Of all the industries that succeed using direct mail, probably the largest single sector is non-profit fundraising. While online channels — websites, email, and social — grab a lot of attention, mail is still the most popular way to reach donors to causes and organizations of all kinds. And according to Blackbaud Institute’s latest Charitable Giving Report, online channels account for only 8.5% of all fundraising.
Clearly, direct mail is still valued because it is doing something right — but what?
Well, the most significant factor in successful non-profit direct mail is the fundraising letter itself.
How to write a nonprofit donation letter is an art as much as it is a science, something that can be broken down into rules, and structures that seem familiar while also propelling the reader along the AIDA process straight to taking action by sending money.
While entire books can be written about this art, here are a few quick tips to get you started, drawn from our collection of the best fundraising letter examples (more on how to do that yourself below).
1. Write to the Right Segment
If you have the resources for it, test versions of your basic appeals and renewal or upgrade campaigns by using language that resonates more with specific audiences. Your nonprofit likely has a diverse set of stakeholders with their own backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives based on age, income level, gender, and even geography.
Based on what you know about your target donors, you can modify your mailings, adjust images, copy, and ask amounts to encourage more engagement, loyalty, and contributions.
Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, in this November 2020 campaign, mailed to past donors, thanked them for past support, and asked for a year-end donation at a higher level than previously.
2. Use Emotions But Smartly
I’ve talked about the wisdom in using emotions in direct mail to drive action. It’s a proven technique that nearly always beats facts and figures. But … do you always have to make an appeal to the dark side?
The goal here is to carefully build anger, fear, and other negative emotions but instead of giving in fully to them, give your prospective donor a place to step off and do something positive, like enlisting in your cause and making a donation. In other words, turn a negative into a positive.
In this effort mailed in December 2020, Alzheimer’s Disease Research is all positive: “Your support is changing the future! …We couldn’t make important strides like this without you!”
3. Give Them Something Else to Do
Let’s face it.
You want donors to give you money, and hopefully, as much as possible for them. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you can also get their help by asking them to take actions that help your cause without hitting your credit card. Some examples: visit your social media sites, enlist other like-minded people, or volunteer their time.
Social media callouts are found below the P.S. in this December 2020 letter from ASPCA.
4. Be Jargon Free
Your reader — the person you’re targeting for a donation — probably isn’t familiar with all of the terminology people at your nonprofit use every day in their work.
And even if they did, should they care? Keep all of that to a minimum and focus on the task at hand — making them understand why they need to take action by joining you. Treat it like a simple conversation across a table, not a boring powerpoint.
There are lots of ways to do this, but here’s an example in a member acquisition letter mailed by the National Wildlife Federation in April 2020. Instead of statistics about species loss or jargon with names of government agencies or laws, this appeal starts with a picture and account of how polar bears now resort more and more to extreme ways to find food with sea ice disappearing due to rapid climate change.
5. Tie Everything Together
Yes, the fundraising donation letter is the star player on your direct mail campaign team. But it should support the other players on the team. If you have an interesting or meaningful teaser on the outer envelope, the letter should reference it — if only subtly. The same goes for any inserts that provide statistics, the reply form with its ask amounts, or premiums that provoke a little guilt in the donor. Support them and they’ll make the letter work better.
There are lots of ways to do this. Here is a simple example. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has used this line on its outers for years: “Would you give $10… just $10 .. to help St. Jude save a child’s life?” It’s mailed with a simple 1-page letter that quickly runs down how St. Jude helps kids. And the ask amounts on the reply form start at $10.
Fundraising Letter Template
This subcategory relies on others to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. For example, doctors, nurses are respected voices of authority that demonstrate both expertise and compassion.
Personal names, stories, photos, artwork — all create a connection with the donor, especially when they also appear on a premium included in the campaign, like name & address labels or calendars.
In many cases, the salutation for a political fundraising donor acquisition letter addresses a prospect as “friend” or another neutral term instead of by their name. The exception: letters to past or recent donors for renewals, year-end campaigns, etc.
Because wealthy donors have other ways to be reached, direct mail in political fundraising is dominated by appeals for the middle class. The language you use — referencing values, fairness, etc. — should reflect this.
Also, because money is the lifeblood of political campaigns, it’s important to emphasize deadlines, matching amounts, and “momentum” to keep donors interested.
Religious organizations have a variety of missions that generally focus on the best of what human beings can do, serving others as well as a higher power. With few exceptions, the language tends to be positive, unifying, and caring. For people who may not think of themselves as very spiritual, there are faith-based organizations that carefully frame their appeals to emphasize service in a more general way.
The heartbreaking start of the letter gets the reader to visualize the problem the group is trying to solve. It pulls the donor and nonprofit together and with the power to make specific change happen. It also stresses the urgency of making a membership gift by the end of the month in order to have that amount matched and create a bigger impact.
The P.S. restates the urgency of a gift, and the call-to-action includes a landing page for the campaign to make an immediate change.
Letters for relief efforts sometimes focus on individual stories, while others talk about communities as a whole. More than anything, the intent is to build compassion.
Mentioning specific, odd-dollar amounts (and how many people are helped) makes the appeal more relatable, more real. It also builds credibility by creating the impression of thriftiness — that impacts are measured down to the penny.
Also, mentioning COVID-19 in any way helps emphasize the seriousness of an appeal even if it’s not directly related to it.
How to Write a Direct Mail Fundraising Letter: Who’s Mailing What! Step-by-Step Instruction
On the search page, members of Who’s Mailing What! can search on the entire Nonprofit category, or focus on mail in one or more subcategories:
- Civic & Social Organizations
- Religious Institutions
With the thousands of mail pieces in Who’s Mailing What!, you can construct templates like the ones I made above. How?
Start with the goal (or goals) of your campaign. Let’s say you’re targeting your biggest donors for an end-of-year annual fund effort.
On the Who’s Mailing What! Website, here’s how to put all of your filters to your advantage.
1. Select the subcategory you want to write in.
2. Customize your search by selecting the date range and the format (free tip: envelope is the best choice in fundraising).
You can add a keyword or phrase in quotation marks (e.g., “donation”) to narrow down your search even further and click the Search button.
3. From your search results, look through the PDFs of mail pieces. You can scroll through the thumbnail images of a mail piece and click on the magnifying glass tool to view it in more detail.
Select the PDF to explore the details.
4. Save to the dashboard the mail pieces that caught your eye and access them any time. Use this swipe file to draw inspiration from when working on your fundraising letter.
You can also download or print the PDF of you choice to share with your team for inspiration.
According to the latest count, there are 27,000+ total mail pieces in Who’s Mailing What!’s Nonprofit category. As we upload new mail pieces daily, you can keep track of the Nonprofit industry with our FREE Look Up tool. Simply select “nonprofit” in the list of industries or enter any keyword to see the number of mail pieces in this niche.
These templates by themselves will not make you a better writer. My purpose in including them is to show that most successful mail follows a basic form because of its function, such as acquisition, renewal, upgrade, etc.
In a world where donation dollars and commitments are under stress from the competition as well as economic pressures, you must remember to talk about and demonstrate how the donor can make a problem, or the world, better with their gift. It’s never about you or your nonprofit, but all about the donor — the hero.