Why simple, old-fashioned-looking fundraising still works like crazy

Guest post by Steven Screen, co-founder of The Better Fundraising Company.

About 10 years ago I suggested to a client that we design a fundraising letter to look like a telegram.

“A telegram?!?”

They looked at me like I was crazy.

“Why in the world would we do that? No one has sent telegrams in 50 years!” A couple of the younger people in the room had to be told what a telegram was.

Thankfully our fundraising for this organization was going really well. So they were willing to hear me out. I said something like, “Look, I know it seems crazy to you and me. But we know that most of your core donors are older than those of us in this room. Those older donors will know what a telegram is, and remember that receiving a telegram meant that the message was important and urgent. Just that feeling should be enough to increase the number of people who open the envelope and read the letter.”

The team agreed to try it.

I advised the organization to do something as crazy as making a letter look like a telegram because of something I’ve seen again and again in my career:

Simple, old-fashioned-looking fundraising usually does better than the great-looking modern stuff us fundraisers are attracted to.

This rests on a fundamental truth: the vast majority of donors in the united states are older than you are. The research I’ve seen pegs the average age at about 69. That means there are a LOT of donors who are older than that.

This means that your donors are going to be more likely to interact with, and emotionally resonate with, design that references their youth. In other words, design that looks “old fashioned” to you and me.

Plus, your donor received four fundraising letters yesterday that all looked the same. When was the last time she got something that looked like a telegram?

“Old-fashioned” design works so well for another couple reasons:

  • It’s more legible. The type was larger, the fonts had serifs. It was easier to read quickly. And legibility is directly related to fundraising results. (Sidenote: if you have a 25-year-old designer with fantastic eyes who loves their tiny, cool-looking sans-serif fonts and reverse text . . . good luck.)
  • It’s more scannable. It’s generally easier to look at and know, within a second or two, what’s going on. Or in the case of fundraising, what the organization is communicating to the donor. Because scanability is also directly related to fundraising results.

Please note that I’m talking almost exclusively about mass donor communications. If you have an application for a grant, it probably shouldn’t look like a telegram. But you can apply this principle to almost any donor communication.

And that letter that we designed to look like a telegram? It worked great.

Because remember: donors are generous, compassionate, busy, over-solicited, probably older than you, and are attracted to different things than you.

The surest path to their heart is via design that they resonate with (and find easy to read). That may or may not be “modern.” It may or may not be what you or your organization like. But it’s why “old-fashioned” design still works so well.

(This post first appeared on January 18, 2018.)


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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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