Do long letters in fundraising still work?

The Weird Power of Long Fundraising Letters

7 Comments

Long letters work better.

But don’t just take it from me.

Dr Barnardo wrote a four-page appeal letter in London in the 1880s using classic direct mail techniques: Underlining, urgency, dollar handles, specific ask and a clear reference to what YOU could do to help. The winter had been ‘the severest and most arduous, so far as work among the children of the poor is concerned.’ So the good doctor needed to raise £100 a day for food.  He told readers ‘unceasing demands upon our resources’ were having an unprecedented impact on his charity.

The four-page Dr Barnardo letter from the late 19th century.

Dr Banardos Long Fundraising Letter - it was very long!

Years later, another children’s charity, Starlight, had a rough year and they had decided to go public about their shortfall. Unceasing demands upon their resources were tough too. They asked for funds but also had a refreshing degree of honesty. The donor learned that part of the shortfall was because Starlight funding strategy relied too much on events and companies. After reading the press stories about their plight I pulled together an ’emergency’ appeal to their donors and met up with them. The emergency appeal was only developed to show how I work, but they decided to mail it immediately anyway.

Starlight Crises Letter

The opening paragraphs of the Starlight letter

It would never win awards for graphic design beauty. But the appeal raised over target. It more than doubled the amount raised from the same donors the previous year.

At the heart of the appeal was a four-page appeal letter.

Despite the rise of other media, direct mail is still the biggest source of new one-off donors.  So it is important we maximise revenue from mail donors.  And longer letters will tend to do that for you.

I really don’t like long letters, by the way. They are a pain in the butt to write, check copy, get client approval, print and mail-merge. And someone important in most of our (Pareto’s) clients doesn’t like them. And they don’t look great in my portfolio. Though the results do.

In focus groups, donors say they dislike long letters too. In Hong Kong, one client ran focus groups which all concluded that donors would be more likely to respond to a pack with a two-sided letter and tear off coupon than a four-page pack (actually eight pages – English and Chinese) with lots of additional information. The two pager raised HK$1.5m (AUD$220k) – the big pack raised over HK$7.5m (about $1.1m).

Long letters work.  As you can see from the test results below.  These are from a revolutionary pack National Heart Foundation did more than a decade ago.

I know longer letters tend to work better, but not because they are long. I think it is because, to tell a good story with a beginning, middle and end and ensure the right fundraising tactics, it simply takes more words.

These tactics include target, what the target is for, deadline, establishing need, demonstrating the solution, demonstrating why that charity is best placed to solve etc.

A dreadful four-pager is worse than a good two-pager: If a story can be told more quickly then tell it. As Mal Warwick says ‘A fundraising letter should be as long as it needs to be…’

Long letters tend to work better with mid-value donors too. Maybe it is just about respect – good donor care to take the time to explain why the donor’s support is so important.

Ready to learn more about how to get the most from your mid-value donors? Check out my Mid Value Donor Super Course. It’s available for all members of The Fundraisingology Lab.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Absolutely spot. Market research will *show* what your target audience believes they will do but it doesn’t show what they actually do. This is a great use of data to help drive decision making!

    Reply
  • I’m always grappling with this long letters work better debate and I’m always curious about the purpose and segments: are these long letters for acquisition mailings or are these long letters for donors who are already involved and active within the organization?

    Because if for the former, then a four-page letter probably does work better because you have more space to share all of the important information about the org’s mission and vision, but if for the latter, then it might be too long as the donor should already be receiving update information throughout the year of how their dollars are at work.

    I’d love feedback on this!

    Reply
    • Hi
      Good long letters work better in warm and acquisition. But it is one of many marginal factors – and the margin may not be enough to cover the cost in acquisition. It is actually pretty tough to give a straight answer, but it will depend. Always test in acquisition.
      And remember, it isn’t because they are long that they work better. Sometimes shorter letters are all that is needed. It is just rare to be able to tell a story with a beginning and middle and end, repeat an ask at least three times, write in paragraphs less than 5 lines long, in a font at least 12, preferably 13, have a Johnson Box and a PS, acknowledge the donor’s role, explain where the money is going, include a deadline (and a reason if possible) and a target, include dollar handles and be interesting in less than four pages.
      🙂

      Reply
  • So, longer letter is better – but should they be printed on separate pages or is double siding ok?

    p.s. love what you do Moceanic Crew:)

    Reply
    • Sean Triner
      March 9, 2018 7:04 pm

      Hi Michelle
      Double siding is fine. I reckon that the response rate of separate pages would maybe be slightly better BUT I doubt it would be anything significant to justify the cost. If I had a budget enough for 4 pages on seperate pages, i’d rather have a longer letter! 🙂
      But don’t just make a letter long to fill the space. It needs to be long because you are using all the right tactics: Great story, PS, Johnson Box, large font, repeated offer, hyper-personalisation etc.
      Sean

      Reply
  • […] See also: Why Your Boss Is Wrong – Long Letters Do Work Better In Fundraising The Weird Power of Long Fundraising Letters […]

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