What NOT to Do in Your Email or Direct Mail Appeals

Writing an effective email or direct mail appeal is not as simple as writing a note to a friend. It’s a real challenge. Sometimes, organizations hit the mark. Sadly, this post is about one of those other times when an organization misses the mark.

A short time ago, I received the following email from a performing arts organization (which will remain nameless) that my wife and I care about and have supported in the past:

Subject: We’ve Missed You!

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Michael J. Rosen,

With just a few weeks to go before the end of the [ABC Organization’s] fiscal year, we are writing to ask for your support of the [Organization] at a time of increasingly good news. As you have undoubtedly read, the [Organization] is no longer in bankruptcy. We officially exited from financial reorganization on July 30, 2012. As we look to the future with confidence, we hope that you share our excitement about the beginning of [John Doe’s] tenure as [artistic director]. With [John’s] first season coinciding with the 100th anniversary of [John Smith’s] arrival in Philadelphia, the stars truly seem aligned!

We are grateful for your generous past support of [the Organization]. Several seasons ago, you helped us make possible all the outstanding performances … and the extensive educational and community partnerships that enable us to engage, inspire, and serve Philadelphia.

Today, we ask you to rejoin the thousands of Philadelphians and audiences worldwide in demonstrating your love for our magnificent [Organization] by making your gift. Now, more than ever, we need to have you with us!

“Donate Now” [button]


Senior Director of Individual Giving”

While it was smart of the organization to send an email appeal to lapsed donors, there are several serious problems with the appeal that will negatively impact results. My wife and I are among those who have chosen not to renew our support.

By providing a detailed critique of the email appeal, I hope to help you avoid some of the same mistakes. When you do, you’ll get stronger results.

To begin, the email is not donor centered. I created a Worlde using the text of the email:

A Wordle is a graphical representation that makes words that are emphasized larger than the words used less often. In the Wordle I created, you can see that the following words are most emphasized:

  • organization
  • ask
  • now
  • support
  • Philadelphia

Of the five emphasized words, only “Philadelphia” reflects me and my community. The other four words are all organization focused.

Now, let’s look at the subject line: “We’ve Missed You!”

My wife has spent the past several months engaged in a fight with cancer. As a result, we have refocused our philanthropy. In addition, we haven’t been getting out as much as we once did. However, with my wife’s health returning to normal, we’re looking forward to the start of the new performing arts season.

When I saw the “We’ve Missed You!” subject line, I was excited because I saw the email was from an organization my wife and I have an interest in. I assumed the email would tell me about the upcoming season. And, as it’s been awhile since we’ve been able to attend performances, I thought the email just might also contain news of a special performance or ticket discount offer to entice us back.

Then, I opened the email. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the organization really did not miss my wife and me, it only missed our money. The email contained absolutely no information about the upcoming season and did not even include a link to the 2012-13 performance schedule.

I’ll give the organization credit for crafting a powerful subject line. Unfortunately, the subject line merely sets the reader up for a letdown.

The organization missed a great opportunity to leverage reciprocity and inspire gratitude. If the email had invited us to make plans to attend an upcoming performance, if the organization had supplied a link to its 2012-13 performance schedule and, especially if the organization had included some sort of promotional offer, it would have inspired a sense of appreciation.

By giving us something small, even just information, we would have been more likely to reciprocate with a donation.

Instead of beginning the email with something of interest to me (i.e.: upcoming performance information), the organization chose to write about the upcoming close of its fiscal year.

Guess what? Very few prospective donors care about an organization’s fiscal year. We care about our own fiscal year. The line used by the organization is quintessentially organization-focused and not the least bit donor-centered.

Rather than focusing on the end of its own timeline for giving, the organization would have been wiser to focus on the impending start of the new performance season. That would have been more donor-centered as it would have involved future engagement of the reader. As a result, the message would have been more inspirational and giving would have been more likely.

The next sentence in the email is just a bit strange and, perhaps, pointless. The sentence begins, “As you have undoubtedly read…” If I’ve “undoubtedly read” about the organization’s emergence from bankruptcy, why is the author telling me about it? If I had not read about it already, the phrase would make me feel foolish for not having read about it. If I had read about it but forgot, the phrase would make me feel silly for not having paid more attention.

Phrases like “As you have undoubtedly read” or “Of course” or “As you know” serve no possible useful purpose. Instead, they can actually be offensive to readers. When using such a phrase, you’re either about to waste the reader’s time or make them feel ill informed.

The email expresses confidence in the future now that the organization has emerged from bankruptcy. However, the email does not explain why the organization is confident. Many of the organization’s board members who led the way into bankruptcy continue to serve. While it’s certainly good news that the organization has emerged from bankruptcy, it’s unclear what changes have been made to ensure the organization’s strong management and long-term viability.

