Pop Art Blue Letterbox with letters
Direct MailDonor Psychology

What Your Direct Mail is Like for Real People

I’ve spent a good decade and a half defending direct mail. Mostly in response to anxious nonprofit insiders saying things like “I’d hate to get all the mail we send.”

I won’t pretend everyone you mail wants it. And I won’t pretend everyone who gets your mail even reads it.

But many of them want your mail.

And many of them love your mail.

I’d like to take you on a walk-through of the ways real people consume direct mail.

What follows I believe to be true, or as close to true as 15 years in the trenches gets me. My hope is you find some tips and tactics you may not have considered or maybe just a good check-list for you to use.

First of all, let’s admit it: No matter what you send, no matter how you present it, some people will simply not give your (or any) mail pack any attention at all. My reading of the scant research on this suggests as many as eight, and as low as four, out of 10 people you mail simply dump your mail into the bin with barely a glance.

Those who remain are willing to grant you around 15 or 20 seconds of their attention. First the envelope and then whatever comes out first — if they open it.

They scan at headlines, pictures, captions, and the elements you’ve highlighted in some way. But they’re not reading. They’re just scanning to see if your mail is interesting or relevant or valuable. And about half quickly conclude that it’s not.

Into the bin.

So how can you make it through the first cut — the throw it out without even looking cut? And then the second cut — the throw it out unless something grabs their attention?

  1. Accept you aren’t the audience and put your personal opinions aside.
  2. Respond to the way people who do consume direct mail do it.

Let’s focus on the group that gives their mail some attention. What do they look for?

Their name. Spelt correctly. This is the first reason to not thrown it in the bin.

Maybe your logo. I’ve tested outer envelopes a lot. Of the tests that did deliver statistically significant results the outcomes varied by charity. For some a plain, unbranded, no message outer works best. For me this is the element of surprise – What is inside? Who is it from? For others the logo being present works better. Very rarely did a teaser message win. The main time a designed outer envelope has won was with animal welfare and children’s charities where compelling, emotive images of puppies, kittens or children beat the no design versions.

So you got them to open the pack. What do they do then? Consider you need to cater to three types of readers.

1. Sally Scanner. She starts skimming to get some details. My hope is your pack insertion order means the first thing Sally sees is the letter (and if you’ve never considered your pack insertion order please do, it’s your first moment of truth). So, assuming Sally comes across the letter first this is what she does.

  1. Is it addressed to me?
  2. What does the Johnson Box say?
  3. Who is it from?
  4. What does the PS say?
  5. What jumps out at me?
  6. Is it easy to read?
  7. Is it about me?
  8. Is it easy to respond / do what I’m being asked to do?

2. Dutiful Deb. Deb dives in a bit more than Sally. She’s probably a seasoned charity giver. She probably got several appeals at the same time as yours. She’s scanning a bit more deeply because it’s the right thing to. And Deb is looking for something to trigger her interest, something to entertain her, to engage her, to respond to values she shares with your cause.

3. Excited Elaine. Elaine expects your mail. She likes it. She sits down and reads the letter, the response form and the other pieces you’ve included. She is going beginning to end.

Your direct mail letter is a one-to-one conversation between the letter’s signer and Sally, Deb or Elaine, and nothing assures them that your message is intended for them better than seeing their name at the beginning of the letter. People love to see their name, and today’s technology makes it cost-effective to personalise your mailing. The marginal cost saving of not personalising is not worth the drop in response.

Before moving from the salutation to the signature, most readers will take a fraction of a second to scan whatever is visually obvious at the top of the letter … the material often called the Johnson Box.

Knowing this, you can use a Johnson Box, along with underlining, highlighting, bolding, and notes written in the margin to call attention to your call to action, and to pull the reader’s eyes across and down the page.

When we work with direct mail, we can get bored of a standard letter format. But a standard letter format is what works. If it didn’t, the format would have changed. We would have stopped writing letters home to mum this way and done something different.

