Direct Mail Distinctions

Dear Kim:

What is the difference between writing a “major gift” direct mail appeal and a general direct mail appeal? Are there differences in writing style—tone, vocabulary? I recently heard a writer referred to as someone who “writes for the $25 gift, not the $2,500 gift”. What does that mean? I understand that in terms of content, but what else is different?

We work well with our major donors. We send them special updates, give them incentives, and arrange visits with people important to our issue, etc. We have individualized proposals, with attachments, for major donors when we can’t reach them by any route except snail mail.

But I hadn’t thought how an appeal letter might have a different style. What do you think? I haven’t found much online about this.

Hoping Not to be Tone Deaf

Dear Tone:

The distinctions you are making between tone, style, content and vocabulary are interesting, but are leading you away from what you need to focus on here and what will give you insight into how to write to people able and possibly willing to give $2,500.

Direct mail is primarily used to acquire donors—in other words, to get someone to go from never having given to making their first gift. Since fundraising is about building relationships, direct mail is the first encounter. It launches a person into your organizational orbit. The first gift people make is usually small and does not require a lot of thought. The tone, the style, the vocabulary and the content are all aimed at getting a person to decide very quickly that they are going give $25, $35, $50—a gift that is easy to make.

Asking a donor who has given to give again will take a different tone, style, etc. First, you will thank the donor for the work their gift has made possible and tell them a little about that work. You then make a case that what has been done must keep on being done, and you ask the person to help again. A large cross section of your donors will choose to stay in a direct mail relationship, giving money year in and year out but never taking advantage of invitations to volunteer, come to events, or give bigger gifts. These donors are often described as “habitual” donors. They may not even read your letter. They see the appeal is from your organization, pull out the return envelope, and next time they are paying bills, they send you a gift. They think you are a good organization, but they don’t think about you very much.

Moving people to give $2,500, or asking someone to consider $2,500 as their first gift involves taking into account that even a very wealthy person knows that $2,500 is a lot of money, and that it is more money than 99 percent of people are going to send in response to a direct mail appeal. Generally, gifts of this size are solicited more personally, and it sounds like you have a program that is working well to do that. The tone of the letter introducing a solicitation for such a gift is more thoughtful, and as you already know, provides more content. You can use direct mail to bring in large gifts. Mal Warwick’s new book, The Mercifully Brief, Real-World Guide to Raising $1,000 Gifts by Mail published by Emerson and Church cites more than 100 examples of how direct mail can bring in large gifts, and it provides a step-by-step guide for how you can use direct mail in that way. However, the fact remains that your best bet for bringing in large gifts is personal solicitation. The letter you write to introduce the idea of such a gift should be followed by a phone call seeking a meeting with the prospective donor, and then a meeting at which you describe the program in more detail, answer questions, and solicit the gift.

Coming back to the idea that fundraising is about building relationships, we want to move some of our donors out of direct mail and into a relationship where we can easily phone or e-mail them personally and occasionally visit them. Some of them will not only give larger gifts, they will also become board members, advisors and fundraisers for us. Direct mail is a wonderful and useful strategy, but it has its limits.

The tone, style, content and vocabulary of relationship-based fundraising is what you want to focus on in order to bring in the most gifts and the biggest gifts.

Good luck!

–Kim Klein