It’s not enough for the organization to say things are better. It needs to prove it. I’ve given them money before, but they still ended up in bankruptcy. How do I know it won’t happen again?

The email shares more good news by reminding readers that a new staff leader on the artistic side will be taking the helm in the new season. The email tells me this news is exciting and suggests, therefore, that I should be excited. However, I’m not told why I should be excited.

What follows is insider-speak about the new guy coming on board 100 years after a famous other guy came to town. Some supporters might not really know the historical figure or why he’s so important. I have no idea what “the stars truly seem aligned” means. It’s a mildly interesting historical coincidence. But, beyond that, so what? Will the new guy be doing some sort of tribute to the old guy? I don’t know, but I’d certainly like to know if that’s the case. If it’s not the case, why mention it at all?

The organization did do something correct in its email. It thanked my wife and me for our “generous past support.” That’s good. You want to thank past supporters before again asking them to give.

Unfortunately, this email takes things a bit too far. While my wife and I have been supportive, we certainly have not been generous enough to have “helped [the organization] make possible all the outstanding performances … and the extensive educational and community partnerships that enable us to engage, inspire, and serve Philadelphia.” I’ve heard of stretching a dollar, but this is just silly. By telling me I’ve made all things possible when I know I haven’t, the author really isn’t telling me anything at all.

Organizations should tell donors how their money was really spent. Or, organizations should tell donors what their money, when combined with gifts from other supporters, made possible.

The author then requests a gift. Actually, that’s not quite true. “We” asked my wife and me for a gift. The email should have stated, “Today, I ask you to rejoin…” instead of, “Today, we ask you to rejoin…” The use of “we” is institutional. It’s not personal. The author forgot she is one person writing to one person in a personal communication. The use of “we” depersonalizes the communication and puts distance between the writer and the reader.

In the ask, my wife and I were encouraged to demonstrate our love for the organization by making our gift. This statement implies that the only way to show our love for the organization is to make a donation.

Hmmm. Maybe I’ll try this strategy on my mother. I think I’ll call her and tell her, “Mom, when my next birthday rolls around, I want you to demonstrate your love for me by writing me a nice check.” I wonder what her response will be.

As for the organization, the email never suggests how much my wife and I should give nor has it reminded us of how much we have given. In direct response fundraising, the results will almost always be stronger if you request a specific amount of money.

The email concludes with the line: “Now, more than ever, we need to have you with us!” Judging from the exclamation mark, the organization really does seem to need my support. However, the author just got done telling me:

  • The organization is experiencing a time of increasingly good news without my financial support.
  • The organization emerged from bankruptcy without my financial support.
  • The organization is confident of its future despite the fact I have yet to renew my financial support.
  • A new artistic leader has been hired without my financial support.
  • I know that the organization’s performances and educational and community partnerships have continued without my financial support.

This all leaves me with two burning questions: Why does the organization need my financial support? With so many organizations in need during this challenging economic time, why does this particular organization not only need my financial support, why does it need it now?

I know the organization wants me to give before the end of its fiscal year. I know they want me to show my love for the organization by giving it money. But, the author never explains why my money is needed and why I should give at the close of the organization’s fiscal year instead of my own. And, the organization has not demonstrated how my money will be used more wisely than it was in the past when the organization ended up in bankruptcy.

I wanted to talk with the Senior Director of Individual Giving about my issues with the email. My plan was to have a constructive conversation. At that point, I still had no plan of blogging about the email appeal. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse.

While the email contained the name of the sender, the message did not provide a direct phone number or email address for her. Clearly, the sender was not interested in two-way communication.

Instead, at the bottom of the email, the following information was provided along with phone numbers for subscriber services and tickets: “Please do not reply to this e-mail address, as it is only used for sending e-mails. If you would like to contact us, please visit our website at [URL for the organization’s contact page was provided].”

The contact page did not contain a direct number or email address for the Senior Director of Individual Giving. So, since the organization’s published hours are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, I called the main number shortly after 4:30 PM. Unfortunately, as I later learned, the human receptionist leaves at 4:30 PM. So, I was left to deal with a multi-level automatic call director that eventually dumped me into a voice mail box for someone I had no interest in speaking to.

For an organization that wants my money and has really “missed me,” it was sure making it difficult for me to communicate with it.

After some sleuthing, I came up with the email address for the Senior Director of Individual Giving. By this point, I was very frustrated which, I’m afraid, really came across in my snarky email to her. In case you’re wondering, I have since apologized to her.

