Aunt Ruth was smiling. Aglow with happiness. I couldn’t figure it out.
My 79-year-old aunt had just brought in the day’s mail. There was a lot of it, including several fundraising appeals. She threw one away unopened. The others she set on the small table next to her comfy chair. Smiling. The whole time.
“I’m going to read my mail now,” she said in the same tone someone would say, “I’m going skiing this weekend.”
Suddenly it came to me: Aunt Ruth likes reading her mail. Even the “junk mail.” To Aunt Ruth, those unsolicited letters aren’t an annoying fundraising tactic—they’re a connection to people she’s interested in and causes she cares about.
Related Blog: How to Write Like a Nonprofit Genius and Motivate People to Join Your Cause
One time Aunt Ruth called to tell me something she’d read in an appeal: “Did you know it only costs twelve cents to keep a little boy or girl from going blind? Twelve cents!” That wasn’t a clever marketing proposition to Aunt Ruth—it was an exciting piece of news. A relevant fact worth sharing.
Aunt Ruth is a reader. Her love of mail may strike you as bizarre, but it’s common among donors.
Her love of reading what the postman brings helps explain why direct mail is such a powerful fundraising medium. It dwarfs the next runner-up, which is the telephone. It also sheds light on an even greater mystery: why longer messages usually work better at raising funds than short ones.
I hate long letters. I wish they’d just get to the point. I bet you don’t care for long letters either. Nevertheless, long messages work.
Related Blog: The Weird Power of Long Fundraising Letters
I’ve tested long against short many times. In direct mail, the shorter message only does better about 10 percent of the time (a short message does tend to work better for emergency fundraising).
But most often, if you’re looking for a way to improve an appeal, add another page. Most likely it’ll boost response. Often it can generate a higher average gift too.
It’s true in e-mail too, though not as decisively so. In my experience, a longer e-mail outperforms a shorter one about two out of three times. Brevity may be a virtue in the e-mails you write to co-workers, but longer e-mails still get through to a lot of donors.
In surveys and focus groups, donors often complain about long fundraising messages. They say exactly what you or I would say: “I don’t have time to read something that long. Why don’t they get to the point?”
That’s what they say. But in real life, donors respond more often to long messages. We don’t know why, but here are some theories:
The Aunt Ruth Theory: Many donors just enjoy reading. More words mean more reading pleasure, and that means more connection and increased chances a person will give.
The Multiple Triggers Theory: Some donors are likely to give when you help them visualize a life-threatening need. Others will be moved if you emphasize a great deal. The longer the message, the more triggers you can include.
The Hopscotch Theory: Few people read everything you’ve written, starting with the first word and ending with the last. Just watch someone, anyone, while they read their mail. They start where their eyes land. They bounce around, leaping forward and backward, skipping entire sections, reading other parts more than once. I once watched my mother read an appeal I’d written (she didn’t know it was mine). She started at the end and worked her way backward. The last sentence she read was my carefully crafted lead. A longer letter has more entry points. More calls to action. More chances for a reader who isn’t following your logic to get pulled in.
The Gravitas Theory: The very fact that a message is long may signal to donors in some subliminal way that it’s important. They may not need to read every word, because the length tells them all they need to know.
I’ve found that the best long messages have two characteristics: repetition and story.
Repetition is the important part. Repeat yourself because you don’t know if readers understood what you said the first time. Repeat yourself because you can’t be sure they even caught it the first and second times. Repeat yourself because sometimes it doesn’t sink in until you’ve said it a few times. Repeat yourself because you never know what way of making the case is the one that will get through.
Related: Want to learn step-by-step how to write fundraising communications that will raise more money for your cause? Check out Jeff’s Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits course! It’s available for all members of The Fundraisingology Lab.
The outline for an effective long fundraising message might be something like this:
- Introduction: Why I’m writing to you.
- Why your gift is so important today.
- How much impact your gift will have.
- Story that demonstrates the need.
- Remind the donor of his values and connection with the cause.
- Another story.
- Help the donor visualize what will happen when she gives.
- Conclusion: Thank the donor for caring. Ask again.
