The “default” direct mail appeal doesn’t really work

According to informal research (i.e. the random fundraising mail that shows up in my mailbox), there’s a default way to do direct mail fundraising.

It’s like this:

  • #10 outer envelope, window or closed face, with a teaser like a journalistic headline — it clearly signals what’s inside, like, “Please help hungry children in the community today!”
  • One page letter. Because “nobody reads any more.” Often with a puzzling photo of some activity. Type is often tiny (10 point or less) to get it all to fit on one side of the letter.
  • Reply Device either a coupon (about 8.5 x 3.5”) or a small “bangtail” envelope where the donor must write in their details.
  • A brochure of some kind (optional).
  • #9 (or smaller) return envelope, unless there’s a “bangtail” reply device.

Straightforward, affordable, easy.

If your direct mail fundraising looks like this, you need to change it. Right away. Here’s why:

  • There’s nothing wrong with a #10 outer envelope; it’s affordable and works just fine. But larger (or smaller) sizes tend to work better. It’s the journalistic teaser that could be hurting you: With a few exceptions, the best approach is mystery. More people pay attention to an envelope that doesn’t say exactly what’s inside. The go-to thing is no teaser at all.
  • Hold on to your hat, because I’m going to tell you something that may surprise you: Longer letters overwhelmingly perform better than short ones. A one-page letter is a big mistake (usually). Two pages, four pages, or more should be your standard letters. (And 12 point type is the smallest the letter copy should be. Bigger yet is better!
  • Coupon-sized reply devices aren’t going to kill you, but something bigger is likely to do better. And a reply device combined with an envelope is a pretty dependable loser.
  • Lift pieces work. They usually “lift” response. But not brochures.
  • #9 is a good go-to size for a return envelope. You can improve it a bit by using a color paper other than white.

I’m not sure why the “default” direct format is so common. Are they teaching that in fundraising school?

But don’t do it!


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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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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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