Ask yourself, “Would I donate to this?”

A direct mail appeal from an international aid and relief charity opens with:

“Five of Sayo’s children died because of dirty water. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?”

Okay, we have a statement of need that maybe the donor can do something about. But then, right after that, there’s this:

“After I shared her story last month, thousands of people responded generously in support of families like hers. Thank you!”

Hang on a sec – so, thousands of people responded? That’s great, so why do you need me to give? And what’s with the thank you? I didn’t give to that previous appeal, so what are you thanking me for?

Then, right after that, we get to the ask:

“Your generous gift of $25 can help save more lives.”

Which is fine (if a bit vague), BUT …

The part earlier about how people have already given undercuts the argument for donating to this appeal. The donor sees “thousands of people responded – thank you!” and naturally thinks, “Well, I guess we’re done here – no need to go any further.”

Of course there’s more to the letter than these few opening paragraphs, but the lead has to be right, because if it’s not, you’ll lose the reader that fast.

But, hey – who knows – maybe this appeal did great. Maybe this particular set of donors is unique in the way they respond. Maybe they’ve grown used to overlooking this kind of messaging from the charity. Maybe there’s some diabolically clever reverse psychology going on here – we’re getting you to give by telling you we don’t need your stinkin’ gift. Or maybe this appeal is part of a global master plan that’s playing out on a 3-D chessboard. Who knows?

What we do know is that this tactic of opening an appeal by thanking donors and telling them that everything’s great seems to persist. Even though it clearly fails to engage the reader – which you can prove to yourself:

“Dear Ms. Smith (pretend that’s you), our donors are giving like crazy, and things are just zooming along. Thank you!”

There – do you feel like your donation is needed? No? That’s why this kind of approach doesn’t make sense, and why it isn’t best practice for direct response.

The irony is that opening an appeal by talking about success and thanking the donor seems like a safe bet, but it’s really not. It doesn’t pull donors in the way it might seem like it should. In fact, it leaves donors out by telling them they’re not needed.

Usually, the most reliable way to engage donors is by presenting them with a believable problem that they can do something to solve. That’s what pulls donors in, and that’s the approach with a far better chance of moving them to give.

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