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Improving direct mail fundraising letters

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Richard D. Waters

Because the direct mail solicitation letter is a staple of any nonprofit organization’s annual giving campaign, many books have been written to help fundraisers develop the perfect letter.

Books, such as “How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters” and “The Complete Book of Model Fundraising Letters,” offer helpful tips on how to write a variety of letters, ranging from emergency appeals to letters designed for donor retention.

While these books offer great insights on how an organization can improve its letters, they often rely on the use of attention-getting stories of success, emotional messages from clients or participants, and messages that stress community-building and togetherness to entice donors to give.

Some handbooks even suggest the focus of solicitation letters should be the feelings of satisfaction that a donor will experience after giving to a good cause.

Referring back to the four types of fundraising communication, these are examples of the press agentry or publicity style of fundraising communication.  But even though it is one of the styles most often used by fundraisers, recent research has shown it may not be the most effective.

In the past few years, nonprofit scholars have analyzed the content of direct mail letters from nonprofit organizations around the country to determine what characteristics made some fundraising letters more successful than others.

One study found that only 40 percent of fundraising letters used an emotional appeal strategy with its writing.

Another 35 percent used a straightforward approach where the fundraisers presented the need in an unbiased, objective manner.

Researchers found that donors were more likely to respond to messages that weren’t overly emotional.

Fundraisers that used this style of communication felt that donors would respond positively when presented with the simple facts and figures about a worthy cause.  Analysis revealed that these letters indeed did produce a higher response rate during annual giving campaigns.

The remaining 25 percent used a strategy that combined the facts and figures with emotional messages.

Even though fundraisers are often encouraged to “pull at a donor’s heart strings” with stories of their organization, research indicates that successful fundraising campaigns should not rely solely on emotional messages.

Of the three types of letters, those written with only facts and figures had higher response rates than those with emotional appeals.

The combined strategy resulted in a higher response than a purely emotional approach, but these letters still were not as powerful as the straightforward approach.

As we approach the Springtime annual giving season, write a few different versions of your annual giving letters.  Try developing letters using these different approaches and test them with your coworkers and key donors.

Hopefully, you will reap benefits from fundraising letters that are created based on scientific studies rather than resorting to the examples used in fundraising books.


Richard D. Waters is an assistant professor in the department of communication, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, at N.C. State University.

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