153 Tips to Raise More Money By Mail

Direct mail is still the major source of contributions to nonprofits. It’s the most important fundraising and communications tool you have.

I’ve updated my list of top Best Practice Tips for Your Mailing Campaign with the latest research and recommendations from my favorite mail gurus.

Warning: this is a very long post! If you don’t want to keep scrolling, you can download the complete pdf by filing out this form here.

This list will give you tips for:

*                Drawing donors in to the letter.
*                Upgrading your donors’ gifts.
*                Creating a dynamite case.
*                Writing a letter your donors will actually read.
*                Creating a killer ask in the letter.
*                Asking lapsed donors to renew their gift.
*                Ending the letter with a bang.
*                Raising more from your top donors.
*                Creating a plan and scheduling your mailings.
*                Communicating when you are not asking.
*                Following up your appeals so donors say yes.
*                Welcoming new donors.
*                Signing the letter correctly.
*                Including prospects who may not be on your radar screen.
*                Linking to and integrating with your web site.
*                Creating a mailing packet that brings results.
*                Using a reply card that sells.
*                Setting up the right kind of infrastructure.
*                Using the right envelope as a fundraising tool.


  • Use the same appeal message and call to action in your mail solicitations, on your web site, and in your email communications – and reinforce your message over and over.
  • Focus more on your donor and what he or she wants to accomplish than on your organization.
  • The appeal letter can have only one objective: a clear ask for support. It is not a newsletter, an end-of-year report or item mixed in with other communications.
  • Your top priority is always to renew your past donors. They are your customer base – your “money in the bank.” Don’t let them slip away.
  • Don’t solicit any donors until you have shown them what results you have accomplished with their first gift. Donors say they will give liberally but only after they know what their first gift accomplished.
  • Be sure to communicate with your donors frequently in between appeals so they are up to date and feel connected to your organization.  This communication determines whether your donor is open to give again. It’s more important than you realize.
  • Never, never, never let a committee approve or edit your letter. If you let well-meaning but unknowledgeable people help write your appeal, they will ruin it.  Guaranteed!
  • Update your web site. Many donors who receive a letter will go to your website to make their gift. Be ready to welcome them there with an easy to follow online donation process.
  • Segment your list. Break up your list into smaller groups that have some sort of affinity. You’ll raise much more money by personalizing your appeals.


  • Use the word “you” immediately in the first sentence of your appeal.
  • Your goal in the first part of the letter is to get your reader’s attention. (Tom Ahern)
  • Make your first two sentences so compelling that your donor will want to keep reading. (You can easily lose them in the very beginning.)

  • Immediately thank donors for their past support in the first or second lines.  I like to open every letter with “thank you” to remind the donor of their partnership for the cause.
  • Tell a story. Narrative is far more powerful than a set of statistics and organizational accomplishments.
  • Be careful about photography and fancy layout in your letter or accompanying materials. Too much design makes it much less personal.
  • Always use photos of people, not buildings. It’s what happens inside the buildings that counts.
  • Photos of cute kids and attractive people draw better than photos of sick kids. (Cute animals draw better than sick animals.)
  • In the letter copy, talk about your donor’s interests and their “kind” or “loyal” or “valued” support.
  • Use one word sentences. Try using exclamation points for emphasis.


  • Always, always, always send out personalized letters.  (Dear Mr. Smith rather than Dear Friend)

  • Use contractions – it’s less formal. Lofty doesn’t work!
  • Make your letter as personal and conversational in tone as you can.  Make it sound like you sat down and wrote it to a friend.  (Jerry Panas)
  • Repeat the word “you” frequently: it’s most important word in your letter.
  • Use the word “I” in the letter to make it more personal and friendly.  It does wonders changing your tone from “institutional” to “personal.”
  • Always make it about the donor – not about your organization.  Help your donors imagine what they can achieve with their gifts.


  • Focus on more frequent gift opportunities each year as a way to upgrade your donors to higher giving levels.
  • Establish a monthly giving program. People who give monthly will give much, much more.
  • Use gift clubs to encourage higher-level donations.  Ask donors to move up to the next level.
  • When you ask for an upgraded gift: talk about an increased or enhanced partnership with the donor.


  • Talk about opportunities not your needs.
  • Make your message emotional. Donors give out of emotion, then justify it with logic.
  • Open with a story. Stories inspire and encourage action.
  • Use only one story. One story is more powerful than three stories. (Tom Ahern)
  • Include a story of a grateful recipient.
  • Make your story short but powerful. It can even be a one sentence story such as, “Monday morning little Johnny woke up, hungry again.”
  • Give your story rich details to make it real.
  • Show that you are a forward-thinking, positive organization ready to take action in a significant way to make life better.  (Penelope Burk)
  • Your case should very clearly tell how you are carrying out your mission. (Penelope Burk)
  • Share measurable results of what you have achieved with other donors’ gifts. (Penelope Burk)
  • Emphasize how you change or save lives: your life-affirming, or life-saving work. (Mal Warwick)
  • DON’T use the words “programs” or “services” any more than you have to. They are boring and too generic.
  • Repeat the case for support – the need and its urgency – several times in the letter.
  • Use statistics to build credibility and make the cause more concrete.
  • Describe your project as “innovative,” trailblazing” or “groundbreaking,” and your work as “wide-ranging, or extensive.”
  • Offer the donor proof that your organization has made a significant impact and can do much more.
  • If you are a membership organization, be sure to emphasize membership in your appeal. Membership helps create a closer bond between the donor and your organization.


