Angling for donors

The other day, I overheard a development professional I know telling a potential client, "I like to let board members have input into all direct mail copy."

My alarm bells went off, and I wanted to jump in and offer all sorts of unsolicited opinions about that. But instead, I decided I'd just save them for you.

Now, he went on to explain that he likes to involve board members so they have buy-in to the direct mail program -- a sort of "We're all in this together, folks!" idea. I am all for inclusion and board buy-in.

In fact, I believe wholeheartedly that everyone involved in your organization, from the board president to the once-a-month volunteer, should know what's going on in the organization and be able to communicate that.


A few years ago, I wrote a letter for an organization run by a very respected, very intelligent scientist. He was widely published in prominent scientific journals and national newspapers and magazines. He was a great writer, and he hated the letter I wrote for them. Ripped it to shreds. He deplored the overly emotional tone and the use of 2nd person point-of-view. He was adamant that his donors would see through such a hackneyed ask and leave the organization in droves.

Naturally, I was upset. I had worked extremely hard getting the complex technical details in the appeal right and melding those with the kind of impassioned, personal plea I know works in direct mail.

The development staff and I sat down and discussed how to proceed, and eventually, we convinced the executive director to test his approach vs. my approach. The results were definitive in my favor.

Now, this guy was a Ph.D. He had a couple of decades of experience in writing about his subject on me. But he didn't -- at that time -- know direct mail at all.

Unless your board members -- or other people you're asking to read your direct mail copy -- are or have been involved with direct mail before, it is likely that they'll look at a good appeal letter and see all the same things my scientist client saw: hyperbole, simplified language, lots of "you", too much bold and underlines -- things that academic writers are trained to avoid like the plague.

There's a reason hopeful anglers like to hire guides when they go on a big fishing expedition: they want an expert to show them where the fish are and what they're biting on. Rather than tossing their lines out and seeing what happens, they're taking the expert's advice and adapting it to their equipment.

Your direct mail program needs that same care. If you take bits of advice from every angler on the river, you're not going to catch as many donors as you want.

Buy-in is great. But educated buy-in is better. So make sure anyone reviewing your direct mail letters has a good Direct Mail 101 course -- or at least read an article like this one from Fundraising Success -- before they toss in their line. And happy fishing!