Another reason to send thank you letters to your donors

When it comes to thanking donors, this is a horror story: A donor writes a check for $50,000, sends it in to the charity, and waits and waits for days and then finally calls the charity to make sure it received the donation.

Obviously, something like that should never happen. It’s wildly irresponsible. But it points up a very practical reason for sending a thank you. In addition to thanking your donor for giving, naturally, one very important purpose of the thank you letter is simply to confirm for your donor that you did actually receive her gift.

Donors will wonder about this after they give. Think about it: In your personal or business life, how many times have you sent something to somebody and never received an acknowledgement that the other person received it? Drives you crazy, right? You just wanted a simple, “got it, thanks,” to put your concerns to rest.

It’s an often-overlooked reason why the thank you letter is so crucial. Of course, in your thank you letters, you’ll go beyond a simple confirmation, and that’s where fundraising expert Jerry Huntsinger comes in.

In his Eighty-six tutorials on creating fundraising letters and packages, he points out four reasons to send thank yous:

  1. Create a warm glow around your donor.
  2. Say thank you in a genuine and personal way.
  3. Educate your donors.
  4. Prompt another gift.

Wait – what’s that third one? Educate your donors? Isn’t it true in fundraising that if you’re trying to educate donors you’re losing them? Yes, but Jerry makes a valid point here.

When your donor gets a thank you letter, you pretty much have a captive audience. Chances are, your donor is going to read it top to bottom – which is certainly not true of most donor communications. So, “don’t hesitate,” as Jerry says, “to explain your organizational purpose and goals.”

This is the chance to reinforce for your donor why your charity’s work is important and why it matters. It’s surely a good idea to do this in the thank you letter for new donors, and even for long-term donors, it’s not a bad idea to reinforce why your charity’s work is needed.

What’s the takeaway here? It’s important to slather on the praise in your thank you letters. Even go overboard. No donor is going to say, “No, stop. You’re thanking me too much!” But recognize that it’s also important to underline and reinforce your charity’s core reason for being. Praise combined with relevance – that’s the kind of thing that makes a donor want to give again.


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When to use a plain envelope in fundraising

In Gulliver’s Travels, our intrepid explorer finds himself in Lilliput, where two factions of Lilliputians are in dispute. On one side are the Big-Endians, who break their boiled eggs at the big end, while on the other side are the Little-Endians, who break their eggs at the little end.

This is kind of like that. There’s a group of people in direct mail and fundraising who maintain that the best carrier, bar none, is the humble plain envelope. After all, they insist, getting the carrier open is half the battle, and who can resist the siren song of the plain envelope? Don’t prospects just have to know what’s inside?

And then there’s another group of people who maintain that teaser copy and images on the outside envelope are the way to entice donors and lure them in.

So who’s right? Luckily, we have some help, by way of a post on SOFII, from the esteemed Professor Siegfried Vogele, dean of direct mail and one of the field’s most original thinkers.

The good doctor explains envelope effectiveness in terms of filters and amplifiers. A filter impedes response, and an amplifier, well, amplifies it.

He further explains that the plain envelope is what we normally associate with personal correspondence (rare these days, thanks to email) or with business mail, like a letter from your insurance company. When you get that letter, open it, and find your expectations confirmed – yes, it IS a letter from Aunt Margie! – then that’s an amplifier for the recipient. In this case, the envelope has done its job by successfully setting the stage.

But if that plain envelope happens to contain an advertising circular, a sales letter, or a Dear-Friend fundraising appeal that you weren’t anticipating, then that can be a filter, depressing response – probably because, in this case, the envelope did not set the stage for the prospect. You got something completely different from what you’re conditioned to expect from a plain envelope.

So does this mean we should never use a plain envelope? Or that we should ways use teaser copy and images? As with all things direct mail, it depends.

If the contents are highly personal and highly targeted to the recipient, then a plain envelope could be the right way to go. That will set the stage for the recipient about what’s to come, and your donor will likely move smoothly from the outside envelope to the appeal inside to have their expectations confirmed.

