Blog | Oct 12, 2012 | 3 Comments

Do you read your charity mail?

Just like retail stores, nonprofits get ready for the holiday season starting in October or even September. Most send out “annual appeals,” the standard direct mail packages that ask for contributions. Will you open them? And if you do, will you read everything in them?

Do you open charity appeals, or throw them away?

Why or why not? The “whys” might be that you know and have supported the organization in the past, you already intended to give and were waiting for a solicitation, you’re attracted by the interesting look of the package, or some “teaser” line or photo on the outside envelope tugged at your heart-strings and/or made you feel guilty. The “why nots” are probably that you don’t have disposable income, don’t know the organization, already get too much direct mail, and…what else? Please add to this list in the comments below.

For those that you do open, do you just skim? Or do you read the whole letter/brochure and inserts?

Direct mail is still the fundraising norm

Talk to any of the major fundraising consultants or organizations, and they say that direct mail is still “king.” While they advocate adding email, social media, and special landing pages or other features of the website to fundraising communications, that good old stamped envelope remains a mainstay.

Most of them, and the specialist copywriters hired to bring in the cash, also say that longer is still better when it comes to these packages—even letters up to four pages! Others, including one of my most experienced clients, say that nobody wants to read a letter that’s longer than a page. You can imagine how hard this makes my job: tell an inspiring story, mention some impressive outcomes (statistics) for accountability, ask for money (sometimes mentioning different levels), and highlight any special features of the campaign, such as a matching grant—all in about 250-300 words.

But Millenials don’t “get” traditional fundraising

A new line of thought is emerging that  this up-and-coming generation doesn’t respond to direct mail. In fact, they don’t get a lot of traditional fundraising. There was an interesting article about this on the Case Foundation website: Fundraising Appeals are not Natural for Millennials. Here’s a quote:

Organizations practice what is very natural to them – sending out fundraising appeals and waiting for response. But this practice of asking for support isn’t always natural to a Millennial.

The report goes on to say that organizations need to reach them through networks of friends and peers (social media plays a big role), initiate actual conversations, and keep messages short and simple. But do you think this applies only to Millennials? Aren’t we all overwhelmed with communication? Don’t we all rely on family and friends for recommendations in our lives?

Fundraising is an art, not a science

There is some truth in everyone’s assertions. It probably comes down to segmenting your audiences with specialized communications—something that is very hard to do when fundraising budgets keep getting tightened.

This year, the appeal I’m working on has several brand new features. We’ll see how they work.

All of you probably either support or work for nonprofits. Please join the conversation below.

Image credit: by Victori∀ on flickr.


Author: Claire Wagner

I'm a seasoned freelance writer/editor and an enthusiastic community manager. I'm passionate about developing and sharing good content.


Hi Claire,
I used to read the mail fundraiser letters, or at least skim them, until I just started getting so dang much! Now I have a few chosen ’causes’ and I donate online, and ignore all mailings that are not from those chosen ones – and even with those, I’m pretty resistant to special appeals… I want to give on my schedule, not theirs. I also hang up on telephone callers!




You have a tough job! Hang in there. Here’s my Boomer response:

If I had money to give, I would open them. It hurts every time I put them directly into the recycling, knowing that I can’t financially support organizations I care about.

Teasers on the envelope may pique my curiosity enough to open it to see what they’re asking for, or how they’re presenting themselves, or what’s happening now.

When I do open them, I may read the first paragraph and then skim. If there are headlines, I read them. The longer the letter, the less likely I am to read the whole thing — but if you’ve done a FANTASTIC job in grabbing me, I’ll read it.

What makes me fume – as someone who did social science survey research for years – are the valueless “questionnaires” that are simply instruments to ask people to give money. Of COURSE the recipient believes in the key values of the organization, or they wouldn’t be on the mailing list. I’ll bet people’s responses are not even tabulated. What this does, I think, is turn people off to legitimate surveys, making them less likely to take the time to answer the important questions that may make a difference, down the road, to policy decisions. These people were sampled to be representative of many others; if they don’t answer, that voice may not be heard.

The other things that make me fume are the flashing and moving images I have to put up with online. I would rather get a piece of junk mail and recycle the paper than try to train my brain to ignore the flashing movement.


Claire Wagner Reply:

I agree with both of you, Marnie and Shirley. I only open mail from charities I already know and I only do it if I’m curious about their latest news and/or I intend to give. Even then, I usually give online. I have really narrowed the number of organizations I support over the years–I wish I could support more but I have to set limits. And I ALWAYS hang up when anybody calls, but only after saying “You need to put me on your Do Not Call list. I don’t accept any phone solicitations.”

One other thing that occurred to me is that it’s going to be even tougher this year after everyone has been inundated with political mailings.


Marnie Singer


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