I received a pithy email response with the direct phone number for the Senior Director of Individual Giving. While she made no other attempt to contact me, to her credit, she took my call.

While the Senior Director of Individual Giving indicated that the results of the email appeal were good, she refused to provide any details. When she asked why she should provide more information, I suggested that transparency is probably a good policy, especially for an organization that has just emerged from bankruptcy. Plus, the information  could be of interest and value to her fellow brothers and sisters in the development profession.

I’m not quite sure why she felt the need for secrecy, particularly if the email results were indeed good; however, she continued to decline my request for further information.

I sincerely hope that the Senior Director of Individual Giving will read my critique. While it’s seldom fun to be on the receiving end of criticism, my analysis is provided with a constructive heart. I’m showing my love for the organization, not by writing a check, but by providing this critique with the hope that it will help the organization be even more successful with its future appeals. And, I share my analysis publicly in the hope that all of my readers will benefit from it.

Here are 11 lessons you can learn from my encounter:

1. Provide something of value to prospective donors before asking for support.

2. Do not write about the end of your fiscal year. Recognize donors care more about their own fiscal year than yours.

3. Do not use phrases that make readers think you’re about to waste their time or make them feel ignorant.

4. When reminding prospective donors of bad times and celebrating a turn-around, it’s important to demonstrate what the organization is doing differently to ensure viability.

5. Don’t make historical comparisons unless there is a point. In an email communication, space is at a premium. There’s no room for a throw-away line.

6. Tell donors what outcomes their previous gifts made possible. When appropriate, speak of a particular gift and a specific outcome. Or, speak of collective gifts and the impact they achieved.

7. Avoid the use of the word “we.” An email or letter is from one person to one person. Therefore, use the word “I” instead of the impersonal, institutional “we” unless there is more than one letter signer.

8. When donors make a gift, it is, in part, an expression of their affection for the organization. However, suggesting that the only way to show love for an organization is to give it money can be off-putting.

9. When asking for a donation, it’s almost always more effective to ask for a specific amount.

10. If you want people to give, you need to make a case for support. You need to explain why you need their support and why you need it now.

11. Make it easy for people to communicate with you by providing your full contact information. You should always be receptive to real communication.

In this blog post, I have removed references and names that would have clearly identified the organization at issue. The Senior Director of Individual Giving did not think naming the organization would be helpful to the organization or necessary for my readers. So, because it’s an organization I care about, and as a courtesy to the Senior Director, I’ve focused on the content of the email rather than what organization sent it or the identity of the email signer.

So, what do you think? Would you have been inspired to give in response to the email appeal I’ve shared? Is there anything else that would have made this appeal stronger? Is it good enough as is? I look forward to your comments.

That’s what Michael Rosen says…What do you say?

25 Responses to “What NOT to Do in Your Email or Direct Mail Appeals”

  1. No, it was not a great letter. For all the reasons you cite. The one area I disagree with is the use of “as you are aware.” I often use this with letters to board members and other active volunteers so it does not appear as if I’m lecturing them about something they already know. I’m simply reminding them (without insulting their intelligence) because it’s a fact that is pertinent to the text to follow. Also, in terms of providing something “of value,” what donors value varies greatly by organization. With arts organizations, it’s often performances or perks. With social services organizations, however, I’ve found it is more often simply a compelling story about someone who was helped. And, I love the Wordle. Now, I just have to figure out how to make it run on my computer! 🙂

    • Claire, thank you for validating most of my thoughts about the email.

      Regarding your feeling about “as you are aware” phrases, I understand what you’re saying. Such phrases have certainly become commonly used and, therefore, have gained some acceptance. My feelings on the subject are rooted in my journalism training, so I may feel more strongly on the subject than the typical person. If the email appeal had said “as you may have read” instead of “as you have undoubtedly read,” I would have been more willing to overlook it. And, if the rest of the email did not have the other problems, the “undoubtedly” phrase wouldn’t have been a big deal.

      As for providing something of “value,” some organizations will have a much easier time of it than others. Over the years, I’ve served on the boards of a number of nonprofit social service agencies. You’re correct. A true, compelling story can go a long way. Also, something as simple as a “tip sheet” can have value if it provides useful information to people. For example, depending on the mission of the organization, a tip sheet can be crafted that lists warning signs for a particular health condition, or that provides ideas for easily getting kids prepared for the new school year, or that provides the warning signs of teenage depression. One of my earliest fundraising experiences was as a kid going door-to-door for the American Cancer Society. We gave folks leaflets outlining cancer warning signs before we asked them for money; I learned a valuable lesson that has stuck with me over the many decades. The many, many decades. Sigh.

      Thanks again for commenting. Good luck with Wordle (http://wordle.net). It’s a useful and fun service, and it’s free!