But, if the contents are obviously a more mass-market kind of fundraising appeal, then it might be good to think about how to set the stage with teaser copy and images. No easy task. That could mean everything from a simple “R.S.V.P” on the outer envelope to an expression about the cause to the beginning of a story. There’s an infinite number of ways to do this, so picking the so-called right one is going to depend a lot on your list and your offer. Not to mention your ability to read your donors’ minds.

So, there we have it: the Big-Endians versus the Little-Endians. Which side is right? Well, both are, of course.


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What’s an offer in fundraising?

The offer is one of the most underutilized aspects of fundraising. Is that because of how we tend to think about it?

One definition of the fundraising offer is that it’s what the donor’s gift will accomplish. That’s true – that’s part of what the offer is, but it’s not the whole picture. That definition seems to be focusing on how the nonprofit’s beneficiaries will be impacted, while avoiding what the donor gets out of giving. Let’s look at the example of a donor who’s concerned about the planet and hates fracking. Hates it. Then she happens to get an appeal in the mail that says, “your gift of $25 will help fund the march on Washington to end fracking, and when you give, sign the petition enclosed for your congressman.”

Boom – she’s in. And while she’s writing her check, putting it in the reply envelope, and dropping it in the mailbox, she’s thinking, “Take that, you frackers!”

The fundraising piece said the money will fund the march, and it will. Strictly speaking, that’s what the gift will accomplish. But, judging from our donor’s reaction to sending in her gift, there’s more going on than simply what the mail piece says will happen. Our donor is getting a huge amount of personal satisfaction from taking action against fracking, righting a wrong done against the planet, getting back at those heartless corporations that pollute, standing up for what’s right, and much more. Plus, she even has the satisfaction of giving her congressman a piece of her mind in that signed petition. That’s what she gets out of it. What she has to do to get all that is to donate.

Which brings us to another definition of the offer. It’s what the donor gets and what she has to do to get it. This definition is a bit fuller since it shows that donating is more of a two-way street, more of a quid pro quo, more of a deal, and more of an exchange between nonprofit and donor. That’s important because in the offer we need to keep in mind not only how the nonprofit benefits and not only how the nonprofit’s beneficiaries are helped but also what the donor gets in exchange for giving.

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How to test smart for fundraising

The problem with the typical A/B test for a direct mail fundraising appeal or an email appeal is that it’s just too careful and conservative. That’s the point in this post from Seth’s blog. He says that we tend to test things that are too similar because, basically, we’re afraid to fail.

It’s true. When the question of testing comes up in a creative meeting for a fundraising appeal, lots of times the discussion will revolve around testing a closed face envelop versus a window envelope, or an appeal letter with a photo versus without the photo, or a handwritten margin note versus without the margin note, or an email appeal with a Give Now button versus a Donate Now button.

Tests like these are all but guaranteed to produce either a tie or a very, very slight win. In either case, we don’t learn much about the creative or the donors – which was the whole point of testing in the first place.

Does this mean you should always test some crazy new thing and swing for the fences? Not necessarily. Say you have a blockbuster control that’s blown everything else out of the water. Then it would probably make sense to test some minor things to generate incremental gains, provided you want to keep the control going instead of beating it.

Or say you want to see if you can reduce costs without hurting revenue. Then it would probably make sense to test the appeal, for example, with and without the insert. You may find it does just as well without the extra piece, which means cost goes down a little so overall revenue goes up a little.

But in a lot of cases, it’s more instructive to test, as Seth says, “radically different alternatives.” More panic-inducing too. But also more instructive.



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Is this the end for digital fundraising?

Yes, yes, we all know: the future of fundraising is digital, and direct mail is dead.

So it’s all sunshine and rainbows on the digital fundraising side, then – right? Uh, not exactly. According to A love letter to digital advertising from a direct mail CEO, there are some serious dark clouds overhead that threaten to rain on the digital parade, like:

  • Email inboxes crammed with junk that nobody wants
  • Privacy breeches everywhere
  • Misinformation
  • Fake news
  • Fake influencers
  • Bots that inflate the number of followers
  • Click farms that pump up engagement numbers
  • Misleading metrics about number of clicks, reach, and influence

Let’s face it: anyone with a laptop and an internet connection knows these things are true. Who among us hasn’t looked at their inbox and groaned at all the useless crap. Same for social media.