After scanning the letter and perhaps reading the Johnson Box and/or opening paragraph, the reader will typically look to see who signed the letter.

It helps to print the signatory’s name and title under the signature and avoid “creative” signatures. Scribbled signatures don’t build trust, and eye-flow studies show that readers respond negatively to a signature they can’t read.

Once readers see who signed the letter, many will read the P.S. before moving back to the top of the letter. Not using a P.S. is simply a missed opportunity.

Keep the P.S. to three to four lines and use it to restate your call to action and tell the donor exactly how they can respond.

If you can personalise the P.S., do it. Inclusion of the recipient’s name at the beginning of the postscript draws even more attention to this recap of your call to action — and this call to action should include your ask, using a personalised ask amount derived from each donors previous giving level.

How you choose to format your letter (and any other elements of your pack) will impact its readability. FACT: Pretty does not necessarily equal readable.

To make your letter visually inviting, keep your paragraphs short, left justify your lines and provide plenty of space for your left and right margins.

Indent your paragraphs—they “catch” the reader’s eyes and help lead them down the page—double space between paragraphs. 12 point font is the absolute minimum, but I’d rather you use 14 point. I know you want to save costs and keep letter length to two pages … well all you are doing by sending out a 10 point font letter is turning away your audience. Too small = too hard. 

For enhanced readability, use a serif font—Courier, Times New Roman and Georgia are examples—for the letter. Practically every book, newspaper or magazine printed in the Western world uses serif type because it enhances reading flow and reduces eyestrain. If you want it read, use a serif font.

And don’t end a page with a complete sentence. Look at your newspaper. To finish practically any article, you must turn the page, and that’s exactly what you want your readers to do – keep turning pages until they reach the call to action.

I love a long word, especially when it’s the perfect word for a nuanced sentence. But that’s me and that’s 2% of the time. What I like more is being understood. And the research shows that writing at a lower reading level will hit the mark with the widest audience. Aiming above that will lose you readers. Simple, clear language is not dumbing down. Far from it, it is showing an understanding of your audience, it is showing your audience respect and it will force you to take the often complex situations we are working to address and make them accessible.

My favourite words to open a letter are “You” and “Your,” quickly followed by text that shows Sally, Deb or Elaine how awesome she is.

This isn’t a letter from an organisation to a prospect or customer. Your letter is a one-to-one conversation between the letter’s signatory and the donor. The more ‘we’ you use in the letter the less they’ll feel the signer is talking to them.

Write in a conversational style as if you were speaking face-to-face with the donor. Use your words to create an image for them. If the donor can see herself in the situation you create, she’ll take an interest and read on. A great story will win the day. A bunch of stats will not. A bunch of chat about how great an organisation you are will not.

Is responding super easy?

Response forms should be something you put some brain power into, not an afterthought. Your donor may engage more with the response form than the letter.

If the donor has to squint to read the information or the boxes are so tiny they struggle to make their credit card numbers fit, they’re more likely to give up. Make it easy!

Tailor the response form to the letter call to action. You will have told me a great story in the letter so follow through and repeat the messaging on the response form. Or consider Sally and Deb — they may only look at the response form … does the start of it present your specific call to action or is it generic? Consider how much more powerful your response form could be if you consider it to be another mini ask vehicle.

Want to know what really works in direct mail fundraising? Take our online course, 7 Steps to Creating Record-Smashing Direct Mail. It’s your hands-on workshop in what works, how to do it, and how to apply these truths to your cause! It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

Want to learn more? Check out these related posts:

CFRE Points:
Pop Art Businesswoman Shocked e1530831030853

The Beauty of Ugly Fundraising

How many times have you heard people complain about fundraising — especially direct mail:  It’s so ugly!

In fact, you’ll often hear the hypothesis that if it weren’t ugly, it would work a lot better. As if the problem is one of skill or talent — as if somehow we have trouble finding designers with actual design skills to do our direct mail.

