The rumors are greatly exaggerated.

People have been saying for years that direct mail is dead.

Nope. Not even close.

Sending out a fundraising appeal or letter is a GREAT way to tell your donors a story, inspire them to give, then offer them that chance.

The tough part is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, you can send out a letter that generates next to no response.

And that’s no fun.

The Art and Science of a fundraising appeal

Raising money through the mail is both art and science. You must write a compelling letter that moves the donor to make a gift. And you must send the letter to people are most likely to respond to it.

It’s a letter right? How hard can this be?

It’s harder than it looks.  Many nonprofits plow into sending a letter without doing their homework. Their letter doesn’t resonate with the reader and their results are dismal.

I’ve talked to LOTS of people over the years who have told me their sad story about how they tried direct mail and it didn’t work. (I can usually guess exactly what they did and didn’t do.)  Some of them invested thousands of dollars hoping for a huge return, and got only a few donations for their efforts.

First, realize that people are busy and your letter is an interruption in their day.  They will decide in a matter of seconds whether or not to open the envelope and in a few more seconds they will decide whether or not to give.  Your letter must grab their attention, tell a story, and ask for a gift. And it needs to look easy to read. If you do all that well, you’ll get what you want – a gift.

Second, understand that they won’t read the entire letter.  They’ll skim.  So you have to hit the main points early and often.

4 Ways to Add the Spice

Here are 4 ways to add some spice to your letter to get more people reading and responding:

1. Start with a “touch the pearls” moment. Giving is an emotional act. When people feel moved by a cause, they’re likely to make a donation. Your letter should make your reader “touch her pearls,” suck in a breath and say “oh my goodness!” When she has THAT kind of emotional response, a gift is coming next. What causes a donor to feel this kind of reaction? A story with lots of emotion that tugs at her heart. It can be a story that showcases the extreme situation your clients are in, something that is surprising, or something that makes her see and feel the injustice in the world.

Here’s the opening of an appeal from Draft Gratitude that starts off with lots of emotion:

2. Talk about the need, impact, and gap. Years ago, people would donate simply because your nonprofit existed. Today, people want to know how you’re making a difference. The best way to do that is to talk about the need your nonprofit addresses, the impact you’re having, and the gap that remains. For example, if your nonprofit saves senior dogs, you can talk about the number of senior dogs finding their way into local shelters, how many you’re able to save, and the number that are languishing or being euthanized. People love to know what the gap is and it’s something they can wrap their head around.

3. Ask for an amount the donor can envision. Instead of asking for arbitrary amounts (“Your gift of $25, $35, $50 or more will help us….”), try using numbers that mean something. If I’m thinking about giving to your nonprofit, and I know my $100 will pull a senior dog from the shelter, I can envision it and I feel good knowing how my money will be used. And as a donor, I like that. Giving can feel like throwing money in a black hole if I don’t know how it will be used. You may have to get your calculator out to crunch some numbers to see what yours are. What will $25 do for your nonprofit? What will $100 do? Figure it out and use those numbers.

The Humane Society of Southeast Missouri knows that it only takes $6.20 a day to feed, shelter, and care for a dog or cat in need. Here’s how they use that info in an appeal:

4. Link to your website where they can get more info. Keep your letter short and concise. If you have a longer story to tell or more back-up info, put it on a special page on your website, and include that in your letter. Make sure there’s a “Donate Now” button on that page so if someone lands there, catches the rest of the story and wants to give, it’s easy to figure out what to do. I worked with a Habitat for Humanity affiliate a couple of years ago that had a video of a homeowner at their Dedication Ceremony where she received the keys to her new home. We put a tiny piece in an appeal, then the full video on a special page on the website. It was fun to watch the numbers climb as more and more people watched the video (and gave!).

A Fall appeal should definitely be part of your plan to get the most from Fundraising Season.

If you’re not asking for a gift between now and the end of the year, you’re conspicuously absent. And you’ll get left out.

No one ever wakes up in the morning and says “I feel like giving some money away. Wonder if there’s a nonprofit I could give to?”

The responsibility is yours. It’s YOUR job to build the relationship and stay in touch. It’s YOUR job to ask for the gift.

So start now while you have plenty of time, and plan your appeal for mid October.

You’ll thank me a latte. 😉