  • Say it simply. Say it clearly. Say it personally.  (Jerry Panas)
  • Break up your letter copy with headings.
  • Make your letter easy to skim and still deliver its message.
  • Have plenty of white space on the letter, which makes it easy to read. Wide margins will help.
  • Use snappy action verbs that convey action.
  • Use vivid words and not lame, overused, hackneyed words. (George Smith)
  • Never use a long word when a short one will do. (Seth Godin)
  • Use short, concise sentences and paragraphs.  Vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs for interest.
  • No more than three sentences per paragraph. (Jerry Panas)
  • No more than 6 to 8 words in each sentence.  (Jerry Panas)
  • Write on the 5th grade level for easy reading. (like these tips)
  • Use present tense.

  • Never use the passive voice when you can use the active voice. (George Orwell). I.e.: “people are being helped.”
  • Use type large enough to read easily. 12 point type is the minimum size for fundraising material.
  • If you can, use an image or idiom to make it clearer. (George Orwell)
  • ALL CAPS is ok for emphasis.
  • Boldface is wonderful for emphasis.
  • Use the word “you” in headings.
  • Use bullets to break up the copy.
  • Eliminate every possible word – including adjectives and descriptive phases – in your copy. “If it is possible to cut a word
  • out, cut it out.” (George Orwell)
  • Be careful with clichés. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print. (George Orwell)
  • Write your letter. Then remove the first paragraph and see if it isn’t stronger. You don’t need a long preamble. (Tom Ahern)
  • Include a date on the letter.
  • Longer letters with more pages are more successful than one page letters. The letter needs to be as long as it takes. Don’t make it too short.  (Harvey McKinnon)


  • You’ve got to tell your donor explicitly:

Why this organization?
Why this program?
Why NOW?
Why me?

  • If your letter doesn’t lay this out – then go back to the drawing board.
  • Your call to action is the most important part of your letter. Make it clear to donors what you want them to do.
  • Give the donor something worth doing that is easy to do. “Restore sight for $25.” (Tom Ahern)
  • Explicitly in tell your donor exactly what they can accomplish with their gift. (Penelope Burk)
  • Tell your donor UP FRONT exactly what you will do with their money. (Penelope Burk)
  • Use a matching or challenge gift opportunity and tell your donors it will make their gifts go further.
  • Always ask for a specific amount or “the largest contribution you can make.”
  • Place your ask in the first part of a paragraph. Don’t bury your ask at the end of a sentence or paragraph – it will get missed.
  • Don’t ask for a “gift,” ask instead for an investment, a contribution, for help or to supply something special. (Mal Warwick)
  • Create a sense of urgency by asking for an immediate contribution or asking for help with an urgent or critical situation.
  • Use please such as “please send your gift today” or “please consider a leadership contribution of xxx.”
  • Ask based on your donor’s giving history.
  • Give the donor a deadline for responding and a reason for the deadline.


  • In closing, include your warmest or deepest or heartfelt thanks.
  • Repeat your call to action.
  • Say “I urge you to do your part to help.”
  • Use a handwritten PS at the end. The donor will read this first.
  • Use a PPS if you want to drive home the call to action or the need. (George Smith)
  • Use these words for the PS:  “Thank you for helping with this important need” or “Please send your check today to help with….”
  • Include a personal handwritten note to the reader from the sender.
  • Personally sign letters.  The more personal the letter, the better chance you have to receive a gift.
  • Whenever possible, have the signers of the letters actually sign in blue ink.
  • WHO SIGNS is vitally important: it should be a person whose name the donors will recognize – someone with clout and authority.
  • This is never the development director and rarely the executive director.
  • Endorsements of your work by celebrities or local personalities can add credibility.


  • Send your Top Donors special, custom-tailored personal letters and appeals.
  • Have board and staff members write or visit them personally with an individualized appeal.
  • Use words like “exceptional” or “outstanding” when you refer to their past gifts, support and involvement in your cause.
  • Thank them in the opening sentence for their continuing and steadfast support. Emphasize their partnership with your cause.
  • Ask these donors to make a leadership gift.