For organizations working from that assumption, life is destined to be hard.

Because here’s the reality:  In fundraising, ugly works.

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder, so let me give you my definition of “ugly” fundraising:

  • Clunky, not elegant. Visually interruptive, too many words, harsh images.
  • Homemade-looking, not professional. As if someone with a typewriter and some glue did it.
  • Old fashioned, not cutting-edge. The way stuff looked in your parents’ or grandparents’ time.
  • Loud, not understated. Plenty of strong colors, often clashing with each other. Too-big fonts.

It’s not esthetically pleasing, artistic, or likely to get good marks in design school. It’s likely to give your colleagues (especially the younger ones) conniption fits. They will hate it!

But if you want to maximize your results, you need to get used to ugly fundraising.

There are three very important things to know about this ugly design:

  1. Calling it ugly is kind of crazy. How can you call something ugly that reaches more donors, helps them care more deeply — and raises more money for causes that make the world a better place.
  2. The type of ugliness that does the job is not the product of a crappy designer. In fact, it takes a lot more skill to make something readable and emotional within the tight constraints of “ugly.” If you can find a designer who embraces that truth, you have a real treasure.
  3. You don’t raise a of money just by doing ugly fundraising. Ugly is not the active ingredient of fundraising, just a vehicle for it. What makes fundraising work is having a strong offer, compelling copy, specificity, emotion — all the basics. Get all that right, and make it “ugly.” You’ll do better than you would if you got it all right and made it pretty.

So the real question is, why do we call it “ugly”? It’s a design approach that helps bring about so much good in the world. In my book, that sounds much more like a definition of “beautiful.”

One of the most important milestones in the life of a fundraising professional is when you learn to accept and embrace “ugly.” That’s when you stop clumsily aiming your messages at yourself and start doing real fundraising.

Want to know more ways to make your fundraising even more effective? Take my Moceanic online course, Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. It is available inside The Fundraisingology Lab and it will help you take your fundraising to a whole new level — guaranteed! (Yes, guaranteed, as in you get your money back if it doesn’t help you seriously improve your fundraising results!)

CFRE Points:
Pop Art Pop Art Confident Business Woman Super Hero in Suit with Red Cape 123RF
FundraisingFundraising Training Needs

The Secret of Success: Do Only What Only You Can Do

Guest blogger – Dearne Cameron, CEO of Pareto Fundraising

(Sorry Moceanic subscribers and Dearne – the email that you may have received about this post did not explain that Dearne is the guest author of this article – not Sean!)

Fundraising leaders often ask me: ‘Is it better to outsource to an agency, or resource and build a highly skilled team in-house’?

Many years of charity experience have taught me this: It is not one or the other. It is a fluid working relationship that builds on a foundation of best practice, resources and returns.

It is important for a charity to have a highly skilled team that can align fundraising with the organisation’s strategy, while managing fundraising plans and engaging key stakeholders for fundraising purposes.

On the other hand, working with an agency like Pareto Fundraising provides a lot of values:

  • New ideas
  • Trend insights
  • The skills of a multifaceted team
  • Subject matter expertise
  • The benefits of scalability and resourcing

That’s all great, but isn’t an in-house staff cheaper?

Possibly not: outsourcing delivers lower operational costs and provides specialisation that is not always readily available in-house.  By using an agency, you have access to the range of skilled specialists who can deliver high-quality output, much faster than the thinly spread in-house resources.

Outsourcing is not a substitute for competent fundraising staff within an organisation. In-house teams still need to have the skills to work with an agency to get the best results.

An agency lets your organisation tap into a wealth of knowledge and talent and provides an opportunity to harness the experience of agency teams, who work across multiple clients, testing, analysing and adapting tactics to maximise results.

Think of it this way:

  • A lot of people — on your team and elsewhere — know how to create good fundraising strategy.
  • A lot of people — on your team and elsewhere — can write powerful fundraising copy and design great packages.
  • A lot of people — on your team and elsewhere — can manage complex projects.
  • A lot of people — on your team and elsewhere — can competently analyse data.

