Direct Mail

Direct mail is the archetypal gift from marketing to fundraising. It is a simple and easily understood way of raising funds and recruiting members. Its real beauty, however, lies in the ease with which you can test creative ideas in the real world with immediate feedback on how well they are doing. This very process has led, however, to a frightening similarity in most direct mail packages and it will tax all your innovative powers to devise new formats that work as well as the originals and make your appeal stand out.
Commonly referred to as junk mail, direct mail has a reputation for waste on a large scale. As direct mail agencies and list brokers (who will sell you lists of the names and addresses of thousands of potential prospects), as well as computers, become increasingly sophisticated this is becoming easier to avoid. My first experience of trying to introduce direct mail to an organisation was a curt reply from the director, ‘Let me tell you we will never use direct mail here. Now, what else would you like to talk to me about?’ It took quite a struggle to get direct mail back on that meeting’s agenda, but the organisation went on to triple its membership, principally through the use of well targeted and executed direct mail packages.
The Post Office offers a good discount for bulk mailing, provided that you can put your letters in ‘Mailsort order’. This should be discussed in detail with your PO representative, your mailing house and membership department. The only drawback is that you are required to print the ubiquitous Mailsort logo on your envelopes. Junk mail afficionados will treasure these letters, though a lot of other people never open them – but most people really do not notice.
There are, however, lots of other postage stamps and logos to use, and for specialist mailings and especially short runs where you are expecting large donations it does help to make your whole package more attractive by having a real stamp or smart PO logo on the envelope. Given the usual low costs of a direct mail pack and a reduced postage rate, it should be possible for you to at least break even if only 2% of those mailed respond. Remember, we are investing in new supporters, not making a profit from them. I have known many fundraisers despair because 95% of the people they mailed did not respond! To be a true fundraiser you must master the art of accepting rejection.


Keeping and using records

Keep as much information on your members as possible and write differently to as many of them as you can (segmentation). It may not be very cost-effective to write separate letters to many different groups of members, but you can at least try by varying the tick boxes (which set out the amounts you are asking for) on your return coupon, according to the affluence of the people you are mailing or, better still, their past giving record. Why insult them by asking for £15 when they regularly give you £150? Why antagonise them by asking for £1,000 when they have only ever given you £15 at a time? If someone’s regular donation is £50, starting the tick-boxes at £50 and working up will often give them the confidence to upgrade their gift.

The direct mail pack

The key elements of a direct mail pack are:
a carefully designed outer envelope
an appeal letter requesting help
a reply coupon
a FREEPOST envelope
a leaflet telling the recipient more about the organisation.

The outer envelope

A good direct mail pack has an outer envelope with an intriguing phrase and picture, designed to appeal to those who may be interested in the organisation (and to let everyone else drop it in the bin). A return address (which allows the Post Office to send back to you letters which are not deliverable) is very useful to you, as you can then update your list, taking off those who have ‘gone away’, etc. This includes the deceased, unknowns and Mr/Ms Very Angry Person.