  • Set up a calendar of mailings and plan ahead.
  • Mail several times a year to your entire donor base.
  • Segment your mailing list and mail personalized appeals to specially targeted groups.  (i.e., past donors, volunteers,people who have attended your auction, corporate sponsors, board members, past board members.)
  • Mail to donors more often than nondonors.
  • Track your LYBUNTS (people who gave Last Year But Unfortunately Not This) carefully and send them repeated (cheerful and enthusiastic) appeals to be sure they renew. Once a donor has given for two straight years, they are likely to remain a donor for the long run.
  • Develop a series of appeals to SYBUNTS. (People who gave Some Year But Unfortunately Not This year).  “We’ve missed you!”
  • The letters you send to your LYBUNTS and SYBUNTS should remind them of their past support and remind them how much they have helped create your success.


  • Communication is what happens in between solicitations. It determines whether your next solicitation is successful – whether your donor welcomes it or throws it away.
  • Find ways to communicate cheerfully with your donor base outside of the newsletter and mailing solicitations.
  • Don’t send a dull newsletter. Studies show that donors think nonprofit newsletters are boring. (Penelope Burk)
  • Write to your donors often with newsletters, alerts or other news – both in the mail and via email.


  • Send a followup letter a few weeks after your appeal: “we didn’t hear from you and we need you to respond.”

  • Studies show that followup letters are the most important factor in securing the donor’s gift.
  • Followup letters need to be short and play on urgency and the emotions.
  • Write your followup letter at the same time you write the first letter.
  • Use a different kind of envelope for the followup letter.
  • Organize the board members to make phone calls to follow up appeals to donors.  You can’t lose by following up with a personal call.


  • Create a dynamite welcome packet for new donors. This will help them renew when the time comes to ask again. Only 35-50% of new donors will typically renew.
  • Craft a special thank you and communication program for first-time donors. Celebrate the beginning of this partnership!
  • Invite new donors to get involved. Move quickly to develop the relationship to keep them on your bandwagon.
  • Go all out to welcome online donors just like your mail donors. New online donors are particularly at risk. Don’t let them fall thru the cracks.


  • Identify local businesses that you have a relationship with and send them a special appeal for higher amounts.
  • Solicit all the businesses who supported your most recent auction or gala. Ask for additional support apart from the auction.
  • Add your vendors to your appeal list and request their support at least twice a year.
  • Don’t forget these prospective donors: family foundations, churches, civic clubs.


  • Include your website address. Donors, even when they give with a check in the mail, will probably check out your website.
  • Use different landing pages and urls to track donors’ responses to individual appeals.
  • Create a specific landing page on your web site for replies to direct mail appeals.
  • The most important page on your web site from a donor’s perspective is “your gift at work.”


  • Everything in your mailing should look easy to read, interesting and personalized.
  • Your mailing packet should include four pieces:

The solicitation letter

A reply/pledge card

A return envelope for the reply card

The outside envelope.

  • Your outside envelope needs to grab your reader’s attention. Put something attention-getting on the outside. For example: People for the American Way: “If you love Glenn Beck and Fox News . . . then just throw this letter away.”  (Tom Ahern)
  • Try putting these teasers on your outside envelope: They work! (Jeff Brooks)




  • Always include a return envelope. It is critically important to make sure it is easy for people to give.
  • Be sure your mailing label is attractive and not full of computerized numbers.  A “mass market” look to your mailing label can put your letter in the trash immediately.
  • A fundraising brochure is not necessary. Some studies show that the brochure cuts response rather than increases it.  A good letter can be sufficient.  (Jerry Panas)
  • Any brochure enclosed with a solicitation should have a specific fundraising message or it should not be included.
  • The reply slip needs to stand out in the package.


  • Put a headline on the reply card such as “Yes! I want to help!”
  • Add a one-sentence summary of your case.
  • Show gift levels in terms of how it would help your cause:
  • $100 will buy xx shoes
  • $500 will help 5 families with food
  • Use checkboxes on your reply slip, rather than fill in the blanks.
  • But limit the amount of information you request. The more boxes on the reply card, the more confusing it is to your donor. If you confuse your donor, she may abandon your card.
  • Make sure there is room for handwriting on the reply card.
  • Make the reply card paper easy to write on.
  • Circle the amount you are requesting from the donor on the reply card.
  • Pre-print the donor’s name and address on the reply form.
  • Include a postage paid business reply envelope.
  • Stock your reply envelopes so they are always on hand.


  • Use a mail house to process your mailings efficiently. You’ll more than make up this cost through increased efficiency.
  • Upgrade your fundraising software – you must have a sophisticated state of the art data base system in order to manage an expanded mailing program.
  • The print quality of everything you send out needs to be first class. Never cut corners – this appeal represents your organization and needs to look professional.
  • Make updating your list a priority. Assign a staff member whose responsibility is to keep the mailing list up-to-date and clean.


Use this list as a checklist – review your mailing program against it and then highlight the tips that you need to implement.

GOOD LUCK and may you raise tons of money!

I appreciate any comments below!