? If you’ve effectively targeted your donor, the answer will be yes.

That’s part of the battle. Another part centers around three kinds of teasers:

  1. The offer teaser: Here you present donors with a specific proposition. An example would be something like, “Your gift multiplies 4X in impact to save starving children in Africa.” This kind of approach tends to work best when you know your donors and what they want.
  2. The benefit teaser: This approach is all about a promise or benefit for the reader. An example would be something like, “Celebrate the most joyous Thanksgiving ever by transforming the life of someone who’s homeless.” Just like the offer teaser, the benefit needs to be something that resonates with your donors.
  3. The curiosity teaser: Here we get a little oblique with the messaging. It could be something like, “Why Amina will thank you with tears in her eyes.” You want to tell just enough so that your donor sort of has a feeling about what the letter might be about but isn’t really sure. That’s what gives the curiosity teaser its power. But of the three it’s the riskiest.

Setting the stage with the outer envelope doesn’t always mean using a teaser. But in many cases, it will. The variations in envelope types and teasers are endless. A fancy, invitation-looking envelope with a simple “R.S.V.P” on the front might set the stage very well. So could a simple No. 10 envelop with a benefit teaser that connects. It all depends. What we’re aiming for is to stop our donor in her tracks when she sees the envelope and have it be so compelling and so relevant that she can’t wait to open it up, and then once she does, to have her expectations confirmed that this is in fact something that she’s very interested in. Setting the stage like that, you generate interest with the outer envelope and then sustain that interest with the content inside, making it easy for donors to get engaged with the mailing. And give.

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When donor centrism is at odds with your donors

Donor centrism means putting the donor at the center of the organization’s fundraising and, in fact, everything the organization does. It means, as fundraising expert Simone Joyaux says, building trust — trust that donors play a critical role in the charity’s success, trust that the charity does worthwhile things with donations, and trust that the charity operates efficiently.

It’s the ideal that charities aspire to, or should.

But what happens when the work your organization is committed to doing is suddenly at odds with what your donors want? This is what that the ACLU has grappled with after the events in Charlottesville, Va., in August.

You’ll recall that white supremacist groups marched in Charlottesville and were countered by anti-fascist protestors.

What’s less widely known is that city officials tried to revoke the permit to protest removal of the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue. The city wanted to move the protest out of the downtown location to an open area about a mile away for easier crowd control. The city was sued by the ACLU, and the judge ruled against the city. The protest took place in downtown Charlottesville as originally planned.

The ACLU was of course acting in accordance with its mission to defend the rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution. But donors were outraged. A board member even resigned over it.

Further complicating the problem, the ACLU is one of the many charities that benefitted from the so-called Trump bump – a big increase in donations after the election of Donald Trump. The donors who gave probably did so as a form of protest against the kind of nationalism that the ACLU appeared to defend.

So where does that leave the ACLU? Have they broken trust with their donors? And does that mean they’re not donor centric?

For that matter, should any charity ever act in ways that differ from its donors’ wishes? Or does a charity have the obligation to pursue its mission and act on its ideals regardless of the consequences? And if so, should the charity expect its donors to come along with them and continue to give, or should the charity assume that some donors will fall away in cases like this, and just chalk it up to attrition?

These questions go to the core of what it means to be donor centric. Usually, when we talk about donor centrism, it centers around using “you” in fundraising copy, thanking donors properly, getting donor data right to avoid embarrassing mistakes, reporting back to donors about outcomes, and so on.

These are critical, no doubt about it. But as the episode with the ACLU shows, donor centrism goes straight to the charity’s core and its mission.

In situations like this, the charity has to determine its next steps wisely.

One thing’s for certain, though. An issue like the ACLU faces is not one to address in your fundraising, because that puts you in the position of explaining and educating.

That’s not a good position to be in because, first, it pulls you away from your main goal of generating funds. Second, it’s a low-involvement strategy, because donors don’t want to be educated by the charities they support. The response to this kind of approach will likely be dismal. And third, it gets donors to think, and fundraising works best when we can get donors to feel something about the cause or the need.

Some ways to counter bad press could include blog posts, Facebook posts, videos on YouTube, talking with reporters, and other PR strategies. Some of which the ACLU has done.