The fatigue that people are feeling from digital marketing is there, and it affects fundraising response. If you’ve ever tried to raise money with email, you know how hard it is.

And yet, it would be as foolish to predict the death of digital as it has been to predict the death of direct mail.

Digital-oriented companies like Wayfair and Blue Apron are using direct mail to reach customers. And when Google wants to target business owners, they use direct mail.

So, when nonprofits think they’re going to go online-only for their fundraising (because direct mail is too expense, and email is somehow “free”), they’re not. Direct mail and online have their problems when it comes to fundraising, but both are here to stay.







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What is it about direct mail for fundraising?

Mail is still the most productive channel for fundraising. More than email, internet, phone, social media, or any other medium you can dream up.

Why? Jerry Huntsinger in his Eighty-Six Tutorials on Creating Fundraising Letters and Packages explains it perfectly:

“… mail-opening in most households is a time of great anticipation, and in many households it represents the high point of the day.

“We are dealing here with a basic conditioned response mechanism because, in the past, mail has brought tremendous, exciting news, and this has happened so often in the life of an individual that each day they have hope that once again something exciting will be left in their mailboxes.

“Have you ever watched a person opening their mail and seen them hold a letter up to the light, especially if it is a check? Have you ever done this yourself? It’s really a little ridiculous not to just go ahead and rip the envelope open and see what’s inside.

“But remember this is a moment of magic; and as you hold that envelope up to the light, you try to imagine what’s inside. It’s as if you were prolonging the anticipation, and you really don’t want that moment of magic to come to an end.”

Mail is the only medium that holds this kind of spell over us, and it’s just as Jerry says: It’s a conditioned response, and it’s ingrained.

Nobody goes to their email inbox and hovers over a subject line in anticipation of what might be in store. Usually, you’re just checking which emails you can delete amid the flood of spam.

Nobody goes onto Facebook with a sense of great anticipation. Mostly, you check social media out of habit as a way to pass the time.

Nobody is struck with wonder when the phone rings. Usually, it’s an inconvenience, especially when it turns out to be a telemarketing call.

Mail is different. It’s personal. It’s timely. It’s even cultural in its significance in our lives, and that’s especially true for the Baby Boomers who make up a large portion of donors for most nonprofits. For many, opening the mail is one of the high points of the day.

This is why it’s never okay to disappoint donors. Mail appeals need to be interesting, shocking, surprising, even exciting. It’s what donors expect, what they look forward to, and certainly what they deserve.

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You have to move donors to get them to give

Connecting with donors, listening to donors, donor love, donor centrism, making the donor feel like a hero – these are all fine and useful concepts. They show how to think about fundraising. But we can’t escape the fact that at the end of the day the fundraising appeal we send has to move donors to take action and give.

That’s the challenge. And fortunately, Jerry Huntsinger in his Eighty-Six Tutorials on Creating Fundraising Letters and Packages has some insight.

Jerry says it’s necessary to have the courage to use trigger words like emergency, crisis, disaster threat, immediate, urgent, and so on, in our appeals.

Why? Because people give money to those charities that show they need it and show they need it now.

It’s the simple truth in fundraising – which shouldn’t be surprising. It’s the same in commercial marketing and in sales. I can still remember one of my old bosses telling me that the sale goes to the salesman who wants it more.

But why does Jerry say we have to have the courage to use those trigger words?

Because in fundraising, there are some people who are afraid of having a nonprofit act like it needs money. They say that an appeal is too pushy, too dramatic, too emotional, too over the top, even – horror of horrors – off-strategy or off-brand, and that it needs to be toned down. Nonsense.

A charity that needs money isn’t seen by donors as being desperate. It’s seen by donors as involved, taking charge, and being driven and motivated to do good. Those are all positive attributes for a nonprofit.

Bottom line, the sale goes to the salesperson who shows that he or she wants it more, and the donation goes to the charity that shows their cause needs it more.

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The easy way to boost fundraising response

It’s probably something you don’t give much attention to when you’re creating a fundraising appeal. Most of us don’t, I’d bet. That’s because it’s so simple that it gets overlooked. It’s this: making the date of the appeal a prominent feature. Doing this can make a difference in response.

