Raising individual donations by sending letters to people at home (AKA “direct mail”) is not dead, that’s for sure. But, in the hands of some, it looks very much asleep. Consultants and charity practitioners alike can be heard saying “dm is tanking” and the like. And yet, there are striking examples of direct mail fundraising that is breaking all previous records, even in the current gloomy financial climate. Indeed, there are examples of direct mail donor recruitment that is not only breaking even, but actually making money. So how do these two worlds of direct mail fundraising – the thriving and the failing – come about?

One of the problems is that, while the marketplace has changed markedly in the last 20 years, fundraising dm is more or less unchanged in its form and in the way it is used. I have mailing packs in my collection that date back to 1988 and these are virtually indistinguishable in layout, tone and content from samples I got in my post this month from a good spread of different types of charities. No kidding, but at a workshop not long ago I asked delegates to look at a range of recent mailings and some from the late 80s. The delegates all thought they were current output. One delegate asked where we’d got the “tank tops” from that were worn by some people in a photo!! It’s as if a creative ‘model’ of a charity dm pack took hold many years ago and has not been challenged since. How many do you read which still have the immortal phrase somewhere not far from the beginning which goes “Let me tell you about…”, followed by yet another tired case history of some sort? The trouble is that, when once upon a time long ago, readers had the time and patience to work their way through a lengthy tale of woe before finding out what the real point was, this no longer applies – or to be accurate, no longer applies to sufficient of the readership to produce the response it once did.

A new creative strategy is needed for the times we are living in. One that communicates much more quickly the key points of the appeal. And by ‘key points’ these days, I mean not a lengthy description of the problem, solution, project details, etc, etc, but a much more succinct statement of the aims and aspirations of the charity itself. And why, for example, is it that so many agency copywriters think that successful direct mail fundraising revolves around projects, when other types of fundraising for individual gifts – legacies and major gifts to name but two – are driven by the aims and aspirations of the charity, not project information? The foundation of successful individual giving is getting the donor to buy into the direction the charity is taking rather than every step taken on the way.


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