By: Grant Cobb, fundraising specialist with over 6 years experience in the nonprofit space, head of marketing and analytics at GivingMail, and proponent of data-driven decision making.
Direct mail has been, and continues to be, the workhorse of fundraising for nonprofits of all sizes. It is especially important in this uncertain time when so many of us are craving personal interactions and a connection with others.
Direct mail works because it is personal, tangible, and memorable. Donors trust the information they receive in the mail. Many enjoy receiving letters and look forward to their daily trip to the mailbox.
Plus, direct mail fundraising is cost-efficient. It is simple to measure, and easy to scale up or down depending upon results—and response rates are much higher for direct mail than any other channel.
So, if you’re looking for ways to improve your fundraising letters, these best practices can make your efforts even more effective:
- Segment your audience using a nonprofit CRM.
- Include suggested giving amounts.
- Don’t make every communication a fundraising ask.
- Alternate between direct mail and digital strategies.
- Personalize your fundraising letters to each recipient.
- Make it easy for donors to give.
- Use high-quality materials.
By following these best practices, you’re sure to raise more money for your organization and begin building better relationships with supporters. Ready to learn more about each of our tried-and-true fundraising letter tips? Let’s get started!
1. Segment Your Audience Using a Nonprofit CRM
Donor segmentation occurs when you put donors into categories based on similar characteristics. This allows each group of donors to receive a different variation of an appeal, or a new fundraising letter altogether, based on what they’re most likely to respond to. You can segment your audience based on variables like these:
- Dog lovers vs. cat lovers
- Monthly givers vs first-time donors
- Major donors vs. low and mid-level donors
- Online donors vs. direct mail supporters
Segmentation allows you to tailor your communication to each group of donors, and ultimately increase donations. Before you send out a fundraising letter, be sure to think through how you might segment the list to ensure donors receive the most targeted version of the letter possible.
Oftentimes, you can start with a single template letter and just change a few sentences—rather than writing a brand-new letter for each group. This way, you can ensure each communication is targeted to the recipient without having to write an entirely new fundraising letter.
However, donor segmentation can be difficult to set up and execute on, so you want to make sure you have a top-notch donor database that makes it easy. After all, databases can be a real time-saver when it comes to segmentation and other important fundraising tasks. In fact, the best CRMs allow you to automate communications to get a bigger bang for your buck.
Your software should automatically generate donor acknowledgments and gift receipts as well as send a daily report of income received that day. Thanks to technology, you can eliminate manual errors and free up time to focus on more important initiatives that require your attention.
Not all donor databases or nonprofit CRMs are the same, of course. You want to think through your nonprofit’s needs, both now and in the future to find the best match. In doing so, you can set your organization and its fundraising efforts up for continued, data-driven success going forward.
2. Include Suggested Giving Amounts
To bring in the most revenue for your cause, it’s critical that you ask each donor for the right amount. You do not want to take a one size fits all approach. If you ask for an amount that is too low, you risk leaving money on the table. If you ask the donor for too much, you might scare them off.
That’s why ask suggested donation amounts should be personalized for each donor. Use their giving history to determine the right amount to ask each donor. Most nonprofits use a formula based on the donor’s most recent contribution or their highest contribution, often asking for one and a half and two times that amount. For example, if Susan made a $250 donation last year, you might ask her for a $400-500 gift for your upcoming campaign. However, always include an “other” option along with your three or four suggested gift amounts to give donors the freedom to choose any number they’d like. Some donor databases have sophisticated email marketing that can include suggested giving amounts for each donor based on previous giving.
While many times you will base the ask amounts on the donor’s previous giving amount, there are other times when you might want to try asking for significantly more. Sometimes donors are giving at lower amounts, but have the capacity to do much more. By building personal relationships with supporters and encouraging them to become a more critical part of your nonprofit team, you can help solicit larger donations from existing supporters with ease.
In fact, many nonprofits try to track down brand new major gift donors, but the best strategy is to look at your own donor network to find possible upgrades to the major gift level. These donors have already shown they believe in your nonprofit’s mission and trust your nonprofit to make a difference. Donor and prospect research or wealth screenings can help you identify donors with the capacity to make significant gifts.
For example, pay attention to donors who have been giving consistently over several years. A first-time gift of $100 or more can also indicate the capacity to contribute more. Donors of all income levels typically test the waters with nonprofits by first making a gift of a smaller amount. As their belief in your nonprofit’s ability to make a difference grows, so does their giving. Just be sure to follow-up with these donors in order to maximize the impact of their existing and potential support.
