Direct mail envelopes–five ideas for nonprofit fundraising

ricky(Another stellar guest post from nonprofit fund raising expert Rick Schwartz!)

My family usually shops for groceries with canvas bags that I pick up at conferences. But every third or fourth week we ask the checkout clerk to use paper bags instead, so we can use them to recycle newspapers, my son’s homework assignments, and about 99.5% of the direct mail we get, unopened.

A good half of my direct mail is from nonprofits and, even in my modestly generous home, nine out of 10 new appeals go unopened into the recycling bag.

I hate to say it, but yours may have been one of them. Too bad. With very little cost, effort, and imagination, you could have gotten me to at least open the envelope. Then who knows what might have happened!

Your first competitor is indifference

So says branding expert Harry Beckwith. A boring envelope signals boring contents. Sadly, experience has proven that true. Just one more lackluster appeal for money. Do you open those letters at your house? Me neither.

Remember, direct mail is a science, not an art. As such, marketers test everything about an envelope:

  • color and quality of paper
  • shape and size of envelope
  • postage stamp or bulk mail indicia (Herschell Gordon Lewis, Direct Mail Copy That Sells, recommends a postage meter)
  • “teaser” (Robert Bly, The Copywriter’s Handbook, says “no teaser” unless it’s really good)
  • typeface (gotten any ‘hand-addressed’ mail yet?)

Truth is, some methods work until consumers catch on to them. Then direct mail marketers have to find something new. Here are five ideas gleaned from real appeals I’ve received that made me at least stop and think. Most of these should fit into reasonable budgets; you just have to print the envelope.

Hey, I get something for free (benefits)

Some effective envelopes appeal to most people’s desire to get some kind of benefit (other than moral) from giving to your organization. You do have stuff to offer: maps of great hiking trails, 10 tips on choosing a doctor, note cards, a down-to-earth explanation of charitable giving. No, you’re not selling your soul to the devil by “selling” your nonprofit.

Words you might find yourself using: “free” and “enclosed”. Robert Bly suggests you include something that can be felt in the envelope. It doesn’t have to be expensive, something like a calendar magnet. (Be aware that some studies show that giveaways like tote bags and stuffed animals lead only to short, superficial relationships.)

What the heck’s in the envelope? (curiosity)

Some envelopes raise questions whose answers you must know, but can only find inside. Two examples from Planned Parenthood include envelope copy that reads: “They’re coming after our organization with everything they’ve got” and “More unintended pregnancies in 6 easy steps.” Another organization touts a curiosity-arousing “ultimate offer” on its envelope.

I’m special (exclusivity)

Making donors feel they are part of an elite group leads directly to the largest gifts (in many cases). Herschell Gordon Lewis says four words work here: “private”, “advance”, “invitation”, and “exclusive”.  Recently, the Smithsonian sent me something announcing on the envelope that I was one of a few select readers in my state to be chosen to complete a survey. (The envelope is pictured above.) Other appeal envelopes I receive come from celebrities or luminaries who sign their names in the return address slot. Another envelope told me” “We’re not for everyone, but then, maybe you’re not everyone.”

Uh, oh! (fear)

It’s sometimes powerful to call attention to a looming threat. Examples include an envelope bearing the message “A gathering storm of anti-Jewish hate” or one warning that “The religious right wants to change the way you live.”

To dream the impossible dream! (a call to arms)

Nonprofits should excel at enthusiastically stating the essential challenge. That’s what makes the boring envelopes above so unforgivable. Tell the prospective supporter what he or she is fighting for. Real-life examples include envelopes with the following printed messages: ” It’s one of the most powerful and dangerous initiation rights imaginable–and every day more than 5,000 girls are at risk” or “94 million American children with no health care; zero has been done to stop global warming; 155,000 US troops stuck in Iraq—49 US senators are behind it all.”

I’m so embarrassed (guilt)
Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving. I know LOTS of nonprofit folks who truly believe that everybody who is not supporting their cause should feel guilty. I almost always find that the nonprofit just hasn’t made its case well. That said, guilt can be used in strange ways. One example is a photo envelope of a mother polar bear and two vulnerable cubs with the headline “Please help.”

A few other ideas
Other effective envelopes I’ve seen:

  • blank except for the recipient’s handwritten address
  • a personal note (in real ink) on the envelope
  • way oversized envelopes

Your turn
There’s very little about envelope ideas above that you can’t tailor and re-create economically for your nonprofit of almost any size. Follow these steps:

  • Know the dramatic selling points of your cause
  • Package the information your nonprofit can share
  • Understand the motivations of your donors
  • Save sample envelopes you love (and hate)
  • Test ideas on your friends and family. Don’t give them more than four seconds to look at the envelope.
  • Devote the time and resources necessary to make the envelope work.

Thanks, Rick!



One Response to “Direct mail envelopes–five ideas for nonprofit fundraising”

  1. envelope sizes Says:

    You posted some very good ideas!
    Thank you for sharing!

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