How to | Direct mail experts offer top tips

publication date: Feb 26, 2019
author/source: Started by John Lepp, with Tom Ahern, Jonathon Grapsas, Kurstin Finch Gnehm, Jenna Griffith, Pamela Grow, Amanda Santer, Lisa Sargent, Aimee Vance, Ken Wyman and lightly edited by Ann Rosenfield

Recently, John Lepp asked the Twitterverse the following question "ATTN: direct response nerds - doing a session for newbie nerds... what one tidbit, tactic, resource, learning, example would you show or discuss?" What follows below is a lightly edited set of the smart responses to John's excellent question.

Thank you very much

Lisa Sargeant stressed the importance of saying thank you. "Promptly. Warmly. Repeatedly. Consistently" She noted that she has lots available for free on the SOFII website. She generously added  "[anyone] can even swipe the copy" 

Tom Ahern agreed noting "Ask, thank, report definitely. They need to know right from the start ('cause it took me forever, years of ignorance, to learn this): direct mail (any ask, really) is not a stand-alone. It's part of a emote-based system (ask, thank, report) for attracting and keeping supporters."

Testing, testing

Jonathon Grapsas notes "So much of what we do as direct response fundraisers is counter intuitive (often newbies). Those long letters work? People stop and give on the street? Donors respond to those “ugly” looking, unbranded packs? Less choice is better? Prepare to have your gut reaction challenged."

In a similar vein, Aimee Vance states an emphatic "TEST the message!" Matthew Dubins agreed and commented that it is important to "test new messaging and new creative. If you get a higher response rate with whatever is new, and the difference is statistically reliable, go with it. Matthew also included a link to an A/B test tool

It's all about Y-O-U

Jenna Griffith reminds us that  "it’s a bit beige, but [take care of your] data. ‘Dear friend’ always hurts my heart. Finding out how people want to be greeted is really valuable. Also spending the time personalising packs (we get them back to add in a handwritten note)."

Kurstin Finch Gnehm notes that "Use the word "you" at least twice as much as you use the word "we." One page is not long enough to tell a really good story." and she adds "Have a great PS if you can!"

Ken Wyman believes that "The letter is the least important part of the appeal package, even though people spend so much time writing it. When your boss makes minor changes, don't sweat it. But it has to have 1. an emotional story, 2. several clear asks, and 3. a great PS that asks again.

In contrast, Amanda Santer states "that fundraising communication is not what you like or don’t like or what you think will motivate or inspire." Fundraising communication "is about what your audience will think and feel. Don’t make it about you, [personally] or [allow it to be an] internal decision by committee."

She adds that, as a new professional, it is difficult to push back against non-experts. She notes this is hard and "more so when you are newer and feel you have to take on board ridiculous comments without feeling you can challenge or say ‘you aren’t the audience’ [to explain why you] will not make that change."


Ken Wyman offered a number of very practical tips including:

-Make it easy to give. A good reply form and a reply envelope are essential, even though a growing percentage of donors will give online.

-The reply form has to to re-persuade donors who put it aside for later without the letter.

-The outside envelope deserves a LOT of attention. If the donors don't open it you don't get a donation.

Pamela Grow suggests that running your text through Hemingway helps to simplify writing. She says that  "with our students, [it] makes such a huge difference."

Finally, Ann Rosenfield adds "Allow at least one week for the person who is signing the letter to review it and make changes. If a patient, client, volunteer, or other nice person is kind enough to let you use their story, be sure you allow enough time for them to review what has been written about them" 

Last word

I'll give the final word to the expert who started this off, John Lepp. John notes that he has agreed that these suggestions  are perfect for someone new to the sector and that you have "got to go higher up the tree for the really nerdy stuff."

John Lepp @johnlepp  International speaker and #donorloveexpert at @agentsofgood. I also cook, love soccer and tweet about other really random stuff. 

Tom Ahern @thattomahern Writer since birth. Collector. Of best practices in donor communications. Specifically: TESTED, PROVEN best prax in donor comms, prax that raise more $$$$$$$$

Jonathon Grapsas @jonathongrapsas Founder of @flatearthdirect. An agency dedicated to fundraising for good causes. Back in Australia after UK and Canadian stints.

Kurstin Finch Gnehm @kfinchgnehm Fundraiser at the Royal Academy of Music, mother of two dogs, occasional runner, immigrant to England, and gluten free.

Jenna Griffith @jenergy_88 Wanderluster. Music & coffee lover. SUP novice. Yogi. Powered by plants. Work in #NFP sector. Stay curious. Be kind. Have an open mind.

Pamela Grow @PamelaGrow Creator of Simple Development Systems & Basic & More • Fundraising training guaranteed to get you results 

Ann Rosenfield @AnnBRosenfield won an award for direct mail from Mal Warwick once and is a working front-line fundraiser and the Editor of Hilborn Charity eNews.

Amanda Santer @AmandaSanter FProud Mum, Deputy Director of Fundraising, animal lover, sport billy, honesty broker and innovator who works to make everything even better! Views are my own.

Lisa Sargent @lisasargent2  International award-winning fundraising copywriter. Donor retention geek. Diehard defender of direct mail (and strong coffee). 

Aimee Vance @NPOfriend 20+ year non profit professional, consultant, coach, mentor, and speaker dedicated to bringing excellence to the non profit community.

Ken Wyman @KenWyman Consultant / Professor Fundraising Management graduate program at Humber College

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