Direct-Mail Letters:Brief is Better


 By James V. D’Ambrosio

Have you ever opened a direct-mail solicitation from a charity only to find a 4-6 page missive you know you won’t read? These letters are destined for the wastebasket. This is  a terrible waste of time, money and effort. No matter how eloquent your letter or noble your cause, if no one reads it, what’s the point?

As the giving season begins (the majority of contributions occur from October- December), it is wise to re-visit direct-mail efforts. In today’s wired world where people are constantly bombarded with messages — Internet, cell phones, texts, instant messaging, e-mail, and 24-hour TV news outlets — attention spans have grown shorter. People simply won’t spend much time reading a letter.

The answer is to be brief. Solicitations must quickly grab a reader’s attention, demonstrate an urgent need, and make the ask. Using a human service agency as an example, the following approach — a concise, one-page one-sided letter — is far more likely to be read and considered:

Opening Paragraph: Briefly describe your organization’s mission/history, emphasizing  dedication to the cause, helping people in need, etc. Then talk about a specific program and briefly describe services provided.

Second Paragraph: Provide a specific example of a person in need (use a generic name),  how difficult things are, and how your agency has positively impacted their life. Imply a strong need for continued intervention to minimize hardship/suffering.

Third Paragraph:  Discuss how donors’ generosity has made a macro impact. Then mention what a specific gift, say $50, will provide. For example, a disaster relief agency might say that $50 provides three meals a day for a month for a family of four left homeless from an earthquake. This provides donors concrete evidence of how their contributions help. You have to paint a clear picture — people won’t know unless you spell it out.   

Closing Paragraph: Emphasize your agency’s efficient use of resources, if indeed, it’s the case. For example, if 90 percent of your revenue goes directly for programming, say so, it’s an excellent selling point. Then make the ask, within the context that a contribution allows your agency to continue providing essential services to those in need.

To be sure, there is no easy way to consistently raise money, especially during today’s prolonged economic uncertainty and limited budgets. Further, nonprofits can ill afford to spend a lot of money on direct-mail campaigns that yield marginal results. Therefore, keeping direct-mail pieces short and compelling — with donors’ interests  in mind — can help maximize returns on direct-mail. The above example can be tailored to your agency’s specific strengths and selling points.   

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