The appeal letter

Typically these are four pages long, because tests have shown a four-page letter pulls better than fewer pages. In fact, the more pages the better; but remember that each paragraph must be compulsive reading, and that it is hard to write more than four pages keeping your readers with you. Most organisations find it impossible to achieve a satisfactory letter more than one page long – hence the surprising result that they have better returns from shorter appeals. Shorter letters are at a disadvantage because after years of receiving four-page letters it appears to the reader that anything less isn’t particularly important. If you ask people in focus groups which they prefer they will say short letters; but in practice they treat the longer letter as more important (provided every word is worthwhile and not just padding).
The format of the letter is simple. You present the problem directly, tell the reader exactly what is happening, so that they know just how appalling the problem is, then tell them how you are going to solve that problem and what they must do for you to succeed in this. The opening paragraph and the PS are the most-read parts of a letter, so put your important messages there. The best advice I’ve received on writing is to:
develop an idea of your target audience (your typical member or donor) and write for them – preferably for an individual reader whose needs you can identify.
keep your sentences reasonably short and the vocabulary accessible.
use the active voice: ‘The state prosecutor called for the death penalty’, rather than ‘The death penalty was called for by the state prosecutor’ (Amnesty International style book). This is known to help readers and sustain their interest.
avoid jargon unless you have to use it, and explain it when you must use it.
allow access to the text by a clearly manifest structure. You will see this done in many direct mail letters by underlining and clear headings. Only underline what really needs emphasis.
Recently, there has been a back-to-basics move linked to the ‘relationship’ marketing concept. This emphasises writing real letters to people as if they were your friends – not heavily underlined, laser-printed letters with photos mixed in with the text. It seeks to create a relationship by making every contact as personal as possible, rather than considering your donors as a list of names and addresses with no independent needs or will.
The return coupon and FREEPOST envelope
The coupon should be a clear and simple device. A sheet of A5 paper (half A4 size) is usually enough. Do make sure that the return envelope is large enough for the coupon and a cheque to fit inside easily.
Let the first words repeat the core message of the appeal letter: ‘Yes, I would like to help …’ to confirm to the donor and the organisation what the appeal is for. This is now rather a hackneyed phrase and you should find one that is appropriate and true for your own work.
Either be sure that the money will be used in exactly the way you say it will, or give yourself an opt-out, such as adding ‘… and for all our other important work’.
The donor’s address will already be on the coupon if you followed the ideas above. If not, lots of room should be left with a clear space for the postcode and Mr/Ms or whichever titles you use, so that you can personalise your letters later.
The return FREEPOST address should be written out, just in case the FREEPOST envelope is lost or not inserted.
The size of gift you are asking for should be made clear.
If it is a prospecting appeal, all the ways for people to join or donate should be laid out, with simple tick-boxes to make the form easy and quick to fill in.
If you accept credit cards let people know – and don’t forget to count the boxes for the credit card number. Many designers get this detail wrong.
Last, but not least, code every different mailing on the coupon so that you can analyse them.

The additional leaflet

One useful test you can conduct in prospecting packs, before rolling them out in tens of thousands, is whether it is worthwhile including an extra leaflet or other form of insert. It may well be that your letter is adequate and the extra cost of the leaflet is not worthwhile. Yet it may be that you cannot really say all you need to in the letter (even if it is four pages long!) and need more room without overburdening the letter. Perhaps, more importantly, you may need to add some pictures to show the situation clearly – both the problem and your solution to it. If enclosing your organisation’s standard leaflet, do not forget to remove the usual reply coupon, or you will confuse the prospect and your coding system will not work properly.
If you wish to show horrifying pictures of your work, you may consider putting them in a separate envelope inside the appeal, marked ‘This envelope contains distressing pictures which may shock you’. I am told that the device has worked very well for the NSPCA, among others. A campaigning action, as mentioned above, could also be used. Try testing the insertion of a postcard to send, calling for action to help relieve the problem you are engaged on. The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture has found a call to action helps response if used sparingly i.e. once a year. It has also found an insert requesting supporters to return a Christmas (seasons) greeting to the beneficiaries also greatly improves the response rate.

Addressing direct mail

Last, but a long way from least, is the address. The most common way to handle this is to produce Cheshire labels (a common brand of label which is easy for mailing house machinery to handle) for your mailing house, which they will fix onto your return coupon in such a position that the labels show through the window envelopes. You can also laser print the address onto the coupon, and also, possibly, the letter. This allows you to personalise the appeal; but it is expensive to add the address to the coupon as well – hence the multitude of appeal letters with the coupon attached to the foot of the letter.
Printing the address on the coupon and using a window envelope, then, avoids printing the address twice. You need the address on the reply coupon to build up your records for segmentation and measuring the success of each mailing. People will rarely bother to write it on the coupon themselves, and if they are asked to it will slow them down (reducing response) and confuse your membership department because people write their addresses differently each and every time. Printing the address also allows your supporters to let you know if you have their name and address recorded incorrectly.

‘Gone aways’

Some organisations remail all the ‘gone away’ addresses on the grounds that people of a similar nature will have moved into the house. Personally, I’m not convinced by this. If it were true we could mail all the streets where our supporters have lived and double our membership overnight. People have very different psychologies despite living in similar houses. However, as I have never tested the concept I really cannot truly claim to know whether it works or not. If you have bought a list and more than 3% turn out to be ‘gone aways’ you should be able to obtain some compensation from the agency that sold you the list. If it is your own list you must ensure that you are paying attention to all the letters that you receive from your supporters. It is very expensive for you, and irritating for your supporters, if you mail ‘gone aways’ repeatedly. If you are receiving letters that say, ‘I’ve told you three times my husband is deceased,’ you have a serious problem in your membership department that requires immediate attention.

Mailing from abroad

There are many fine books on direct mail, so I will not go into exhaustive detail here, but among the ideas you could try is reducing the postage by mailing from an appropriate country abroad. The foreign stamp may help to get your envelope opened. The problems with this are that under the international postal rules you cannot use a UK return address and so the Post Office will not return the ‘gone aways’; the cost of shipping your printing abroad could be high; and printing in a foreign country for the first time may not be a rewarding experience. The lower cost of postage from abroad can, however, save you a lot of money, and help turn your appeal into a success by increasing the response rate even a trifle. Postage from the USA, for example, can be much cheaper than posting within the UK!

Varying your appeals

Vary your appeals, so that your members do not get bored with them but believe that you are sending them out because you have a real need, not just because it’s time for another appeal. At the same time you must keep the format fairly close to a personal letter. Though beware of becoming too friendly and losing the strength of an appeal.


Advocacy within appeals in not necessarily a bad thing, though if you give someone a list of ways to help, they will probably choose the easiest. Returning a pre-printed postcard is much easier than locating a cheque book. Inviting an action may, however, encourage people to give who have never given before, as the action may draw them into reading the appeal. Test it for yourself. I regret to say I have even lost money on an appeal because it looked too much like a campaigning appeal, asking people to write letters instead of sending in money. Spurred on by some success in adding advocacy to appeal letters I had helped create a pack which suggested several useful actions that could be taken, lost amongst which was the appeal for cash.
One idea is to link an action with a donation. Amnesty has tried split cards which the donor tears in two, sending one half to Amnesty with their donation. This half says, ‘I have today sent a letter to such and such a government.’ The other half, saying, ‘I have today donated, to Amnesty International’, is sent to the government concerned, which lets them know the person’s depth of feeling. (See also Chapter 4 -‘How effective is advocacy?’)


Once you have an established style to your appeals, think about the variations that will make each appeal different.
Pick a different theme for each appeal – for example, starvation, torture, rain forest destruction; or use geography: Africa, India, Brazil, London.
Instead of illustrating the problem by reference to individuals, refer to communities; though be careful with this, because focus group tests report that people are very often drawn to support charities through identification with individuals and certainly not through identification with the formal organisation. This is often summed up by fundraisers as ‘people give to people not organisations’.
Vary the person doing the asking, from your director or chairperson to an appropriate celebrity or relevant statesperson. This is sometimes done by adding an additional ‘lift’ letter from that person, which gives a personal message to strengthen the appeal. Such celebrity endorsement has become so common that it is really only useful if the celebrity really has an appropriate connection and is well known enough to your members to make a difference. Ensure the style of the letter fits the person ostensibly writing it and that they have approved the final text.
Vary the size of envelope, as well as the enclosures.
Vary the linking element (which unites all the enclosures and the envelope together). Often this is just a common phrase or campaign logo, but it does help to show you are not just putting the same old appeal out again.

Linking appeals

Linking appeals with each other is useful: ‘We asked you for money for a new school bus in June. Now winter has set in, and it has broken down. The children are trudging through the snow.’ Making sure that your communications are clearly from one and the same organisation will significantly increase your income in the long term. Write up the results of each appeal in your newsletter and thank your donors. Show how the money was spent and the successes that ensued. Do not be afraid to ask people, ‘Look out for the next appeal because its very important’. All too often newsletters and appeals appear to come from different organisations.


Incentivising appeals works the same as other fundraising incentive schemes. The incentive should be appropriate to the organisation (and, if possible, the appeal itself), and used to indicate a higher than usual level of contribution. Its effectiveness will wear off if used constantly. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has traditionally sent out car-stickers in all its appeals, and these can be seen advertising the organisation in every traffic jam and car park. Unlike incentives offered in return for a gift, these are freely sent out on the inertia basis, ie. having received a gift the recipient will feel like responding generously in return. They also give free publicity, but only because the scale of WWF mailings is so huge that they will appear over and over again. Can your organisation match this?