Five Maples’ Fundraising Blog

Envelopes that keep your letters out of the recycle bin

Imagine this sad scenario—your donor checks the mail, takes one look at the envelope containing your appeal letter, and tosses it unopened into the recycle bin. Ouch.

You’ve worked hard creating the perfect appeal package. You’ve considered every element carefully, focused in on constituent groups, written the perfect copy, and designed the best reply card.

The look of your outer envelope is the most important aspect of your appeal package design. You can’t receive a donation from your potential donor if they don’t open your envelope.

So how do you ensure that your appeal letter doesn’t get tossed but instead, as Tom Ahearn says, gets “ripped open with as much anticipation as possible?”

Don’t be mistaken for junk mail or advertising.

To stand out in a sea of mail, nonprofit organizations often try to differentiate themselves by including a photo or tagline on the outer envelope. This sounds great in theory, but it can actually backfire.

Jeff Brooks noted that “in direct testing, an envelope with no image and no teaser outperforms one with a teaser about 75 percent of the time.”*

In fact, the more plain your envelope, the more mysterious its contents and the greater chance the donor will open it.

But, as we all know, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. If you have a photo that can truly evoke a unique, targeted emotional reaction in your recipient, use it! Think about identity, concern, compassion—these are the emotions that inspire action. Take a look at this example:

Effective Envelope Photo Example

The average person would see a picture of an unrecognizable and dilapidated house, assume it didn’t relate to them, and probably toss it.

A Dartmouth alumni on the other hand—who stayed in this very cabin and has a strong emotional connection to the photo—is going to open this envelope right away.

Don’t scare people away by overtly announcing your mail piece as a solicitation.

Slap a bad teaser or tagline on your envelope and you might as well have it say “We’re asking you for money!” In this way, the tagline can actually hurt your response rates and speed up your appeal letter’s trip to the recycle bin.

Jerry Huntsinger makes a great point in his tutorial: “The problem is that a teaser is a dead giveaway that your mailing is promotional material. And teaser copy puts you into a shouting match with the other pieces of mail.”

There are, however, a handful of “Goldilocks” moments for a tagline—when using one can be just right. Professor Siegfried Vogele says that “if you are presenting a solution to a problem for the target audience, they will want to read what you have to say.”**

If there is urgency, an emergency, or a time-sensitive matching gift opportunity, let it be known through your tagline. Offer a benefit for the donor or ask a question that can only be revealed by opening the envelope.

Five Maples says switch up your envelope!

You could research appeal envelope design for hours (trust us, we have!) and discover a thousand dos and don’ts, with equally as many exceptions. Here are a few things with which to experiment—not every time and not all at once—but to see what works best to get your letter opened.

    • A handwritten signature or typed named and title of the letter signer above the return address block: It can increase familiarity and give a personal feel.
    • Smaller envelope size: It’s never a bad idea to mix up your appeal package size. The donor will never think “I’ve already received this one” and the smaller the envelope, the more intimate the mail feels.
    • Handwriting font for the addressee: This could pique interest—tax bills don’t come with blue handwriting font.

    When it comes down to it, no one knows your organization and your donors like you do. Use your best judgement—stay true to yourself and true to your donors. And, most importantly, when it doubt, leave it out.

    *Brooks, Jeff. 2017. The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications: real-World Field-Tested Strategies for Raising More Money. Medfield, MA: Emerson & Church, Publishers.
    **Vogele, Siegfried. 1992. Handbook of Direct Mail: The Dialogue Method of Direct Written Sales Communication. Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall International Ltd.

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