Long Fundraising Letters. Why, oh, why!?

Long Fundraising Letters. Why, oh, why!?

Long letters work better.

But don’t just take it from me.

Dr Barnardo wrote a four page appeal letter in London in the 1880s using classic DM techniques. Underlining, urgency, dollar handles, specific ask and a clear reference to what YOU could do to help. The winter had been ‘the severest and most arduous, so far as work among the children of the poor is concerned.’   So the good doctor needed to raise £100 a day for food.  He told readers ‘unceasing demands upon our resources’ were having an unprecedented impact on his charity.
The four page Dr Barnardo letter from the late 19th century.
Years later, another children’s charity, Starlight, had a rough year and they had decided to go public about their shortfall. Unceasing demands upon their resources were tough too. They asked for funds but also had a refreshing degree of honesty. The donor learned that part of the shortfall was because Starlight funding strategy relied too much upon events and companies.After reading the press stories about their plight I pulled together an ’emergency’ appeal to their donors and met up with them. The emergency appeal was only developed to show how I work, but they decided to mail it immediately anyway.


The opening paragraphs of the Starlight letter

A full Case Study of this appeal is here, including an entire copy of the mailpack here.
It would never win awards for graphic design beauty. But the appeal raised over target. It more than doubled the amount raised from the same donors the previous year.
At the heart of the appeal was a four page appeal letter.
Despite the rise of other media, direct mail is still the biggest source of new one off donors.  So it is important we maximise revenue from mail donors.  And longer letters will tend to do that for you.
New Cash Recruits – by channel, across Pareto benchmarking charities.
I really don’t like long letters, by the way. They are a pain in the butt to write, check copy, get clients approval, print and mail-merge. And someone important in most of our clients doesn’t like them. And they don’t look great in my portfolio (though the results do).
And I prefer doing digital stuff. And… I think you get the idea.
In focus groups, donors say they dislike them too. In Hong Kong, one client ran focus groups which all concluded that donors would be more likely to respond to a pack with a two-sided letter and tear off coupon than a four-page pack (actually eight pages – English and Chinese) with lots of additional information. The two pager raised HK$1.5m (AUD$220k) – the big pack raised over HK$7.5m (about $1.1m).
But they work.  As you can see from the test results below.  These are from a revolutionary pack National Heart Foundation did more than a decade ago.
I featured it in training I did on writing great direct mail for mid-value donors.  (You can access this training session as part of the mid-value webinar series I have done).


Long letters beat short letters – a defining test by National Heart Foundation

It isn’t just me that thinks so.  Jeff Brooks attempts to explain why fundraising letters tend to work better in this 2012 article.  He also tells us in his Fundraising is Beautiful podcasts that in tests, long letters are three times more likely to win than shorter ones!  (He adds long email appeals are twice as likely to win as short email appeals).
I know longer letters tend to work better, but not because they are long. I think it is because, to tell a good story with a beginning, middle and end and ensure the right fundraising tactics, it simply takes more words. These tactics include target, what the target is for, deadline, establishing need, demonstrating solution, demonstrating why that charity is best placed to solve etc). Having said that, a dreadful four pager is worse than a good two pager – if a story can be told more quickly then tell it. As Mal Warwick says ‘A fundraising letter should be as long as it needs to be…’
This article is a re-hash of one I wrote seven years ago.  Things have changed since then, but nothing changed in terms of whether long letters work better or now.
See Dr Barnado’s 19th century appeal on SOFII here.
Long letters tend to work better with mid value donors too. Maybe it is just about respect – good donor care to take the time to explain why the donors support is so important.
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