Regardless of the exact ask amount, remember to ask early and ask often within your fundraising letter. Don’t be afraid to be direct. This is not a time to be shy or beat around the bush. Make your ask as specific and clear as you can. What are you asking for and why will it make a difference? Be sure to answer these two questions in every fundraising letter you send.
3. Don’t Make Every Communication a Fundraising Ask
Donors don’t want to feel like a walking ATM machine. They believe strongly in your mission and want to feel like they are a part of your team.
Your goal as a fundraiser should be to build strong relationships with donors. One way to accomplish this is to send donors a mix of cultivation and solicitation efforts. Cultivation mailings build trust and familiarity. While these mailings won’t be asking for money, they will inspire donors and lead to increased loyalty, commitment, and ultimately higher giving amounts.
The first type of cultivation mailing you should be sending is a thank-you letter. Your goal should be to get the thank-you letter out the door within 48 hours of receiving the gift. A quick turnaround time will make a good impression on the donor.
This letter should feel warm, personal, and full of genuine gratitude. Keep it simple and don’t try to do too much within the thank-you letter. It should always be personalized with the donor’s name and gift amount, as well as an explanation of how the funds will be used.
Beyond thank-you letters, what other cultivation efforts should your nonprofit consider? You could send anything from a handwritten note or postcard to a thank-you phone call or personal email. The goal is to show your appreciation and to make your donor feel like a hero—without asking for an additional gift.
Be sure to use powerful storytelling methods to show the difference the donor is making. Humans are naturally wired to respond to stories. They capture our imagination and create a stronger emotional connection. Your nonprofit likely has powerful stories to share with donors, so make it a point to capture and communicate these stories to make a difference. Plus, be sure to place the donor at the center of the story as the protagonist. That way, they can better visualize the issue your organization is trying to solve, and imagine themselves as the hero you need.
Another effective cultivation idea to consider is a donor survey. Donors love to share their thoughts and opinions. They believe passionately in your cause, and they want to be heard. Surveys reinforce the idea that donors are truly a part of your organization. Just be sure to think through a feedback loop, reporting back on survey results or detailing how an answer helped shape strategy.
It’s also a good idea to plan out the cultivation efforts you want to send each year beforehand. This will ensure they actually get distributed, rather than put on the backburner. Cultivation done right will make the donor feel appreciated, and feel as special as they are. In the long term, it will lead to more committed donors, and increased giving. The bottom line is that when you treat your donors as people rather than wallets, overall support for your mission will tend to skyrocket.
4. Alternate Between Direct Mail and Digital Strategies
The best approach to fundraising is a multichannel one. You want donors to hear from you both online and offline, and to be able to donate in any way they wish. After all, donors who give through more than one channel are three times more valuable than those who only give through one, and multichannel donors are 56% more likely to be retained.
Yet while multichannel fundraising is widely accepted as best practice, the reality is it can be tricky to implement. Many times, online and offline fundraising is handled by separate departments with little integration. This makes it especially difficult to plan and coordinate efforts.
The best approach to fundraising is to put together a strategy that encompasses both on- and offline efforts. Then, consider how these messages can be timed and coordinated to be most effective. For example, you may want to send a follow-up email the day after you expect your fundraising letter to arrive in donors’ mailboxes.
Alternating between mail and online is often the most impactful strategy, as each channel has its own strengths and weaknesses. An effective multichannel fundraising strategy leverages the strengths of each to combat the weaknesses of the other tactics. It’s a win-win!
However, it’s important that your messaging should be consistent across any channels you use. That doesn’t mean it needs to be identical, as what works in direct mail may not work online, and vice versa. But you should speak with a single, unified voice across several communication channels and maintain consistent branding as well.
Overall, you should avoid thinking of donors as “online donors” or “offline donors.” Donors are donors, and they should receive communication across multiple channels, regardless of which method they use to donate.
5. Personalize Your Fundraising Letters to Each Recipient
Fundraising letters should feel warm and personal, just like a letter you write to your grandmother. You may be sending your letter to thousands of donors, but you don’t want it to feel that way. You want the donor to feel like you are writing just to them.
One way to do this is to include personalization throughout the letter. This can be as simple as using the donor’s name in the salutation and in a few additional paragraphs throughout the letter. People love seeing their name, and it can deepen your connection with the reader in the simplest way.
Personalization can also include things like how long the donor has been giving, what they most recently gave in response to, if they are a volunteer, and where they live. These seemingly small details can go a long way for forming connections and building relationships that last.
