There are dozens of articles and blog posts that discuss how to write a successful fundraising letter.  And many of them contain pretty solid recommendations.

But the success of your direct mail campaigns is decided well before your writer sits down to write your letter.  It’ll be decided during the planning phase when you establish your audience, your offer, and your creative direction.

Regardless of how beautiful your prose, simply building a better letter won’t lead to success unless you lay the appropriate groundwork.

The audience is the most critical factor in the success of your fundraising efforts. You can write sub-par letter copy and construct a poorly designed mail package, and if you’ve correctly selected the audience, you’ve still got a fighting chance at success.

But get the audience wrong, and you can mail the most beautifully written and designed package that will fail.

New donor acquisition is about finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.  There are 300+ million people in the U.S.  All are potential recipients of your mailing.  But not all of them are likely donors.  That’s where sophisticated targeting comes into play. 

Anyone can mail names in a phonebook.  In fact, maybe you’ve had a bad experience in the past and have done something similar.

Or maybe you’ve moved beyond that and now you buy names based on demographics like the income and home value in a given zip code in your community.  You probably get a few big gifts that way, but you won’t maximize your acquisition performance.

To truly maximize new donor acquisition performance, you need a more sophisticated audience selection strategy that relies on other variables.  Instead of looking for signs of wealth, look for signs of donating behavior, direct mail responsiveness, as well as some more interesting variables like religious affiliation/attendance (for more on the factors that influence giving, check out Russ Reid’s informative new study, Heart of the Donor), etc.  Combine these data points with things like income, home value and other variables to develop a well defined target audience for your acquisition strategy.   

In renewal campaigns, you have the distinct benefit (I hope) of having a treasure trove of historical data that you can use to segment donors into different categories based on past behavior.  Assuming you are using a database that allows you to track biographical records and their associated transaction history, you should be able to build a fairly rich profile of your donors to be used in segmentation.  You may be familiar with the acronym RFM.  RFM stands for Recency (of last gift), Frequency (# of gifts donor has made in her lifetime), Monetary (largest single gift amount).   

By segmenting your existing donors based on their RFM characteristics, you can identify your constituents that are most likely to respond to your campaigns, as well as those that are less likely to do so.  Better segmentation should result in better ROI.

NOTE: Critics of strict RFM will tell you that it isn’t as valuable as modeling to predict future behavior.  However, we’ve been testing this (by we, I mean some people who are WAY smarter than I) with a number of clients recently and found no appreciable benefit when modeling instead of using RFM segmentation.

Right about now you might be thinking, what exactly is an “offer” in direct mail fundraising?  Don’t worry – you’re not the only one!

In direct response fundraising, the offer is simply what you’re asking the donor to do (make a contribution), and what that action will accomplish (the benefit).  Your offer is the same as your case for support.

Here’s an example:

Your gift today of $19.70 will provide a hot meal and safe shelter for 10 homeless men at the mission. 

So what do you need to know about your offer?

The most successful offers are specific, urgent and solvable.  Specific, in that they describe what the need is (your gift of $X to accomplish Y), urgent in that they convey you need to act now (or something bad will happen), and solvable in that the need isn’t so huge that the donor’s gift won’t make a significant impact.

Direct mail creative is the easiest part to critique.  Everyone has an opinion on it.  They like it.  They hate it.  It should have had a blue envelope instead of a green envelope.  The font was too large.  It was too small.

You have an opinion.  Your boss has an opinion.  The board has an opinion (or twelve).  Your designers and creative directors all have opinions about the creative.

Don’t tell the creative directors and designers, but the hard truth is that, as interesting and valuable as the creative is (and it is), it is less critical to fundraising performance than targeting the right audience and developing a strong offer.

But don’t get me wrong – the creative is still important.  And it’s important that you get it right.

The first thing to understand is that when we talk about “creative,” we aren’t just talking about the design.  Creative, in general terms, also refers to your direct mail letter copy.  You can’t separate copy from design. 

To break through the clutter, your creative needs to be compelling.  Images need to be urgent, they need to evoke emotion, and they need to be consistent with the tone of your copy. 

Fundraising letter copy is unique from many other kinds of writing styles.  It breaks more rules than it follows.  Toss your APA style manual out the window, and focus instead on writing the way you speak.  Fundraising copy is strongest when creates a conversation with your donor.  Your goal is to pull emotional triggers in the donor’s heart and mind – and you can’t always do that with proper grammar. 

 If you get these three aspects right – audience, offer and creative – your direct mail campaign should be successful!