Most common format of fundraising direct mail, and why it’s a failure

I see a lot of direct mail fundraising. Really, a lot.

There’s one direct mail format that is by far the most common. About 70% of the direct mail I see follows this format.

I’m going to walk you through this standard DM format in hope that if you are using it you’ll stop.

Because it really doesn’t work. Here’s what it’s like:

Give-it-all-away outer envelope

The outer envelope teaser often says something like this: You can impact so many lives with your generosity! It might as well say, Warning: Appeal for Funds Enclosed! For all but an extremely narrow slice of any donor audience, “Oh good, another appeal letter” is not the starting point while they sort their mail. If you think of the teaser is meant have the same function as the headlines in a newspaper (that is, to label the content so the reader can decide whether or not she’s interested) — you are thinking about it wrong. The job of the outer envelope is to get opened. And the best way to do that is with some kind of mystery.

One-page letter

Front of a single sheet only. Why? Probably someone said, “Nobody has time to read any more; keep the letter short.” It’s well established, and repeatedly confirmed by testing: Long letters nearly always do better than short letters. You should almost never mail one-page letters. (There are exceptions, but I’m not going to tell you what they are, because they are rare.)

Cramped design

Small font, no space between paragraphs, almost no margins.
They’re often like this no doubt because they couldn’t really make their fit on one page — so they crammed two pages onto one. When fundraising is hard to read, it gets less response.

No problem, no solution, no donor

This short letter typically starts by thanking donors for their past support. Than it moves to an account of someone who was helped in the past. Or worse, a recitation of statistics about how many people they’ve helped in the past.

There’s often no direct ask at all, just an indirect mention of “joining the campaign” or something similarly abstract.

Overall message: We are really awesome, doing great work. Be part of the awesomeness.

That’s not really fundraising. Fundraising is about a problem, a solution, and how the donor can make the solution happen. If you don’t do that, you are just hoping enough people are already thinking about donating, and your message is basically a convenient response vehicle.

Why is fundraising like this so often?

I suppose people see this approach again and again, and assume it’s some kind of “best practice.”

It’s not.

Remember these things about direct mail fundraising:

  • Mystery is almost always your best bet for the envelope.
  • Long letters work better than short ones.
  • Readability matters.
  • It must be about some problem the donor can solve. Not about how amazing your organization is.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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