Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I am really over long letters

Dr Barnardo wrote a four page appeal letter in London in the ‘80s using classic DM techniques – underlining, urgency, dollar handles, specific ask and a clear reference to what YOU the potential donor could do to help.

It was written in spring after a winter which had been ‘the severest and most arduous, so far as work among the children of the poor is concerned.’ He needed to raise £100 a day for food. The letter also brings to the attention of the reader that the ‘unceasing demands upon our resources’ were having an unprecedented impact.

The results of this appeal are not available, but I believe it did well.

A couple of months back, another children’s charity, Starlight, had been hit hard by the recession and they had decided to go public about their plight. They were very honest, acknowledging that part of the reason they were hit so hard was their funding strategy, which relied too much upon events and corporate support.

After reading the press stories about their plight I pulled together an ‘emergency’ appeal to their donors and met up with them. The emergency appeal was developed to demonstrate how I work, but they decided to mail it immediately anyway.

The letter is quite similar in approach to Dr Barnardo’s, except it had a couple of case studies, a cut-out of all the newspaper headlines (cleverly designed to look like it was cut and pasted using scissors and glue and then photocopied), and a rehash of some previous materials.

Whilst it would not win any awards for graphic design beauty, the appeal raised well over target, actually doubling the amount raised from donors last year.

But what interests me is that, at the heart of the appeal, was a four page appeal letter. By the way, the four page letter by Dr Barnardo referred to earlier was written in the 1880s, not the 1980s.

You would think fundraising would have changed a lot between the late 19th century and the new millennium.But when we look at the data of 23 successful fundraising charities willing to share results in a benchmarking cooperative we see that direct mail appeals still raise more than any other method (not including government and bequests).

Despite the rise of other media, hundreds of people will be starting or half-way through organising their Christmas appeal mail-out, with collective expectations of raising millions from generous Australians.

But unfortunately many will still not have learned the lesson from Dr Barnardo – longer letters tend to work better.

I really don’t like long letters, by the way. They are a pain in the butt to write, check copy, get clients approval, print and mail-merge. And someone important at most of our clients doesn’t like them. And I have lost staff with their last words being ‘...there are only so many four page letters I can proof read...!’ Ironically most of those staff are now clients proof reading four page letters. And they don’t look great in my portfolio (though the results do). And I prefer doing digital stuff. And... I think you get the idea.

In focus groups, donors say they hate them too. In Hong Kong, one client ran focus groups which all concluded that donors would be more likely to respond to a pack with a two-sided letter and tear off coupon than a four page pack (actually eight pages – English and Chinese) with lots of additional information. When they tested both approaches in a 50:50 split test, the two pager raised HK$1.5 million (AUD$220,000) – the big pack raised over HK$7.5 million (about AUD$1.1 million)

Longer letters tend to work better - but not because they are long. It is because, to tell a good story with a beginning, middle and end, and ensure the right fundraising tactics (target, what the target is for, deadline, establishing need, demonstrating solution, demonstrating why that charity is best placed to solve etc), it simply takes more words.

Having said that, a dreadful four pager is worse than a good two pager – if a story can be told more quickly then tell it.

As Mal Warwick says: ‘A fundraising letter should be as long as it needs to be...’

Good luck this Christmas.

(This post is a rehash of my agitator article in the electronic edition of the most recent Fundraising and Philanthropy magazine).

A case study on the Starlight appeal, including the whole pack in downloadable form is available here.

And finally, see Dr Barnardo’s 19th century appeal on SOFII here.

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