But more to the point, in an act of donor centrism, the ACLU has recently changed its policy. According to PBS, the ACLU will no longer represent supremacist groups that demonstrate with guns. And that, no doubt, will go a long way toward re-establishing trust with donors.

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The 10 Percent Solution in Fundraising. Or, Why Messaging Rules

The standard in direct marketing, whether it’s fundraising or for-profit marketing, is that the mailing list will account for 60 percent of your success or failure … the offer accounts for 30 percent … and the creative? Just 10 percent.

This is based on decades of marketing history, and it’s indisputable. But …

Even though creative may be a measly 10 percent’s worth of the overall effort, that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. That doesn’t mean you focus all your time on the list and the offer and just wave your hand over the creative and consider it good enough.

No, weak creative — and especially, weak messaging — will doom a fundraising campaign.

Now, of course, if the list is bad, your mailing goes to all the wrong people. That’s not good. And if the offer is bad or, more likely, vague, then even if your appeal does go to the right people, they’ll be bored by it. But think of it this way.

What if your list and offer and good, but the messaging is off strategy? Response will suffer, guaranteed.

Example: consider Nike, the literal powerhouse in branding. You can bet that before they do anything, they research and research to make sure every step they take is the right one. Let’s say they’re developing a new campaign. They do tons of market research. They map out their media strategy. They pour millions and millions of dollars into ad buys.

And then, with all that as the backdrop, they introduce their new slogan, Just Try It. Wouldn’t THAT land with a thud? And all because the messaging was just a little bit … off.

Suddenly that 10 percent for creative doesn’t seem quite so insignificant. Truth is, you can have all the data, strategy, and analytics in the world, but if the messaging in your appeal is off — even by a little bit — then your whole fundraising campaign will be too.

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Isn’t it time for one-click online donating?

Amazon is the source for everything on the Internet. And according to NPR, it has held the patent on a process that has probably been largely responsible for its phenomenal growth. It’s one-click checkout.

If you’ve ordered anything on Amazon – and who hasn’t? – you’ve probably noticed how easy it is. You log onto the site, chose your item, and click the button to order it. Easy. So easy in fact that you can get the idea to order, say, some ink cartridges for your printer, find the ones you need on Amazon, and have them on their way to you in under two minutes.

Surprising as it seems, Amazon has held the patent on the process of one-click ordering since 1997 – back in the Wild West days of the Internet.

But now that patent has expired. Which means that Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and others can develop one-click checkout.

So, maybe now it’s time for charities to offer one-click donating. At this point, the options for online giving are a one-time gift or a monthly gift.

But let’s say I like to give to Save the Looney Bird Society whenever the mood strikes, and let’s say the mood strikes maybe three or four times a year. I’m not a one-time giver, and I’m not a monthly giver.

So, each time I feel a twinge of guilt about the plight of the Looney Bird, I have to fill in my name, street address, city, state, zip code, credit card number, expiration date, security code, and more.

Of course, it’s not all that difficult to type that stuff in, but still, wouldn’t it be nice just to log onto the Society’s website and just click ‘donate,’ and know that the precious Looney Birds will be safe for another few months?

Online donating is pretty easy. But it could be even easier. What do you say, online-fundraising developers?


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Why donors give

Thanks go to fundraising expert Tom Ahern for this. In his excellent e-newsletter, he included the moving and inspiring words of Damian O’Broin on why he’s a fundraiser. The occasion was the opening of the 2017 Ask Direct Fundraising Summer School in Dublin. Yes, Damian’s address is about him and his chosen profession, but it’s also much more than that.

With each of the reasons that Damian lays out for being a fundraiser, he also reveals why people are donors. And he does it in language that’s direct and powerful. Because donors give for reasons that are direct and powerful for them.

Staring off, Damian talks a bit about his early life, and then gets down to the specifics about why he’s in fundraising, including such illuminating points as:

  • I’m a fundraiser because my mother died from lung cancer, and my Dad died from kidney failure.
  • I’m a fundraiser because we’re sleepwalking into catastrophic climate change.
  • I’m a fundraiser because we’re closer than ever to beating cancer.
  • I’m a fundraiser because two million people have fled for their lives in South Sudan.

