3 min read

You have little time to grab your reader’s attention. Don’t split hairs. Don’t beat around the bush. And don’t be afraid to pull on your donor’s heartstrings.

Made you look.

True, looking is not enough—but the first look is how you get a chance to bring your donors into a conversation, which, if they find your work valuable, will certainly inspire them to give generously and frequently.

Let’s back up. You started your nonprofit because you had a passion and that passion became a mission—to protect the most vulnerable, to end an injustice, to build the kind of thing the world (or your nation, state, community) needs right now, and much else besides.

If your organization is about saving lives, then death is a real threat. If you’re about providing safety, then you’re about stopping danger. Don’t skip the drama. Direct mail is the chance you get to tell a large group about what you do, and you need to bring them in quick.

In other words, what you’re doing is important, and if you’re going to grow your mission, what you need to do is reach donors who share your values, your vision. There’s a good chance you even have a theory that explains how . . .

. . . scratch that. I’m not interested in your theory of change. At least not here. Save it for the foundation pitch or the TED talk. Here, I’m talking about how to reach your potential and actual supporters through a powerful and true story that gets to the heart of your mission.

I’m talking about direct mail.


This may make you uncomfortable—but, with all due respect, you need to get over it. Here’s the thing: you never get a chance to share your positive vision for how things can be if you don’t first get donors in the door. And you won’t get them in the door if you can’t reach their hearts.

We all think we make decisions based on reason and logic. But that’s not true for the most part.

We humans are storytelling animals. We move when we are compelled to do so, and that means your story has to be compelling, it has to move your donor or prospective donor—and quickly. You don’t have much time to catch your audience’s attention!

So, how do you ensure that your message is strong?

Set aside linear thinking for emotion. Again, the house-file or acquisition letter is not the place for your exhaustive history, your list of capabilities, your many successes. For a direct-mail appeal, reduce your theory to its essential elements, illustrated in a powerful story about why only you can make this change in the world, and why this is the moment when it is needed most. If you can’t say that, then, well you’re going to struggle.

So tell your story—confidently. Is there a bad guy? Then quote him. Who is in danger, and what is their story? Get into it and show in a visceral way what injustice or error you’re trying to stop.

You need to reach your supporter’s lizard brain—the part that, despite what many believe, actually makes most of the decisions. It’s what Jonathan Haidt calls the “elephant” with a rational but less massive rider trying to steer it. If you want to motivate a quick decision with little time—like acquiring a new donor or renewing a current donor—then talk to the elephant. You can chat with the “rider” when you’re with a foundation or in a major donor meeting.


Let me elaborate on that relationship.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two systems. System one describes a person’s gut response to something—it’s fast, requiring little effort. This system can be trained, but it is very influential in how we see and respond to the world.

System two is the slower, more deliberative approach to thinking. It takes time and effort because it’s where you unpack things, carefully consider them.

In reality, we need both systems. When they’re working well together, the person is working well too. In a development context, you catch your reader’s attention in System One and begin to build the relationship there. Hence, direct mail.

As you cultivate a relationship with the supporter, System Two comes more into play. It’s not just about the car but about popping the hood and seeing how it runs, really understanding at greater depth how your organization is thinking strategically about winning in its mission.

Direct mail is about System One—period. Go all in, telling your story in the strongest, most emotional way possible while keeping it real.

Sure, you could use the same technique to sell an untruth, but don’t. Tell a true story, but in a visceral, compelling, emotional way. If you don’t tell the truth, a donor will know when he’s been duped—he’ll be gone forever, and he’ll tell his friends. In the age of social media, this can be especially destructive.

So be bold, be convincing, be convicting—and make your point quickly, without splitting hairs.

You’re doing important work—real work. Don’t hide your passion. Don’t hide the story of your most urgent needs as they impact the lives of real people. Invest in going out and getting these stories and telling them well.

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