The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Stephen Hitchcock

Recent Posts by Stephen Hitchcock:

The Timing of Your Mailings

Reprinted from Contributions Magazine

With all the media we're exposed to—print and electronic—does it matter terribly when you mail to donors? Not really.

In watching the mail for more than two decades, I haven't found a time when it makes sense not to mail.

Indeed, one of the values of direct mail fundraising—especially for organizations receiving lots of grants or that have government contracts—is that it provides cash flow, that steady stream of unrestricted revenue that pays salaries and rent.

To be sure, there are times of the year when the flow of contributions ebbs and when donors and prospective donors seem less responsive. But in my experience these periods vary from organization to organization and from region to region. For some groups, the July-August summer vacation period does spell a slow down. Others I'm familiar with have their second-most productive giving season in July.

The prime reason to send out mailings throughout the year is that you don't really know when your donors or prospective donors are disposed to give. Or even when they're going to be home. The overwhelming majority of your donors are older; a narrower majority are retired or semi-retired. They often plan their travel to avoid the summer months when families are clogging the highways and byways. And who can predict when they might just pick up and go visit the grandchildren for two weeks?

One of the terrible truths of direct mail is that someone has to open your mail, so you have to mail often enough to catch someone at home.

Another terrible truth is that charitable contributions come last in financial priorities. Almost all Americans give what they perceive to be discretionary income—what's left over after food, shelter, and health care are covered. The good news is that millions of Americans—especially those whose children are grown and those with homes and other assets—do have discretionary income. The even better news is that they enjoy using that income to support causes and projects they care about.

But that good news still puts you in a bind, because many factors affect an individual's perception of their discretionary capacity. The "revenue river" widens and narrows throughout the year, as real expenses make their demands and as pension checks, dividends, and other income sources fluctuate.

Even more challenging to the fundraiser is that surprise factors have an even greater influence. For example, illness could prompt anxiety about whether discretionary income should be saved for a long-term convalescence. Or a rise in the stock market could lead a donor to feel suddenly wealthier and more willing to write your organization a $100 check.

To account for this variability in your donors' discretionary income, it's important to provide opportunities throughout the year for them to make contributions.

Sending mailings at least six times a year has an additional benefit. Many people—at least 10 percent and perhaps as many as 20 percent—prefer to make more than one contribution to your organization. They derive real satisfaction from supporting your work, and like to express that support more than once a year. They may also have "limits" to what they'll contribute at any one time; they'll gladly send four checks of $250, but never a single gift of $500.

So, it's true you don't have to worry about which months to mail. In fact, you should look at every month as a mailing opportunity. Of course, you don't want to send mailings to donors who have requested to receive a mailing only once a year. And you certainly don't want to send more than two or three mailings to those who haven't given for some time or to those who make very small gifts.

It's important to say, too, that even though there probably aren't months of the year you should avoid, there are times when you absolutely should send out mailings. Americans do give throughout the year, but a larger percentage make contributions and make bigger contributions in November and December. January is a time when many gifts are sent—perhaps to express hope and commitment for the New Year. It's ideal to mail all year round, but if you're forced to make a choice, early November, early December, and mid-January are the times when donors need to receive your mailings the most.

Stephen Hitchcock
© 2009, Stephen Hitchcock. Reprinted from Contributions Magazine, vol. 23, no. 3; reprinted with permission of Emerson & Church, publishers.

Stephen Hitchcock is the author of Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why. 

Are There Easy Ways to Reduce Donor Attrition Rates?

Reprinted from Contributions Magazine

Misconceptions About Writing Fundraising Letters

Excerpt from Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why

One of the most crippling misconceptions about letter writing is that it's hard and something to labor over. Not so. The secret to writing effective fundraising letters is to write quickly and naturally. To let the words flow from your fingers, to talk a "blue streak" on paper.

We're wary of people who choose their words too carefully, and we seldom vote for political candidates who appear to be "thinking" while they're speaking. Donors write checks because they feel a personal and comfortable connection with your organization, and that starts with your writing.

Of course, once you've spewed out your purple prose, you must go back and rewrite. And rewrite again. Too many drafts can turn your letter into a stiff and convoluted essay, but I worry if my letters haven't gone through three drafts.

In fact, one of the primary reasons I edit my letters is that, in my haste in putting words on paper, I sometimes slip into "fine literature." I want to make sure my letter does feel like conversation—that it does indeed break the rules of good grammar and conventional prose. In other words, you edit fundraising letters so they don't seem "written" at all.

As I edit letters written by myself and others, there are at least seven practices that fly in the face of what many believe is good grammar or fine writing:

  1. Contractions—the bread and butter of conversational prose. In the minds of many executive directors, the use of contractions is probably the single most offensive aspect of direct mail writing. But even the most educated and elegant leader can't avoid using this shorthand when speaking.

  2. Frequent use of "I"—the singular voice that our schoolteachers tried to drum out of our essays, in an effort to achieve "objectivity."

  3. Beginning sentences with "and"—one of my favorite connectors that encourages readers to keep reading (actually "listening" because that's the way we talk with friends).

  4. Liberal use of dashes—they're so handy for linking phrases together in an "illogical" manner that helps the reader jump from one thought to another. They also serve as visual "breaks" that evoke the "breaths" we take when we're talking enthusiastically with our friends.