There are many more. For each of them, simply substitute “donor” for “fundraiser,” and you have the key to engaging donors and raising money.

I’m a donor because my mother died of cancer … I’m a donor because we’re sleepwalking into catastrophic climate change … I’m a donor because two million people have fled South Sudan.

You can read the text of Damian’s talk here.

You’ll feel good about being a fundraiser, and when you include the word “donor,” you’ll better understand the direct and powerful reasons behind the decision to give.

We have to remember that what’s going on in donors’ heads when they receive our fundraising appeals is their own personal reason for giving. That’s what we have to tap into.

The fact is, we make fundraising complicated with all the talk about data, strategies, metrics, and so on. Those are important, but we can’t let them distract us.

Because it’s really just about the person on the receiving end of our fundraising message. It’s really just about her and about her ‘why.’





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Email fundraising idea to test

There are lots of guidelines for fundraising emails about opt in, unsubscribe, and so on, that you’re probably well aware of.

But in that required language is an opportunity to strengthen our fundraising messages. Hear me out.

Most fundraising emails have an “unsubscribe” link that’s visible near the top. That’s required. Then, when you scroll all the way down to the footer of the email, where no one ever looks, you’ll see another “unsubscribe” link, the “forward to a friend” link perhaps, and probably social media icons.

If look even further down in the footer, you’ll probably see another, boilerplate-sounding statement that seems like it’s required language. It will be something like: “You are receiving this email because you subscribed at” (or however people opt-in to your email list).

Including this line isn’t mandatory, but it is a best practice, so it’s probably on your emails.

Now, here’s the idea to test. Take this statement — “You are receiving this email because you subscribed at” — and move it from the bottom of your email where nobody sees it to the very top of the email, so that it’s the first thing that donors will see when they open your email.

Why? Because it will immediately set the tone by reminding donors that they asked to receive emails from you. (This is assuming of course that you’re not spamming donors but are generating your opt-in list from signups, and so your recipients actually did ask to join your email list.)

Instead of donors thinking, “This is another email from ABC Nonprofit asking for money,” seeing that line of text just might reframe the whole email for them, so that they’re thinking, “This is one of those emails I opted-in to receive.”

It’s also a plus that the line seems like mandatory /  regulatory language as opposed to marketing / fundraising language.

Not a bad way to start off your fundraising message. So why not test it? Just take that line that’s now at the bottom of your email and move it all the way to the top. And if you do try it, share what happens.

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When thanking your donor is a weak fundraising approach

It seems like the most natural thing in the world to open a letter or email to a donor with something like: “Thank you so much for all of your generous support.”

It’s putting attention on the donor. It’s conversational. It’s friendly. And it’s safe — after all, who would object to being thanked?

It may seem like a good idea, but as an opening gambit to a donor when you’re going to lead up to an ask, it can sometimes be pretty weak.

Because, for one thing, your donor should ideally have been acknowledged and thanked for previous gifts in a separate communication, and that’s where you would go overboard with appreciation and praise.

But even more than that, opening a letter with a statement of thanks is weak when it’s used in the absence of a strong offer. Thanking your donor in the opening isn’t a substitute for leading with an offer. Nor is it a substitute for presenting the donor with an opportunity to make a difference.

It’s even worse when the communication goes like this: “Thank you for all of your generous support. As you know, ABC Charity operates a variety of innovative programs and services in countries around the world, and our experts in logistics and international relief are among the best …”

In cases like these, the “thank you” line is there simply to create the appearance of donor-centricity, while the rest of the message is all about the organization.

There’s no question that it’s good to thank donors for their gifts. That’s why thank-you letters are crucial.

And there are even times when thanking can work as an opening. For example: “Your last gift of $25 made a real difference in the fight against cancer. Thank you! And now, I have an even more exciting opportunity to help end cancer as we know it.”

Here the thank you is keyed to a reminder of the last gift amount as well as to donor impact and donor opportunity.

The opening in a letter or an email is how you’re positioning and framing the entire message to your donor. It has to be right, or the communication won’t get read.

That’s why one of the most reliable letter leads (among many others, of course) is, “I’m writing to you because …” Whatever you fill in to finish that sentence will most likely be a valid proposition to your donor and an opportunity to have an impact.


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