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Step #3: Treat your donors like persons, not investors.

There’s a hilarious scene in the classic 1979 movie The Jerk where Navin R. Johnson (played brilliantly by comedian Steve Martin) sees a telephone company van delivering new editions of the phone book and sprints across the pavement of the gas station where he is employed to tear a copy from the deliveryman’s hand. Navin is ecstatic. “The new phone book’s here!” he shouts as he jumps up and down with glee, “The new phone book’s here!”  

Nonprofit development directors watch this scene with envy. Why aren’t our donors darting to their mailboxes everyday with anticipation? Where are the shouts of “the spring appeal is here! The spring appeal is here!”?

While it’s unlikely your donors will respond to your house-file mailings with the same enthusiasm Navin Johnson displayed when the new phone book came, there’s one thing in particular you can do to generate better responses to your direct mail: personalize it. What got Navin Johnson so excited about seeing the new phone books? His name was in them. Personalizing your direct mail to donors strengthens your relationship with them, increasing the likelihood they will read your letter and respond with a gift.

Think about it this way: when was the last time you saw a card from a family member in your mailbox and threw it away without even opening it? Probably never. You don’t throw your family members’ mail away because it’s personal. It means something to you.

The same principle applies to direct mail. The more you can personalize it—to get it to look, sound, and feel like it was written and sent directly to them—the greater the chance your donor will read it and respond. Assuming you already have the basics down, here are five things you can do to personalize your direct mail program:

1. Address your donors by name. This begins with your salutation. While Facebook may like to pretend the world is an amiable place where everyone is a friend, you shouldn’t. Your real friends would never address you in such a nondescript way—they’d use your name. And so should you. Whether you use a formal or informal salutation will depend on the type of organization you are and how well you know your donors, but always personalize your salutations.

2. Write from a personal perspective. For many nonprofits, the only interaction they will have with the vast majority of their donors is through the mail. Allow them to get to know you by developing a genuine and unique voice in your literature. Avoid clichés and speak personally and directly about your work and your appreciation for their support. Remember that how you say something can oftentimes be just as important as what you say.

3. Treat your donors like persons, not investors. Write the letter to your donors as people, not as investors expecting a report. Use the second person point of view throughout your letter to bring them into the conversation, and make it clear that you know of, and appreciate, their past support. Use phrases like “Because of your support, we were able to…” or “As someone committed to our mission, you will appreciate hearing about…”

4. Personalize the pitch amount. You may not have extensive profiles on each of your donors or access to research tools, but you do have something that will help you personalize the pitch in your direct mail: information on their past giving. To make a stronger, more relevant request in your letter, use this information in crafting your ask. This can be done by stating their total giving in the previous year (e.g. “Last year, you generously gave $75) or using their highest past gift as the baseline for listing out suggested giving options (“Would you consider supporting us with a gift of $75, $150, or $225?). And remember to match the amounts in the letter with the suggested giving options you include on the reply form.

5. Add a personal touch. In an age where everything is typed, anything handwritten will stand out. A handwritten post-script at the end of the letter is a great way of getting your donor’s attention. And if you can hand-write the address on the outer envelope (even if it’s just for a subset of your donors), you’ll have a much better chance capturing your donors’ eyes as they flip through the day’s mail. This goes for postage as well. A live stamp (especially if it’s a first class stamp that’s not the generic American flag) shows an extra bit of thought was taken when compared with envelopes run en masse through a postal machine.

By personalizing your direct mail, you’ll ensure your appeals stands out to your donors. And while they may not jump for joy like Navin Johnson when they see your next fundraising letter, they’ll be much more likely to take the time to read it and respond with a generous donation.


 My goal is 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 kvandermeulen@americanphilanthropic.comor check out our fundraising services online at AmericanPhilanthropic, including our direct mail services.

2 thoughts on “Personalize your direct mail appeal in 5 simple steps”

  1. John H. says:

    Very good advice, Kyle, on personalizing your donor/sales communications. I have been doing this for decades in different lines of work. Personalizing leads to trust, which in turn leads to motivation to participate or to contribute. I somewhat randomly found your website while looking at Nonprofit News, so I thought I would add some weight to what you say in your article. The ideal is to mention a name and an organization at least twice, Kyle, at the beginning and at the end of a communication. Thank you again! Good job!

  2. Paul Geller says:

    HappyDonors.net is great for items 4 and 5. Our cards and envelopes are both in handwriting. And we can also use merge fields to personalize the pitch amount and other fields (donor name, organization, etc.) It marries personalization and automation in a very effective way. You can easily automate by integrating it with your DRM or other software, or, through our Zapier integration. The other suggestions in the post are great too, for all types of outreach.

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