CDE project 11b: part one — direct mail that works

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 28, 2017


In 1996 George Smith, the legendary fundraising writer and thinker published a guide to fundraising creative that is still, by far, the best encouragement to the development of appeals that work. Appeals that move the donor to support a project, knowing that, by doing so, they have had a small impact on the life of just one or two people. That book is Asking Properly – the art of Creative Fundraising and in an early section, George rails against the need for a list of writing rules. And if you can write as beautifully as he did in this next piece, then of course, you have no need for any guide.

‘In the civil war in Uganda I was visiting camps for people fleeing the fighting. We picked up a very sick mother and her starving children to take them to hospital in Kampala. In the crowded jeep a little boy of five or six sat on my lap. We smiled at each other as the jeep bounced along the rough direct roads. He died before we reached the hospital.’

But most of us do not have these gifts and the evidence of the last twenty-five years is that comparatively few fundraisers write fundraising copy that can truly move donors to give their support. Most resort to the obvious, which is to describe the wonderful work of the charity. Many describe it in great detail and they do it with the rich energy of the enthusiast who knows the work achieves wonderful outcomes.

But they forget that nobody is interested in the work….only in the outcome of the work. And actually, most are mainly interested in the outcome that has been made possible by their own kind gift. A great deal of fundraising is still based on a description of the charity’s work and the ask is for a gift to the charity to carry out the work. 

This misguided path is further compounded by the current fashion for ‘story-telling’. Anyone who truly understands the task of story-telling, knows that a story simply doesn’t work unless the reader or listener is absorbed into it, emotionally. Just think of George’s lyrical piece above; as you read it, you were in that jeep, bouncing along the road. That is because it is beautiful writing.

But in the last five years, donors have been subjected to a plethora of appeals starting, ‘Hello, my name is Jane and I’d like to tell you about my wonderful son, Jack….’. And the story unfolds. But the story is told from the point of view of the charity. The story is about what the charity did for Jack. And few people are interested in either Jack or what the charity did for him. Why should they be? That arrogant assumption is based on the belief that the charity is important to the donor. And rationally, the charity may be important, though probably not. Nobody gives ordinary donations RATIONALLY, they give EMOTIONALLY. 

So when you are telling a story, it will be much more successful if the donor is drawn into the story and emotionally engaged before the story starts.

So many charities make a hash of direct mail appeals, and they do is so consistently, that it’s time for some basic ground rules to be established.

Soma basics

Who gives in response to a direct mail appeal?

In short, older people. The supporter lists of most traditional charities have largely been built over many years using paper-based recruitment techniques.

Government wealth statistics show that, of the ten groups by which they segment the British public, the three wealthiest are defined as; couples with both members over state retirement age, those with one over retirement age and couples with non-dependent children. Older people have more money.

Older people are also likely to be retired so they have more time. And the absence of dependent children makes them more inclined to look outside for opportunities to influence. Giving to or volunteering with a charity partly satisfies that need to influence. So, in writing a direct mailing, bear in mind that the majority of donors you write to will be in an older generation, probably a lot older. 

Fundraisers will know of the classic reasons people give when asked why they donate to a charity – sympathy, empathy, social justice, social norms, guilt and a large dose of self-interest. They enjoy the pleasure of giving, and so they should. Fundraisers may not be aware of the ‘identity’ research by Professors Sargeant and Shang of Plymouth University [1], and particularly their work in increasing donation values in campaigns to support local public TV and radio stations in the States.

Jen Shang found that, when talking to a supporter about their donation, quoting the value of a ‘higher than average’ gift from ‘another supporter’ just before making the ask, meant that the donation achieved was increased in value. There were limits to the size of the gift quoted, it couldn’t be too big for instance. Describing another donor’s (higher) gift was a clear influencing factor and worked both in direct mail and on the telephone.

But the cynical response might have been to ascribe that increase simply to the naming of a higher than expected value. And Jen showed that giving is much more complex than that. As well as outlining the gift value, she named the giver and in doing so, revealed the gender of the donor. Where the gender of the named donor was matched to that of the supporter, the value then given was around 25% higher than where there was a mis-match of genders.

Giving, it was concluded, and this has been confirmed many times since, is part of the donor’s identity, part of what makes them ‘tick’. Donating is not a transaction, and nor is it about money. The value of the gift is simply a product of the wealth of the person at the time.

Donating to your charity is fundamentally important to your supporters, it is part of their ‘identity’. So, endless demands for money, particularly when accompanied by a marked absence of feedback on the progress achieved with their gifts, is rude. It is uncaring and your ultimate objective, securing their legacy gift, is blown out, big time!


1.Sargeant A. and Shang J. (2010). ‘Fundraising Principles and Practice’. Jossey Bass, San Francisco.

Click on the image below to view project 11b in full - PDF format

About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

Related case studies or articles

CDE project 11b summary: direct mail

How can we plan better as a sector to avoid individuals being inundated with our communications and ensure that that our messages get the attention they deserve rather than all being lost in such a crowded space?

Read more

CDE project 11b: part two - output from the direct mail workshop and recommendations to improve the donor experience

Examples of direct mail and recommendations to improve the donor experience. Recommendation one. 

Read more

CDE project 11b: the three key and separate steps to crafting a great DM appeal

Step 1: the proposition. Step 2: the concept. Step 3: the do’s and don’ts of direct mail appeal writing and design. 

Read more

CDE project 11b: recommendations to improve the donor experience - two and three

Recommendation 2: Think about how donors FEEL.

Recommendation 3: Be an ambassador, as well as a fundraiser

Read more

CDE project 11b: recommendations to improve the donor experience - four and five

Recommendation 4: Be smart with data

Recommendation 5: Have a great offer and compelling reason to give

Read more

CDE project 11b: recommendation 6 - thank properly and great customer service

Thank personally and quickly. As project 6 on emotion recommends, fundraiser’s should aspire to be ‘famous for frequent, fast, fabulous feedback’. 

Read more

CDE project 11b: appendix 1

Additional income plus cost savings from a digital print strategy - a direct mail case study from World Vision. 

Read more