  5. Short paragraphs without worrying about whether the sentences belong together—often just one or two sentences and never more than seven lines. Fundraising letters are read very quickly and with only partial attention, so you must make them easy to read.

  6. Incomplete sentences—without a subject and predicate, missing either or both a noun and a verb. Even just one word. Really. We don't talk in complete sentences. If your computer screen doesn't have a bunch of squiggly green lines (Microsoft Word's grammar warning), then you haven't written a fundraising letter.

  7. Redundancy and repetition—using the same words over and over as well as repeating arguments made earlier. In school, we were encouraged to rephrase. We were taught to organize our points in a logical progression from thesis to conclusion. But we know readers of fundraising letters don't read in a sequential pattern, so we can't ever leave them wondering about referents. And we can't rely on having our strongest argument appear only once in a letter. In a sense, almost every sentence—and surely every paragraph—has to stand on its own.
Please don't conclude that I believe in sloppy writing. Woe to you if you throw good grammar out the window. And you can't simply transcribe your oral speech onto paper. In reality, your syntax should be simpler, and you must avoid the trite phrases and other "empty words" that populate our speech. Your fundraising appeal will fall short if it sounds like an essay or an editorial, but ultimately your letter—filled with conversational prose—is still a letter to be read.

Stephen Hitchcock
© 2005-2006, Stephen Hitchcock. Excerpted from Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Stephen Hitchcock is vice president of client services at Mal Warwick and Associates.

Hairsplitting Traps to Avoid in Direct Mail Fundraising

Excerpt from Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why

The key to success in direct mail fundraising is making sure you have a schedule that includes enough mailings to give your donors, and prospective donors, sufficient opportunities to support your organization. If you're spending all your time trying to make each mailing perfect, you won't be able to get out all your mailings.

The other danger of hairsplitting is that you could end up spending too much money on paper stock, laser personalization, or graphic design. It's unlikely that your more expensive mailing will produce enough income to offset the extra cost or generate enough additional returns to keep your membership or donor database growing.

Spending extra money, testing lots of variables—and hairsplitting in general—do make sense for those organizations that mail in large volumes and have very large donor bases. And, if your organization is blessed with lots of donors who send gifts of $100 or more in response to your mailings, then the cost-benefit ratio tips in favor of more elaborate and expensive packages, particularly the use of postage and personalization.

With that in mind, what are some things you can do to avoid hairsplitting traps?

  1. Use white offset paper or a standard cream offset stock (and in almost all cases, using recycled paper doesn't cost any more and helps our environment). Besides costing more, most colored stock or glossy papers make it more difficult to read your letters.

  2. Use standard sized envelopes. Yes, the firm I work with uses lots of odd-sized and oversize envelopes when mailing for our clients, but only when we're mailing in large quantity or have been able to "gang" several projects together. The big disadvantage of non-standard envelopes is that they may fail to meet postal criteria or require additional postage.

  3. Forget about using brochures or other inserts. Development staff and executive directors can spend weeks agonizing over the text and design of brochures or inserts. But in most cases these enclosures actually depress response. In direct mail fundraising, the letter is the workhorse of persuasion.

  4. Don't offer premiums for acquiring new members. The purpose of direct mail fundraising is to provide a convenient way for enlightened and generous individuals to support causes and endeavors they believe in. In some instances, offering a premium lowers the response rate. Ill will is often created as well, since many organizations have a dickens of time sending out premiums in a timely manner.

  5. Discontinue the use of business reply envelopes. For your best donors, you can put a postage stamp on the reply envelope, but for almost all your other donors and prospective donors, letting them pay the postage doesn't decrease response and may in fact increase response.

  6. Use black ink—and use other ink colors sparingly. When using two colors, you can hardly ever go wrong with dark blue for the signature and the organization's logo (i.e., letterhead). Of course, the text of the letter should be in black. Any other color combination is hard to read (especially for older adults), reduces comprehension, and increases the cost of your mailing.

  7. Don't worry about the alignment of your teaser. In fact, don't worry about teasers at all. Hardly any of the tests we've conducted for dozens of clients show that the addition of a teaser increases response. And it's so easy to be too clever. Stick with your organization's logo (unless it is too elaborate) and the "typed" name of the person signing the letter.

  8. Save space and reduce confusion by not offering the option of making credit card gifts. Mailings whose reply devices have a line for credit card gifts often get lower response rates. BIG DISCLAIMER: Credit cards are helpful if you're inviting your members or donors to participate in a monthly giving program. And many individuals seem to prefer using their credit cards in responding to telephone fundraising and when signing up for special events.

  9. Have your executive director or president sign the letter. Don't spend time trying to recruit a celebrity or worrying about which member of the board should sign. Members and donors expect the chief executive officer to know what's going on, to care about the organization, and to be responsible enough to ask them to send a gift. For variety's sake, in the course of a year, you may wish to have another staff member, board member, or other volunteer sign the letter, as long as they don't edit your drafts to death.

  10. Do spend more time and more money on your thank you letters and notes, as long as you don't delay in getting them out. Don't try to save money by sending out your thanks via bulk mail. And don't send out postcards.
Thank you letters are a lovely place to include inserts to keep your members and donors better informed. And I guarantee you don't need to test, or split hairs, over the value of hand-written thank you notes to those who make generous gifts.

Stephen Hitchcock
© 2004. Excerpted from Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Stephen Hitchcock is vice president of client services at Mal Warwick and Associates.