Those are things to outsource. Those people at an agency likely have more experience, more breadth, more specialisation.  After all, it is often all they do.

For example, an in-house direct mail manager may mail 10 direct mail packages a year, with various tests and variables, building on knowledge and experience.  But, for example, a typical Pareto Fundraising account manager could work on five times as many appeals, with five times the test and variable learnings.

Whilst you might have people who can do those things, only people on your team can effectively do these things:

  • Build relationships across your organisational silos to get relevant information from program people.
  • Make sure all internal stakeholders are getting the involvement they need (and not getting what they don’t need).
  • Manage upward to keep leaders just enough (but not too much) in the loop.
  • Stay on top of the many details that flow from any donor database.

There’s no way to outsource those things. The best agencies in the world can’t do it for you!

So only do in-house what only in-house people can do. Outsource the other stuff! It’s the most effective way!

The secret to working effectively with an agency is a collaborative partnership, developing a clear strategy, planning effectively and harnessing the knowledge both in-house and outsourced staff bring to the table.

Dearne Cameron, Pareto Fundraising

Note on Dearne from Sean: Dearne has worked with charities for 18 years. She was actually one of my first clients when I set up Pareto! She used to be General Manager and Director of Anglicare and Anglican Aid and Non-Executive Director for Make-A-Wish Australia for six years. She is on the board of House-With-No-Steps so has lots of experience either side of out-sourcing.

Please share your experience with outsourcing or not by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.

You can help your in-house people reach their maximum potential with our powerful Moceanic courses on practical fundraising topics. Find out more here.

CFRE Points:
TrendsBrandingDemographicsDirect MailDonor Love

Thank You For ‘Hanging Out’ With Me

By reading my articles, I guess you care about making the world a better place and raising more money for the causes you care about.

I am chuffed by the feedback I get from my updates (please send more – just nice ones before Christmas) and I hope they are directly useful.  Thank you for reading.

I subscribe to dozens of such updates, and it is hard to decide which ones to allow into your inbox.

Maybe it will help you if I share some of the fundraising updates I find most useful, and why.

Today, I’ll start with the one I read the most.  Partly because it is the most frequent, partly because the updates are short, but mainly because each update cuts to the chase and is based on real data and evidence.


Jeff Brooks www.futurefundraisingnow.com

Subscribe to that, and you have a decent Christmas present from me. And if you already subscribe, you know you’re getting a gift from Jeff in your email inbox almost every day.


CFRE Points:
AMREF Holland Mid Value Whole Pack Photo 3 e1514453977164
Direct MailMajor and Mid Value Donors

The Easiest Case for Support

Bas, a new fundraiser at a Dutch charity decided he needed to get out and meet some donors.
He looked at those donors who had given by direct mail since that was most of them.  The third donor he spoke to (of a dozen he tried to call) agreed to meet him. Indeed, she sounded excited. Her name was Jeanette.
Every Christmas for four years Jeanette gave €250, and for the big fistula appeal last June, a year ago, she gave €1,000. 
She also gave €500 last February, but this time to a young girls’ education appeal. All were in response to letters she’d received from Bas’s charity, like the one below, which was their upcoming appeal.
Bas had been to a few conferences and knew he needed a case for support.  But that seemed like it would take a lot of time to develop from scratch.
Now that Jeanette had agreed to meet, Bas had a look in more detail at her giving history.  She seemed to respond really well to issues about children and young people.
And the next direct mail appeal was all about fistula – something she had given very generously to in the past.
He decided the easiest thing to do would be to take the personalised direct mail she would be getting in the post and deliver it by hand.  The brilliant communications team in the charity had researched the topic really well. 
They had lots of photos for the direct mail campaign (much more than were used) and videos too.  They were running the videos in posts on social media and on their website.
He printed the photos out on good photo paper – like one of those envelopes of photos we used to get before photography went digital.  He also got the videos transferred to his Samsung tablet.

He had a good, long chat with the communications people, who had met the people featured in the appeal. Now he had a great – albeit second hand – story of the project from someone who’d been there.

He would love to have taken one of those ‘witnesses’ with him, but he knew he would be visiting lots of donors, and dragging a communications or programs person to everyone would not make financial sense.  He had to make this work on his own.

Now he had a great case study – basically the next direct mail appeal – and some extra material.  All at hardly any cost of money or time.

Jeanette loved it.  She loved the time he gave her, the videos and the photos.  He made her feel special.  And she really cared about the young people he talked to her about.  She used to be a nurse and knew all about fistula – a horrible but easily cured condition, which without treatment causes lots of problems for victims.

She gave him €20,000.  More than either expected.  Which actually allowed him to raise €100,000 more.  (But more about that in another article.)

Don’t use the lack of a case for support as a reason not to ask your direct mail donors for more.

They really care already, or they wouldn’t be donating. And you’ve got great material already!

Find out how you can become great at direct mail by joining The Fundraisingology Lab.

CFRE Points:
Direct mail
Digital FundraisingDirect Mail

Using URLs in Direct Mail

Thanks to Mike Linnemann from the University of Minnesota Foundation, and Tom Ahern, donor communications expert whose recent Twitter conversation inspired this blog.

Direct mail is the largest source of new donors in most fundraising markets.

Yet, even with an average age of 70-80, depending on the country, many of these donors are online as well.

So, should we include convenient URLs for donors in our direct mail letters?


Sean triner blog pic 1


URL on a response coupon – in the ‘To Make a Gift’ section.

The answer seems obvious. Of course, we should! If we do, we see a big spike in online donations.

But is that the right answer?

A good few years ago we tested including URL on the donation form and in the PS of a direct mail letter.

Something like: www.charityname.com.au/BetsyAppeal.

In this A v B test, half of letters (A) included the URL, half (B) didn’t.

Unsurprisingly, there were more donations made online from the A Group – people who were given the URL, than from the B Group.

Whenever you send direct mail, there is usually a spike in donations to the standard donation page on www.charityname.com.au.

However, with volumes usually being very small, it is hard to make valid conclusions.

The correct measure for the test, because this was a warm (house) mailing going to previous donors is: “Does adding a URL to my direct mail letter increase total net income from the group who got the URL?”

Any other measures, like how many donations were made online, average donation and response rates, are all variables contributing to that single question.

In the test the answer was….


Adding the URL reduced total income. Although the A group gave more online, their total giving (including off and online) was less than the B Group.

Adding a URL to my direct mail letter reduced total net income.

Why? What was going on?

My theory is simple.

A good direct mail letter is designed to trigger an emotional response and get the recipient to do something now.

With the standard letter, we asked them to fill in the form, right now, pop it into the enclosed postage-paid envelope and post today.

That’s probably what they have done before, which is why they are on our direct mail warm (house) file.

With the letter that included the URL, we added an extra option, such as, ‘Or you can make a donation online at…’.

What happened was that the 25% or so who had opened the letter and felt motivated enough to give either fill the form there and then (yay!) or put the letter aside with 100% intention to donate when they were online.

The problem is (or was) that they would then have to do stuff to log on – like turn on their computer.

Precious time would pass between their desire to donate and the actual act. And that time would eat into response rates.

Of course, these days with three or four times the mobile penetration than when we tested it (four years ago) many can indeed donate online straight away.

But remember, the average age of a direct mail donor? Hmmm, what proportion of people that age can donate straight away online?

The answer: I just don’t know. Please, someone, test it!

The first charity to send me the results of testing this properly:

A true A/B test looking at whether adding a URL to letter, PS and/or response form statistically increases net income will get a donation of US$150/AUD$150/ €150 from me if they let me post the results.


