Tutorial 35: mistakes that Brenda doesn’t need to make.

Once upon a time I received a most interesting e-mail from a young marketing intern that we’ll call ‘Brenda’.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
April 05, 2010

She was just finishing her master’s degree in communications and wanted to get a job in direct mail fundraising. Brenda asked if I could share any insights concerning mistakes I’d made, that she could avoid.

Dutifully, I started jotting down a list of the mistakes I’ve made through the years and, before long, I wondered how I ever kept bread on the table, considering all the dumb things I had done.

So this is for you, Brenda.

Mistake 1: getting a degree in communications. Better would have been a degree in psychology. ‘Communications’ is much too passive. When you create a direct mail fundraising package, you go far beyond mere communication. You motivate a person to action.

Mistake 2: trying to test more than one variable at a time. When you do so, you end up like the statistician who stood on a road holding a rope asking himself, ‘Have I lost my horse or found a rope?’

Mistake 3: believing that your donors are going to read your letter word for word, starting at the top and ending at the bottom. Life isn’t that simple. People scan and jump and search for headlines – darn it, they often read the PS before they read the first paragraph.

Mistake 4: assuming that a fundraising letter will change a person’s opinion. You rarely change people’s thinking. For example, in prospecting the best list is one that has the greatest number of people who share your beliefs. Then you are most likely to get a response if you get them excited, or curious, or angry, or apprehensive. But change their minds?

Mistake 5: believing that the letter is the most important ingredient in a direct mail campaign. I hate to admit the truth, but when you rank the list, the offer, the time of year and the letter, the letter comes out last in importance.

However, this doesn’t mean that a sloppy, unfocused letter is going to put your campaign over the top, just the opposite. But the strongest letter ever written mailed mid-summer to non-donors is not going to put cash in your organisation’s bank account.

Mistake 6: slapping teaser copy on every outer envelope you create. Teaser is the oxymoron of direct mail fundraising. Often it will lift response, but just as often it makes your package 100 per cent predictable as to the contents, thus the package fails to get opened.

Mistake 7: overselling the teaser copy and failing to deliver on the inside.

Mistake 8: a lack of understanding of your target audience. And often this is the fault of the organisation itself. So many times I’ve heard the president say, ‘Our donors are educated, informed, young and vigorous’. The truth often is that donors pretty much fall into rather specific categories. They are rarely young, they are most often female and they may or may not be informed.

Mistake 9: failure to understand that most literate people, highly educated or not, are most comfortable reading at a basic level, for instance that of a 13 or 14 year old. This includes the rich and famous, the nerds, the PhDs. Direct mail fundraising is ‘advertising to the point of action’.

Mistake 10: failure to read TV Guide and Reader’s Digest. Sigh. I wish it were not so. But this is what works. You may enjoy The New Yorker but, if that is your style model, you are in trouble.

Mistake 11: failure to understand and respect elderly women. About 90 percent (give or take a few) of the donors who contribute through direct mail are elderly women. Some more educated, some less educated. Learn to love them. Get acquainted with the target audience on a personal level – your mother, your aunt, your neighbour.

Mistake 12: being ashamed to ‘sell’ in the letter copy. A fundraising letter is not an essay, or news story, or a case statement. Instead, it is a persuasive marketing device, and how you handle the persuasion and the emotion will be the hallmark of your success. Strong emotion that is not blatantly obvious is the goal of every writer.

Mistake 13: trying to convince the person to send a gift through the use of definitive words. Instead of ‘explaining’, help the donor to visualise with the use of stories. Let the story be a parable.

Mistake 14: failing to understand the real reason for consumers’ anger about ‘junk mail’. Unsolicited mail is junk mail only if it fails to interest the reader. Junk mail is a by-product of list selection and has nothing to do with your package.

Mistake 15: failing to make your letter look like a letter. Individuals who are responsive to direct mail have strong preconceived notions about what a letter should look like, which is based on a conservative historical model. If you break away from that model, be sure that you are testing a new direction, a new approach, rather than just disappointing the reader. A letter is a letter. That is, unless you are testing a new format. Stay away from innovation unless you are testing. Innovation without prior testing will probably cost you your job.

Mistake 16: enclosing a brochure in the package to provide depth and content. Whoever invented a brochure should be unceremoniously drummed out of direct response marketing forever, and purged from birth records. What works better than a brochure? Almost anything.

Mistake 17: being brainwashed by the philosophy that ‘our donors are busy and only have time to read short letters’. What length should the letter be? Just long enough to work. As a general rule, the more personalised the format is, the shorter the letter copy can be. The more non-personal and commercial, the longer the copy will need to be.

Mistake 18: failing to understand eye movement and the necessity for short paragraphs. Amateurs usually write long paragraphs. Professionals usually write short paragraphs. There’s got to be a reason for this. (Here, you can apply Jerry’s rule no. 137: the safest way to begin a letter is with a one-sentence paragraph.)

