November 01, 2016

Plain Envelope vs. “Annual Fund Enclosed.” Which wins?


Competition for the philanthropic dollar is fierce.  As annual fund season is in full swing, how do you make sure your end-of-the-year appeal stands out in a crowded field?

Yes, your message must engage the reader and demonstrate a strong social ROI.  But almost more important is the way your message is delivered.   

To illustrate this point, read about the three annual appeals I’ve come across in the last few weeks.  Only one elicited a gift.  See why:   


The First: An Elaborate Package from a Prestigious East Coast Independent School

A friend of mine told me about this appeal from her daughter’s school.   They love the school, and they have plenty of discretionary income, so why didn’t they give?

“I read the entire brochure,” explained my friend.  “It was confusing because there were so many pictures, too much text, and numbers everywhere. I was overwhelmed, but one stat really stood out to me.”

They bragged about 29% alumni giving, like that was an accomplishment.  Did alumni really place such a low value on their education?  I was frustrated, so I threw the letter away.”


The Second: An Appeal from a Large National Nonprofit

Four harsh red words stared up at me from an otherwise plain envelope: “Your Annual Fund Enclosed.” No need to open the letter—I knew exactly who it was from and what they wanted.  They had no chance to engage me with a touching story or tell me how they invested my last gift.  Their appeal (and the personalized address labels they so thoughtfully made for me) went straight to the recycling bin.


The Third: A Traditional Letter from a Liberal Arts College

This one came from my husband’s alma mater—a college with a healthy endowment.  No pictures, just two pages of text. Normally, I’m overwhelmed by that much text, but after the first paragraph, I was hooked.

It was a heartfelt story told by an alum who graduated 20 years before my husband.  He recounted the tragedy of losing his company and his family’s livelihood during the recession.  Jobless, he turned to his college network of friends and to the lessons of resilience and determination he learned as a student. 

Thanks to his college days, the story had a happy ending.  He founded another successful company; two of his children are now students at the school.     

His words were full of pride for a college that takes care of its alumni even after graduation.  It was inspiring and we responded.  And it was the cheapest of the three examples to produce.


Lessons Learned:

  • Direct mail—if done correctly—still works.  In fact, most studies show direct mail still outperforms other methods of solicitation.
  • Don’t rely on direct mail alone.  Tease direct mail readers to your website with a story or video.  Coordinate your appeal across all platforms, including social media.  Make sure it’s easy to give on your website.
  • Create curiosity with a simple, plain envelope or a provocative email subject line.
  • Emotions, not facts, encourage donations. Logic leads to conclusions, while emotion leads to action/contributions.
  • Write to inspire instead of educate.
  • Keep your message simple.  Tell a story.
  • Make your story easy to read.  Use at least 12 point font.  Keep paragraphs short.  In print, double-space to keep lots of white space on the page.
  • Limit your stats to avoid numbers numb.
  • Have someone unfamiliar with your organization read your appeal.  Make sure they understand it and that it isn’t filled with insider’s jargon.      

Posted by Jessica Browning on Tuesday, November 01, 2016