CFRE Points:
OK, I Want to Mail More But…
Direct MailMajor and Mid Value Donors

A Great Mid Value Mail Pack Explained

I asked Ruthann Richardson of Pareto Fundraising to tell us about a Great Mid Value Pack.

My favourite mid value pack

Looking at the current landscape of fundraising, I can’t help but think that the biggest opportunity for us, as fundraisers today, lies in bequests and major gifts.

As someone who professionally focuses primarily on direct mail, I believe there is a lot of opportunity for us in both of these areas, and furthermore, I think as a sector, we can really improve our communication with mid value donors.

These are not your hundred-thousand-dollar-donors, at least not yet, but still, they are people who give generous amounts of money to your organisation.

WVA Mid Value Mail Pack

The giving values for this group may vary by organisation, but these people are recent donors, who have given on more than one occasion, and who most likely give you $250-$10,000 or more in a year. They are all in your top 20% of donors from which you will likely raise 80% of your appeals income.

I looked at mid value packs from Australia, New Zealand, and North America to try and identify my favourite mid-value pack.  It was really hard to make a choice.

But my favourite pack has to be a mid-value pack that World Vision Australia sent as part of their Australia Programs Appeal in 2014. I love this pack.

I love the inspirational story of an Aboriginal woman who, because of World Vision donors, received her teaching certificate and is helping to create a better future for her community. I love the images of children in pre-school, learning in English and in their local language.

And I love the real-life materials included, like the book World Vision is using to educate families on traditional and modern ways of looking after their babies to give them the best chance at survival.

Then there is the map of the different Aboriginal language groups across Australia and the Program Report.  The latter was photocopied and included in the pack to provide information on the work that World Vision is doing in the Warlpiri region.

The pack also included a ‘with compliments slip’ and a DVD with a message from Tim Costello the CEO.  A special, beautiful sheet of address labels and stickers featuring imagery from central Australia was added in as well.

But to my mind, what really makes this pack special and a stand as a mid-value pack, is the professional way it is packaged and presented to be a donor.  I have been a donor to World Vision in various countries for over 15  years.

All of these inserts, including a five-page letter with a covering page, are included in a beautiful brown folder.  The folder has an opening showing my name through a little window.

All were sent to me in a C4 outer in quality stock.

The covering page indicates, in large letters, that this is a special report – prepared especially for me – and I have to tell you – as a donor – I felt special just opening that pack.

Tim told me, on that very first page, that he needs to raise $710,000 for groundbreaking projects that are crucial to the future of young Australian Indigenous children. He states that the following letter will tell me more about these projects and why it is so important that they are able to continue. And he tells me that he has chosen to send this report only to a small, select group of World Vision Supporters INCLUDING me, and explains to me why…

Firstly, because the contents are confronting because they challenge widely-held beliefs about Indigenous Australians and the disadvantages they face.  And secondly, because he believes I have the courage to respond in a way that many people do not. And it makes me feel like I do.

This pack is impossible to ignore in your letterbox.  And you cannot help but open to the first simple, and effective covering page.  This is a personal invitation to walk alongside Indigenous Australians who are making powerful, positive change in their communities.

As a recipient, I felt inspired, honoured and incredibly important because of the belief that World Vision has in me.

Because I was fortunate enough to have worked on this pack, I know that the mid-value segment exceeded expectations, and I can’t help but believe that the special care and attention, and the additional inserts included in this pack contributed to the exception result from our mid-value donors.

This pack was designed specifically for them and presented a solid case for why the donors’ support was so essential to the success of these programs and the incredible work World Vision is doing with Indigenous communities in Australia.

Ruthann Richardson, April 2016

Ruthann Richardson has worked in fundraising for many years, including working with World Vision in Canada and Australia.  She now works in Sydney, Australia with Pareto Fundraising. She remains a dedicated World Vision supporter.

P.S. Discover how you can become an expert on creating these awesome packs by checking out our Mid Value Donor Super Course. Get access when you join The Fundraisingology Lab.

CFRE Points: