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The key elements to separate your wheat from the competition’s chaff when communicating with donors through mail.

Communication is so much more than what is said. Something in the realm of 90 percent of interpersonal communication is non-verbal. When communicating with clients through emails, letters, or newsletters, an entirely mechanical form of communication, you’re losing a whopping 90 percent of your capacity to connect with your client, right?


You’ve got a great letter written. Fantastic. But not everything that you say is in what you say – in many ways, the medium is the message. Indulge me in a thought experiment: We judge people every day based purely on their appearance. That’s why you follow the police officer’s directions during a parade or rally. The police officer doesn’t shout that he’s the “Police!” His appearance conveys the message that he is indeed an officer and has authority. It’s the same reason Colgate slaps a lab coat on some shmuck and tells you that 4 out of 5 dentists recommend their revolutionary toothpaste that injects the fluoride directly into the gum. The lab coat tells you “I’m a scientist who wanted to work on mapping the human genome but ended up shilling for the dental industry”.

Or, you know, something like that. The point is that we respond to signals in messaging.

Back to my broader point: how a message comes to us is as important as what message comes to us. So while what you’re saying may be great, let’s make sure your methods aren’t robbing your returns. Here’s 4 key elements to separate your wheat from the competition’s chaff when communicating with donors:

1) Carrier Envelope This is the first thing your donor will see when you send a letter. In the nonprofit world, we never truly know if an envelope gets opened. We only know if a donor responds. But that response is predicated on a chain reaction of events that is nipped in the bud if the carrier envelope drives them off.

  • Don’t send windowed envelopes. It’s cheaper, yes. But windowed envelopes are used for city water bills and by the IRS, not exactly the kind of company you want to associate with.
  • Go easy on the teaser text. Plastering “Your donation will save the world!” across the front of your envelope may entice some people to open it, but is that sort of shrieking opener you want to build relationships on? In my experience with teaser texts, less is more.
  • But for envelopes, bigger is better. The larger 6x9 or 9x12 envelopes perform better than the standard #10 envelope everyone sends. Why? Bigger will capture the attention and stand out in a positive, non-clownish, way.

In the trade, what we call the “Mystery Manila” is a classic, well performing carrier envelope that routinely performs better than other versions. Forget the statistics though, think to yourself, when is the last time you didn’t open a manila envelope you got in the mail? Donors live busy lives, and like everyone, they look for areas to cull excess wasted time. Don’t give them any reasons to lump your letter in with everyone else’s.

Takeaway: A classy envelope communicates that you’re not with the pack. Don’t treat your donors like just another donor and they won’t treat you like just another nonprofit.

2) Postage That nonprofit postage is definitely cheaper than mailing first class, but should you do it? If you can reasonably afford first-class postage, you should consider it as its response rates are noticeably higher as are average first gifts.

If you can’t afford first-class postage for every donor, then prioritize and work your way down. Start with board members and donor club members, and then donors who give $1,000 or more. As your mailing budget grows, increase those who get first class postage. I can spin theories till the cows come home as to why people respond better to first-class mail, but they do and though it’s not for every situation, it’s a great tool to have in your belt.

Takeaway: A first-class stamp communicates that you value a donor relationship enough to treat them like a normal person you’d mail, not some name on a bulk mailing list.

3) Personalization Personalized letters also overwhelmingly outperform the competition. Build a database that allows you to address your donors like normal humans. Don’t be that guy that goes around slapping people on the back while calling them “pal” and “buddy” because you’re too busy to remember a simple name, put it to a face, and build even the most basic of relationships. The message that conveys is: “You’re not worth my time, Chum”.

Takeaway: Make sure your donors know that they are worth at least enough of your time to address them by name.

4) Letter length Once again, bigger is better. I have to bend clients over a barrel to send letters longer than two pages. Once again, test after test proves that longer letters perform better. And I don’t mean four pages. Try ten or twelve pages.

I know it sounds ridiculous. I just said donors are busy and that’s true. But at the end of the day so much of my client’s caterwauling about page length comes down to this “Our donors don’t want to hear from us” or “We don’t want to bother them.” That’s a deadly mindset. Your donors are donors because they appreciate what you do. What’s more, they not only appreciate what you do, they go to work every day and give you their hard earned money to champion your cause.

Takeaway: Your donors want you to succeed, and they want to be a part of that success! Send them a letter that shows you have something to say, and that gives the impression they are worth more than a glorified tweet.

Communication is more than just what you say. It is how you communicate. Donors want to feel special, valued, and understood. How you show that is up to you, but remember, the medium is the message.

It’s my goal to help purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. Please let me know if and how I can be of help to you. Feel free to shoot me an email at dironside@americanphilanthropic.com. You can also check out consulting services online at AmericanPhilanthropic.com, as well as fundraising seminars and events throughout the year.

4 thoughts on “4 key elements for communicating successfully with your donors”

  1. shivakumar says:

    exceelent and simple ideas for implementation

  2. Meg Bradshaw says:

    I really appreciate the wisdom!

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