You may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. If you’re serious about raising funds, you really have to ask, again and again.
Related Blog: How to Ask Every Donor the Right Amount
Stories can shine in a longer message. The difference between a richly detailed story and one that’s been pared down to fit in a small space can be like the difference between a snapshot and a film. For example, here’s how you might write about the cruel practice of bear baiting if you’re writing a short message:
The bear sat on its haunches, bleeding from its injured mouth.
The longer version is more vivid:
The bear sat on its haunches, rocking back and forth, blood pooling in the dirt beneath it. One side of its mouth was torn open and hanging loose, exposing the teeth and drizzling saliva and blood into its matted fur.
The reality quotient, the sense that the reader has actually witnessed the scene, is higher in the long version. And when the reader has a vivid experience with your cause—even when it’s only through the written word—she’s much more likely to give.
Related: If you want master the art of donor communications and raise more money for your cause – check out Jeff’s course that is part of The Fundraisingology Lab.
Some people believe the era of long messages is ending. They say text messaging, 140-character tweets, and changes in the ways people communicate and retrieve information work against people sitting down to read the way Aunt Ruth does. Maybe.
But so far, longer messages are holding their own.
The important thing is this: You can’t judge this issue by what you’d want in your own mailbox. You can’t even base it on what donors tell you they want. You have to watch actual donor behavior as it plays out in the form of response to your messages.
So until you learn otherwise, keep sending those long messages. Aunt Ruth will certainly thank you.
(This post is excerpted from my book The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communication).
Jeff, I agree that longer letters tend to work better. In addition to the theories you put forward, my working theory is that in short letters you have only enough space to mention the donor benefit and that’s it, but in longer letters you can present the donor benefit, explain it, and illustrate it fully in copy. In short letters, the reader has to fill in the blanks. But in longer letters, we can take the reader by the hand and lead them through all the advantages of giving. It’s simply easier for donors.
I think asking a donor to give on the basis of a 200-word, one-page letter is a bit like asking someone to buy a house without visiting it first.
this is so refreshing. How do you think it became received wisdom among so many fundraisers that shorter letters and emails are more effective?
My theory why so many fundraisers believe so strongly that short letters are better: They’re using themselves as the standard. They figure, “I don’t have time to read long messages, therefore long messages are less effective.” The’s poor reasoning in two ways: First, you aren’t your donor! and second, your conscious opinions about things like that do almost nothing to inform you about how you or anyone else responds in real life.
Learn the facts about what actually works! It’s the only way to know you’re getting stuff right.
Jeff, does this have anything to do with the demographics of donors? They tend to be more likely to give the older they get.
Yes, I think that has to be a factor.
I feel like I’ve seen more and more organisations opting for a shorter letter in the appeals I’ve received lately. Any idea what’s sparked this trend if it’s so well known that longer letters do well? I’d love to be able to test this with our donor base but we have a very small volume so our ability to test is limited.
You probably are seeing more and more short letters. I think it’s a rising tide. It’s not based on fundraising knowledge, but on the gut instincts of people with little fundraising experience. The complicated thing is that sometimes short messages do very well — but far more often, the long ones outperform the short ones. So the smart move is to favor longer messages.
I agree longer letters are effective but my organization is sending four page appeals. When is an appeal too long?
4 page letters are almost never too long. I’d say that’s not really a long letter.
I think a letter is too long in these two conditions:
1. It’s not well written, not relevant, not aimed at the donor. Then it’s too long even if it’s half a page long!
2. It’s too expensive, meaning it’s not likely to bring in enough revenue for what it costs. This is why most long letters we see these days are for higher-end donors. For them, you can easily justify higher costs, so long letters (6 pages and up — like 12 pagers or even more) are not that unusual. For low-amount donors, 2 to 4 pages seems to be the normal length.
[…] Brooks over at Moceanic wrote a terrific article about why long fundraising letters work better – even though many nonprofits persist in trying to use short ones […]
[…] also: Why Your Boss Is Wrong – Long Letters Do Work Better In Fundraising The Weird Power of Long Fundraising […]