So says Jerry Huntsinger in his Eighty-Six Tutorials on Creating Fundraising Letters and Packages. And he should know.

Most of the time, the date doesn’t get much attention. It seems like just a business-letter mandatory, and it’s usually tucked under a logo or address block where it can hide.

But putting the date in a conspicuous spot where donors can’t miss it says some important things to donors.

It says the appeal is timely, which is incredibly important. Because that makes it worthy of your donor’s attention. Even before your donor starts reading, you’ve established some credibility.

It says the appeal is intended for that donor. When it’s prominent, the date heightens the level of personalization, adding to the personalization of the address block and the salutation. These three things work together to tell your donor that this isn’t an anonymous circular they’re looking at. It’s a letter from you to them.

Sure, making the date prominent is a small tweak, but little tweaks to response add up. It certainly can’t hurt, and it will probably help.

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Is this the exception to the ‘no statistics in fundraising appeals’ rule?

Tell an emotional story about one person. That’s the guideline for creating donor-focused fundraising that connects with donors and motivates them to give.

An example from Claire Axelrad at Clarification blog drives this point home. One headline says “24,000 children die from hunger every day” with a photo of a mass of starving children, while the other one says “Abidemi is starving to death” with a photo of a sad little girl.

Which one is the most compelling? Most people would say the one that talks about Abidemi, the little girl. She’s the “Identifiable victim,” the face of the problem that donors can relate to.

But wait – why can’t we use both approaches? Why can’t we use the statistics – which are admittedly surprising in themselves – in combination with the one identifiable victim? Wouldn’t we be covering both bases and doing a more complete job in our messaging?  You know – speaking to the heart and the head?

Well, not according to the research. If donors are presented with statistical information plus the identifiable victim, donations fall.

The story about one person won’t overcome the rational thinking that statistics lead donors to. The more left-brain things your donors see, the less generous they are. But the more right-brain things your donors see, the more generous they are. It’s not because donors can’t understand statistics. It’s because donors want to know that they have a connection with the nonprofit’s work, that a problem is solvable, and that their gift matters. Speaking to the heart and not to the head does that.

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The best reason to ask your donors more often to give

Lots of charities are shy about asking for donations. They don’t want to mail or email too often out of fear of seeming too pushy. And even in their appeals themselves, it seems like they’re trying to work up the courage to ask, with all the hemming and hawing and beating around the bush before coming out and asking for a donation.

Why is that?

There’s no reason to feel that fundraising is manipulating or shaking down donors. The fact is that giving is good. It’s good for the person receiving the generosity, naturally, and it’s just as good for the giver. Both benefit.

Christianity says so. The Bible says “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). (link)

Judaism says so. Helping the poor is an obligation in Judaism known as “tzedakah” in Hebrew. In tzedakah, the gifts that are given to others eventually return to the giver. (link)

Islam says so. Believers are entreated to be generous. The Koran says “And whatever you spend in good, it will be repaid to you in full, and you shall not be wronged.” (link)

Buddhism says so. Generosity is one of the three tenants of Buddhism, stressing that the giver should feel a sense of joy before, during, and after the act of giving. (link)

Atheism says so. In fact, as this report explains, even without the heavenly reward for charitable acts that most religions promise, atheists are still generous givers. They say, “We don’t need God to do good,” pointing out that, even without belief, giving is personally rewarding. (link)

With apologies to any faith or group unintentionally omitted here, it looks like there’s one thing that people of every stripe can agree on, and it’s the foundational idea, as old as humanity, that’s it’s good to give. And if it’s good to give, then it has to be at least as good to ask.

So there’s no reason to shy away from the ask, whether it’s in a direct mail letter, an email appeal, or face to face.

Ask freely, ask enthusiastically, ask honestly, ask boldly, ask early, and ask often. Will you get a “too much mail” donor complaint here and there? Maybe. But you can’t let that dictate what you do for the far greater number of donors who welcome the opportunity to help. The larger issue is that giving is good for donors, good for your nonprofit, and good for your nonprofit’s beneficiaries. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s just plain good. And how many things can you say that about?

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