  2. Great article, and I I agree with everything you said, I would not have given to them either. As I work to write compelling direct mail letters, my main focus is on creating something of value, whether it’s a compelling story, directing them to a website with useful information, or something else completely. The email you received really provides nothing of value, except that it helped to save you money by not enticing you to give them a gift! Which, I guess, is something!

    • Brian, thank you for sharing your insight. Providing value to prospective donors isn’t always easy, but it’s certainly a great way to ultimately generate results for our organizations. So, it’s certainly worth the effort to be a bit creative, as you know.

  3. Michael,

    As you know 🙂

    You comments were right on. The organization’s email was not donor focused. I hope the organization evaluates their future correspondence with your 11 point check list. This was truly your best gift to them.

    Of course 🙂

    We can all benefit from reviewing this great check list to make sure our appeals are more donor-centered than organization focused. A gift to us too!

    Thank you.

  4. Michael,

    That was a pretty awful letter. Unfortunately, it’s also representative of a lot of other, similarly awful, letters I receive daily. Blech.

    Honestly, they lost me on “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Michael J. Rosen”. C’mon. Take a few minutes and get your list in shape so at least you can use a real salutation!

    The only thing I’d disagree with you about is that the size of the gift determines whether the gift is generous or not. For some donors, $25 is a reach. For others, $25,000 isn’t. In the same way that the letter should be donor-focused, the determination of “generous” has to be the donor’s as well. I don’t think we can make that assumption. ANY gift is generous, as the alternative is no gift.

    I’m always amazed at the letters like this I see, many from national organizations… As a profession, we can (and should) do much better!

    • Mary, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this one. You’ll be glad to know that we are actually in agreement about the subject of generosity. I was just pointing out that my gift certainly would not allow the organization to do all the things it said it allowed it to do. You’re quite right that any gift is generous when the alternative is no gift. Thanks for making that point.

  5. Great post–I’ve just shared with members of my staff who are working on a membership appeal as a “what not to do” example. Your critique is spot on.

    Despite my appreciation for transparency in general, they lost me at the mention of the bankruptcy. If you hadn’t been paying any attention and didn’t even know they’d been in that situation, they just told you that they had been in extremely dire financial straits.

    What’s to prevent them from going there again, so you’ve thrown away any donation you might have made? For all you know, it was financial mismanagement that put them there, and they have a new artistic director, not a new head of finance.

    If they felt the need to discuss the bankruptcy, that could have been addressed below the news about a new artistic direction (made stronger and more interesting) so the opening would be positive. Bad news should always be served as a sandwich, and they gave you a nasty first bite.

    • Barb, thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m glad to know that you found the post worthwhile to share with your staff. In fairness to the organization that sent the email, I can’t imagine that anyone on its list had not heard of the bankruptcy. However, as you have suggested, there are more effective ways to address the issue. One of the things I found particularly remarkable about the email was how many things were wrong with it. But, at least we’ve found some value in it.

  6. Michael,

    This was enlightening for me, as I am getting ready to write an appeal for one of the organizations that I serve. It definitely gave me some food for thought about what not to do. This was definitely a worthwhile read.

  7. This was a fabulous piece, Michael. Thanks so much. I’m sharing it with our entire staff and I’d like to share this with colleagues at the upcoming NCCCF/CASE 2012 conference in October. Well done!

  8. Michael and Mary,

    I agree with Mary as I was put off at the very beginning with Mr. and Mrs. Michael J. Rosen. I usually read no further if they miss me but don’t know my name or the proper format for salutations.

    Great piece, thanks so much!

  9. Thank you! Great article – great discussion. I was pleased that my text made an “appropriate” wordle AND I’m using it as a cool header on my fundraising letter.

  10. Great critique, MIchael. It still surprises me when senior professionals forget about donors’ interests and needs in their appeals.

    I recently reconnected with a high school friend who is on the board of this org. I’m considering sending your post to him. I think I’ll ask him first if he would be interested in comments on their fundraising appeal. I think he would be.

    And I’ll check out Wordle; thanks.

    • Catherine, thank you for your kind words. With my decades of work as a nonprofit professional, I can’t say that I’m surprised by my recent experience. However, I am still a bit amazed by it. By the way, while I did let the person responsible for the email know about my blog post, the individual never contacted me. So, I’m not sure my post was ever read by this individual. Oh well, at least others have benefitted. I appreciate your willingness to share the post with your friend.

  11. Reblogged this on grandmacharitychallenge and commented:
    Michael Rosen has hit the mark with his critique of this email appeal. Grandma of Grandmacharitychallenge admires his comments so shares them with you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: