Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Nov/Dec 2005, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

For years, the response rate for direct mail fundraising has been gradually declining, due in part to increasing volume: more and more organizations sending more and more mail. If you’re not raising as much as you want through the mailbox, consider the following ideas.

WARNING: These strategies require more time —from the staff, board, and/or volunteers. However, the time invested should more than pay for itself in higher returns and larger gifts.


  1. Mail-merge letters to your top donors and prospects. Rather than sending “Dear friend” letters, mail-merge them so that each begins with the donor’s name, address, and salutation. This is basic technology; if you have a word processing program and a database, you can learn to do this. It will take an hour or two to print the letters yourself — rather than sending them to a commercial printer— depending on the speed of your equipment.

If it feels too daunting to attempt this approach with your entire list, identify your top 200 to 500 donors and prospects and use this personalized approach with them.

  1. Add hand-written notes. Scrawling personal notes in the margins is a time-tested way to improve your results, especially if the writer knows the donor. Novels or lyric poetry are not required; a simple “Thanks for your support” or “Thanks for considering a gift” should do the trick. The content of the note is less important than the fact that someone took the time to write a personal greeting.

This is a great strategy for involving board, staff, and volunteers. Pass around the mail-merged letters and ask anyone who knows the recipient to add a note. The most effective letters are covered with personal hand-written messages from multiple friends and acquaintances.

  1. Use Post-Its. For even better returns, write your personal notes on brightly-colored Post-its (the adhesive sticky notes) and affix them to the letter. These really stand out.
  2. Hand-address the envelopes. This is the only guaranteed way to get your mail opened. (Have you ever thrown away a hand-addressed envelope without opening it?) Again, you may be unable to do this for everyone, so “segment the list” and give your best candidates a little extra attention.
  3. Use first-class stamps. If you have a choice, buy big, fat, colorful ones. With a relatively small number of pieces— again, we are talking about your top 200 to 500 donors and prospects — the extra cost above the bulk mail rate is marginal. Your returns will more than exceed the additional $50 or $100 you pay for postage.
  4. Customize “the ask” to the donor’s giving history. Have your local print shop create a variety of response cards that you can use with members and donors based on their past giving: $25 and up, $50 and up, $100 and up, and so on. Always include an option marked “other,” in case they choose to give more or less than the check-off options. As you collate the letters and stuff the envelopes, match the response cards to the donors. Don’t send a $100 contributor a response card that begins with a $25 check-off.
  5. Include snapshots. These photos can relate to your programs: childcare seminar, lobby day, guided hike, community meeting, and so on. They can also be personal: the executive director’s new baby or your board picnic. If you’re in the middle of a capital campaign, consider sending construction photographs that document the progress of the building. If you’re working to protect a special landscape, take a picture of it.

Whenever possible, use action photos. These are much more effective than shots of people sitting around a table talking to each other.

You can get inexpensive bulk photographs at Price Club or an equivalent place. It’s also possible to send photos electronically, but somehow this feels less personal that pulling a snapshot out of an envelope — an activity that many of us associate with family and friends.


  1. Identify challenge gifts. If you’ve ever listened to public radio anywhere in the U.S., you know how this works: “The Jones family will match every dollar we raise for the next hour, up to a total of $2,500. If you want to double the impact of your gift, please call now.” Many foundations and government agencies also give grants on a matching basis, and those grants can be matched by individual donors.

Challenges are perhaps the oldest trick in fundraising, because they motivate your regular donors to make additional gifts and provide an incentive for new folks to join. When I worked at Native Seeds/SEARCH, a regional conservation group in Tucson, we used challenge grants to begin and end a capital campaign for a new seed bank, library, and grow-out garden. One of our foundation supporters gave $20,000 on the condition that we raise an equal amount from our members. We promoted this challenge in our newsletter and sent two special mailings to the entire membership requesting gifts for the match. We also phoned selected donors. The result: $52,000 in member contributions!

  1. Reward top donors with more information. Create an informal “insider” newsletter for major donors: what’s up in the office, emerging issues, and so on. This can be printed on a piece of letterhead or sent as an e-newsletter. If you use paper, personalize it with a note or Post-it from the executive director or board chair. The incentive: for a larger gift, donors receive a more intimate perspective on your issues, strategies, and challenges. Some groups send these quarterly, though two per year is probably sufficient.


  1. Try sending the same appeal letter in both mail and e-mail formats. If you collect e-mail addresses of your donors — and you should — e-mail the letter, too. You could send both formats simultaneously, or wait a week to follow the physical letter with e-mail.

This approach would allow for an interesting test. It would be easy to track the response rates from those who receive just the mailed letter versus those who received it via mail and e-mail.

  1. Use photocopied news articles in your appeals. In my experience, the most effective inserts are press clippings about your work. Even if these stories are not 100 percent accurate or entirely flattering — the perfect news article doesn’t exist — they add credibility to your organization. Journalists also tend to write more succinctly than the rest of us. As a donor, I am more inclined to read the newspaper article than the appeal letter itself, and I suspect that my behavior is not unusual.

When implemented together, each of these strategies is likely to improve your results. Taken together, they could really boost your returns. Try them in combination and watch what happens.