Mistake 19: failing to make your copy ‘you and I’ friendly. Write to an individual, one to one, eyeball to eyeball. Draw the readers into your letter as far as you can by referring to their interests, previous giving history, or known concerns, etc.

Mistake 20: failing to understand the difference between the appeal and the offer. The appeal is what you’re raising money for. The offer is the motivation that will persuade the donor to make a gift.

Mistake 21: making an appeal without an offer. Don’t buy into the thinking that ‘our donors are so fantastically motivated that all you need do is tell them about the need and they will come to our rescue’.

Make an offer in every package. It can be a soft offer. You can convince the donor that ‘you’ll feel good about it’ if you send a gift. It can be a hard offer, a premium, and so on and so on. The offer and the appeal must uniquely identify with each other, and that’s not an easy relationship to make happen.

Mistake 22: believing that your donors have a unique relationship with your organisation. Some do and, of course, that’s the ultimate goal. But the reality is that if a donor gives to your organisation, chances are that he or she is giving to several other similar or even dissimilar organisations.

Mistake 23: failing to learn production techniques. Learn production. Spend time at the printers, at the laser centre, at the lettershop, in the art department. Packaging is often more important than words and the cost of the packaging is what will make or break the net results.

Mistake 24: expecting your boss or associates to really like your letters. Brenda, most of the time you are going to be a martyr. If a campaign raises money, it’s because of their programme. If the campaign fizzles, it’s because of your letter. And I’m afraid that it’s this lack of regard for letter writing that eventually drives capable writers into other vocations.

Mistake 25: writing a package and then surrendering it to an artist. Lean over the artist’s shoulder all the way. It’s your package. And don’t just give verbal instructions. Make a rough pencil layout. The artist’s responsibility is to enhance your concept to make the package visually exciting – but only within the framework of your vision for the package.

Mistake 26: believing that your donors think of you as often as you think of them. The only time they think of you is when a letter arrives.

Mistake 27: letting your donors go for months and months without having the opportunity to make a gift to your organisation. If your donors only think of you when they receive a letter from you, you must provide them with routine and positive giving opportunities.

Mistake 28: waiting several months to ask a new donor to make a second gift. And don’t fall for the theory that you should ‘give a new donor time to settle in before asking for another gift’. The truth is, a donor is most likely to make a second gift immediately after the first gift. That is, if you provide the donor with an opportunity to give.

Mistake 29: believing your executive director when he says, ‘This letter is going to make our donors think that all we want from them is money’. But really, isn’t that all you want? A relationship with the donor without money is a luxury you can’t afford. You want a donor to give you money over a long period of time. And so, of course, you don’t want to chase that donor away with aggressive behaviour. But donors understand. They know that a letter from you means you want money.

Mistake 30: rebelling against the current formats that are working. Go with the flow. Yes, you can test new formats and, obviously, that’s how old formats are retired. But as long as a technique works, don’t hesitate to use it.

Mistake 31: failing to learn to edit your own material. Often when you begin a letter, you have to ‘warm up’. And then sometimes midway into the second page you start to get a little emotional yourself. When this happens, then in the editing process, chop out all of that warm up. Begin the letter where you started getting emotional.

Mistake 32: failing to understand that women usually make a gift for emotional reasons, for personal gratification, because they ‘feel good about it’. They really don’t feel compelled to explain why. On the other hand, men make a gift many times because it provides them with a conscious self-image and status in their own eyes and the eyes of their peers. Men need explanations.

Mistake 33: failing to quickly discover that 80 per cent of your money comes from 20 per cent, or less, of your donors. Give this 20 per cent loving strokes. Treat them with total respect. Tell them over and over again how wonderful they are. Without them you won’t have a job.

Mistake 34: failing to understand that the only reason you write to $10 and under donors is to motivate them to step up to a higher level. If you let them stay at $10, your fundraising costs may be embarrassingly high. So learn all you can about upgrading techniques.

Mistake 35: pulling your large donors out of the communication flow, so that ‘we won’t be putting so much pressure on them’.

This can leave a communication vacuum unless you develop a comprehensive track for your major donors. And remember that a major donor may not be nearly as intellectual as you would like to believe. That donor may have come into your organisation through a cute little premium. And now if you put that donor in a track where a case statement is substituted for the premium, you’ve given the donor what you want the person to have – not what the person actually wants.

Okay? That’s about enough for now, Brenda. Next time I do something that turns out to be really dumb, I’ll let you know. 

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger is revered in direct marketing circles as the dean of direct mail. 

Some years back Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII and we’ve been serialising them ever since. All 50-plus are gems. Together, they add up to complete ‘how-to’ guide to everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising.

These tutorials are edited and presented by Gwen Chapman.

Gwen Chapman is a passionate advocate for donor-centric fundraising. She is a senior consultant with international experience in the non-profit sector in Canada, the United States, the UK and South Africa.

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