#098 Mar/Apr 1998

Using Letters Effectively

Like most Americans, you probably buy or give by mail occasionally. You order from catalogues, you respond to credit card promotions, and once in a while you open mail appeals […]

Like most Americans, you probably buy or give by mail occasionally. You order from catalogues, you respond to credit card promotions, and once in a while you open mail appeals from organizations that look interesting and you send donations. In addition, you give regularly to organizations that keep in touch with you primarily by mail. You read their newsletters and respond to their solicitations. If you are this type of American, you receive, on average, more than 1,200 pieces of bulk mail every year, most of them unsolicited and thrown away unread.

If you are the most common type of small nonprofit, you are wondering how to get or keep donors by mail, and because of the competition, you are close to despair. Community-based organizations, in particular, struggle to pay for postcard mailings, while solicitations from huge, national nonprofits arrive in the form of multi-part, full-color, oversized mailings. But there are several simple things you can do to get people to open, read, and respond to your mail, no matter how much other mail they get, no matter how small your budget.

First, focus on what kind of mail people open, not on how much mail they get. Then, make your appeal look like something they would open. Remember that people who get a lot of mail get it because they are givers-they are going to give money to some organizations that approach them by mail. Why not yours? Community groups have an advantage in some ways, even, because they are local and can make mailings more personal, which is the key to getting good responses.

People always or almost always open certain categories of mail. First, they open all personal mail. They also open bills and official looking documents, like tax refunds or drivers license renewals. They often open mail from organizations they already support. The most important thing to keep in mind here is that people decide whether or not to open a letter based on the outside envelope. This is where the bulk of your attention should be focused as you design your letter.

They also have certain feelings about the mail they open. Generally, they are enthusiastic about opening personal mail, but they certainly don’t feel that way about their bills. They are happy to open a letter with a check, or something else of value.

Which of the above can your organization imitate easily? Obviously the answer is “personal mail.” The secret of doing well by mail is to buckle down and spend the time personalizing your mail appeals. Here, then, are some tips on how to make your envelopes look as if they contain personal letters. The methods you choose to accomplish this depend on how much volunteer help you have and whether this is the best use of volunteer time, how many pieces you are actually sending, and your goal for the mailing.

Look First-Class

The best way to make a mail appeal look as if it came by first class mail is to hand-write the address. If you have an appeal going to fewer than 2,000 names, this is not too arduous a task. “Hand addressing” parties can be fun, with three or four people working for a two or three hours until the job is done.

In addition to or instead of writing or typing the address, you can use a pre-canceled bulk-mail stamp in place of the more common postal indicia. These stamps may be purchased at the post office where you send your bulk mail. The rules for sorting and handling the mail are the same as for any other bulk mailing. For mailings of under 2000 pieces, you may wish to weigh the cost of using a first class stamp against the increase in returns. If you can get your percent of response up 3-4 percent, first class postage may make sense. If you do use first class postage, buy big bright commemorative stamps.

Once you are satisfied that you have figured out a way to get people to open your envelope, you may wish to personalize your letter. Many groups try to do this by merging their mailing list with their letters. This takes a lot of time and does not seem personal to the receiver. Many organizations have had far better results by writing short personal notes on the top of form letters. One organization increased its renewal rate from 60 to 75 percent on a donor list of 5,000 names by having board members write short notes on the top of a preprinted form letter. Where possible, board members wrote to people they knew, but many of the donors, on a list that size, were unknown to board or staff. On those letters, board members would simply say, “You past support has meant a lot to us-I hope you can renew this year.” Or, “Although we don’t know each other, we both care about Good Group. I hope you can renew your generous donation this year.” As board members tired, their notes were briefer: “Hope to hear from you” or “Thanks for your support.” It did not seem to matter what they wrote, as much as that they had taken the time to write something.

The world is an increasingly impersonal place. People can now go from the grocery store to the bank to the gas station, conduct business in all three places, and never speak to an actual person. There are many pseudo personal ads and letters, with the prospect’s name entered every few lines. But a truly genuine handwritten note from one person to another is very rare. In fundraising, it is worth the effort.


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