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

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

Step 1: The proposition

The trouble with the pundits who imply that simple story-telling will deliver a campaign is that fundraisers then view the message from the donor’s point of view. The proposition is the answer to the donor’s question ‘Why should I give to this appeal now?’ and this forces the fundraiser to think about the donor.

Pauline Lockier, fundraising copy-writer extraordinaire, uses this simple nine point plan and completes it every time she starts to write an appeal. I recommend it as a way of answering the natural questions the donor will ask themselves.

What is the problem?

What dangers and threats are there to a person, in a country, to a philosophy or set of beliefs? How is this relevant to the donor?

Who are the bad guys/what is the barrier or enemy that causes the problem? 

What wrong things have they done/are doing that impact on your hero/victim that will make the donor feel they want to support your appeal?

Who is/are the victims in need of help from this appeal?

What is happening to him/her/them that will make your donor feel empathy with them?

Who is the hero?

What have they done/are doing and what is it that is heroic and admirable?

Why should I care about these people and this cause?

This often allows you to connect with your audience.

What can I do and what difference will I make if I give a donation?

The most important part of the communication. In essence, the proposition.

Why do I need to act now? And not in three months or three years?

This drives urgency.

Why should I give to this charity and not another similar charity?

The reassurance of the values and worth of the organisation.

What happens if I don’t act? 

How will the situation get worse and what will that look and feel like?

If you have strong answers to these questions, you should now have the answer to the question, ‘Why should I give to this appeal now?

Step 2: The concept

Think of the concept as the connection device, in essence, the thing that GRABS attention. There are a myriad of connection devices. Some of them are physical, like the flag in the Royal British Legion mailing that will be taken across the Channel and planted on Sword Beach with the donor’s good wishes, seventy years after the D-Day landings. Or the piece of string, just like the string that connects a child of four undergoing radio-therapy, when his mother has to be the other side of a lead door. A tug from each encourages both and the child remains still throughout the treatment.

Others are word connections. On the envelope for instance – WaterAid’s ‘Give water, give life, give £2 per month’. RSPCA’s picture of a kitten with the words ‘Please don’t throw me away again’. These concepts connect with the donor. 

Or words contained in the Johnson Box, occupying the space above the salutation in the letter of an appeal, but below the address, and designed to grab the reader’s attention and deliver the key message of the whole pack. 

The simplest way to ‘grab attention’ is to use the name of the reader or, at very least, the word ‘you’. Remember, an appeal is about the donor not about the charity. The concept is delivered in words and images, and connects to the reader’s emotional core. Once you have the concept, then you can start writing.

Step 3: The do’s and don’ts of direct mail appeal writing

This is a check-list, it’s neither definitive nor comprehensive. But if all charities implemented just these few points, the effectiveness of direct mail would improve immeasurably.


  • Use the word YOU a lot, meaning ‘you, the donor’. Use it many more times than you use the words I, WE or the charity’s name. Make it clear that it is the donor who is going to achieve the change you are talking about, not the charity
  • By no more than two thirds down the first page of the letter, you must have hinted at whatever it is you want the donor to do
  • And before the end of the first page, you must have asked for money
  • Write the donation form first, it is the simplest embodiment of the concept
  • Use metaphor to dramatise small wrongs: ‘A combine harvester, used at the wrong time, is like an executioner’s axe to a corn bunting’


  • Don’t use any phrase along the lines of ‘Please give us a donation and we will…’. Because ‘people give to people’, not to charities. Every fundraiser knows that and nearly everyone ignores it. So, don’t say: ‘You can help a child’s family by supporting us today’. Say: ‘You can help a child’s family today’
  • Don’t use the phrase ‘Can you imagine…’. Your job as a writer is to make them imagine by using good description, analogies and metaphor. And some situations are quite impossible to imagine; ‘imagine you’re blind’, ‘imagine living in a slum in South Africa’, ‘imagine being homeless
  • Don’t let a colleague in the ‘service-delivery’ part of the charity write copy or even change your copy (other than factual matters). Their expertise is not in writing fundraising copy, as yours is not in their profession. And the fact they write copious reports or magazine articles or have a GCSE or, especially, a degree in English, probably makes them less likely to be able to ‘connect’ with your donors through written words. Beware of those on any copy sign-off schedule, fiddling with your copy. If they don’t like it, get them to explain why and you can decide whether you agree with them
  • Don’t use jargon: biodiversity, building capacity, psychosocial and educational activities, a regular gift. There are thousands, don’t use them.

And some do’s and don’ts of direct mail design


  • Remember; a message, a picture or anything else you put on the envelope has only one task: to get the envelope opened
  • Make sure everything in the envelope looks authentic. If there’s a hand written PS, make sure it’s in the same hand as the signature, make the signature strong and bold, print it in blue
  • Use pictures with eyes looking straight at the reader, close right up on the face
  • Vary the format and the content of letters you write; make the appeal look and feel different every time
  • Use reminder letters, but only occasionally. The reminder letter will routinely bring in a further 50% of the main letter’s income.


  • Show pictures with over-designed borders and drop-shadows
  • Use poor pictures, buy good ones from the multitude of library shots available
  • Don’t make your appeals look and feel the same every time, vary what you do. Your job is to delight and surprise your donors

Encouragement to use Direct Mail

For at least ten or twenty more years, direct mail will be an essential tool in the fundraiser’s armoury. Beyond that, the techniques honed in direct mail strategy for the last thirty years, will endure in any medium, because they deliver ‘connection’.

A letter is SO personal. You may not use the medium yourself but there are millions of supporters for whom a letter is a delight. They own a disproportionately high percentage of the country’s wealth, and their legacy gift will arrive long before that of younger supporters.

Why would you not master the skills of direct mail fundraising?

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.

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