Donors want to feel like you know them and appreciate them for who they are. Personalization can help accomplish this. From using the donor’s name to asking for a specific gift amount, personalization shows donors that you know and care. It also demonstrates to the donor that you believe they are an important and valued part of your nonprofit.
6. Make it Easy for Donors to Give
Finally, it’s critical that you make it easy for donors to give in response to your fundraising letters. This might seem like an obvious, if not self-explanatory, tip, but you would be surprised to learn how often nonprofits complicate the giving process or confuse donors—whether on the reply form or elsewhere. You don’t want the donor to have any questions about how to make a contribution!
So how can you make it easy for donors to give? Consider these tips:
- Be specific, clear, and consistent with your ask. Repeat the same ask throughout the letter, and again on the reply form. The donor should be able to easily understand what it is you are asking them to do. For example, you might ask the donor to renew their membership with a gift of $25, or you could be asking the donor to give $30 to provide a warm meal for a family. In either scenario, it should be crystal clear to the donor the contribution you’re requesting and how it will make a difference.
- Remove any internal jargon or acronyms from your copy. Fundraising letters should be easy to read and understand for everyone, not just experts within your nonprofit. If you do include acronyms or more technical language, be sure to provide detailed explanations and definitions as well. After all, you should be writing a letter to a friend, rather than a textbook.
- Include a single call to action: make a donation. When you ask a donor to do more than one thing, they are less likely to do the thing you actually want them to do. You don’t want to ask the donor to sign up to volunteer, give their email address, and also donate within the same letter. Most likely, they will only do one thing, so you want to make sure you emphasize your fundraising ask as the intended call to action.
- Make your reply form easy to understand, and friction-free. Friction is anything that will slow the donor down from making a contribution. For example, asking them to choose from too many options or asking them for both a monthly donation and to join your planned giving society. You want to reduce any anxiety the donor may have about making a contribution, and reassure them they are making the right choice.
- Ensure the flow of the reply form is logical. Don’t ask the donor to do more than you need them to do on the reply form. Pre-fill as much as you can, for example their name, address, and giving amounts. This isn’t the place to ask for their phone number or if they would like an invitation to an upcoming event.
- Always include a return envelope with stamps or with postage prepaid. While it might seem expensive, it is well worth it. Otherwise, donors are scrambling around trying to find an envelope and stamps and, in the meantime, will likely get distracted and never make that contribution. Remember, you want to make it as easy as you can for them to say yes and send in their donation.
Finally, consider asking a friend or colleague to look through the direct mail package before you send it to donors. Ask them if anything isn’t clear, and see if they have any questions or concerns about the donation process. Oftentimes we are so close to our own fundraising efforts that we fail to see what might not be obvious to others. By encouraging an outside perspective, you can attempt to clear any roadblocks before sending your fundraising letters out to their intended recipients.
7. Use High-Quality Materials
You want your fundraising package to reflect the quality of your nonprofit, and to show donors that they are a valued part of your organization. For these reasons, it is important to use high-quality materials.
Spending a little more for nicer paper or full-color printing can go a long way. Your direct mail package will stand out in the mailbox and get opened by donors. Recipients will also feel appreciated and enjoy receiving something “nice.”
Be sure the printing is sharp. This will make it easier for donors to read, which is especially important for older donors. Print that is too light or smudged is just too difficult for this age group to read. Plus, it implies that you didn’t put enough effort into your fundraising letters.
Therefore if you are sending any type of front-end premium, be sure to see physical samples before mailing it to ensure the appeal is of good quality. This ensures that the final product that the donor receives has gone through enough of a vetting process that you determine it will do the job effectively. Check out: 5 Hurdles Your Direct Mail Package Must Overcome to Get Opened
Fundraising letters are a powerful form of communication. Done right, fundraising letters are personal, inspiring, and effective. They not only raise money; they can also help build stronger relationships with donors, making it a win-win for everyone involved.
Remember that the best fundraising letters use segmentation and personalization to craft a letter that feels like it was written just for the donor. Use suggested giving amounts based on the donor’s previous giving and make it easy and friction-free to donate.
Fundraising letters are effective, but they should just be one part of the puzzle. They cannot be the only communication donors receive. Adding cultivation efforts to your fundraising strategy will provide an opportunity to report back to the donor on the impact their gift has made. These letters show the donor how appreciated they are and will make them feel like the hero of your mission.
When you follow these best practices, you can take your fundraising letters to the next level. This will lead to happier donors and higher income for your nonprofit to use toward pursuing your overarching mission. Good luck!