Helping funders and arts organizations realize their vision since 1996.

Top Ten Dos (and Don’ts) for Direct Mail from Arts Organizations

By Suzanne Callahan, CFRE

How do you ensure that your solicitations stand out, get read, and lead to gifts? At a time when nonprofit open rates lag behind other sectors, and the economy is recovering, these tried-and-true tips highlight the best thinking from direct mail experts. They are adapted to the arts field but also respond to weaknesses we often see in annual appeals from arts organizations.

Your firm is a great resource on funding and keeps us up to date on the thinking in the foundation world. You grasped the essence of what we wanted to do and communicated it effectively.

— Vicki Kimble
Former Director of Development, Washington Performing Arts Society

10. Use appealing copy and graphics on the outside envelope or subject line of the email. The line, and graphics, must grab the reader’s attention. People sort their mail over their (literal or virtual) trash can. They decide in a nanosecond to toss or read, to save or delete. Be sure you make the cut. Give them a reason to want to open it.

9. Create a package with clarity and unity around one theme. Carry this theme from the outer envelope to the letter to the P.S. to the response form. For email, carry the theme from the subject line to the copy and onto the donation page and any related links. Don’t create a laundry list of this year’s performances and awards, in hopes that one of them might grab the reader. They won’t.

8. Create a scannable, rather than readable, piece. Don’t assume people will either read your piece from cover to cover or scroll to the bottom of the screen. Assume you have 10 seconds to grab their attention and convey your theme. Based on their initial impression, donors decide whether or not to read on and possibly give. Enhance your text to highlight a few key points.

7. Convey a personal tone in your copy. Direct mail and email is written from one person to another. Language should be conversational, and create a one-to-one connection with the reader. Don’t recycle formal language from your business letter or grant proposal.

6. Use at least one story. Stories are a great way to convey the difference that your work makes. Select a story about, or from, someone whose life has been affected by your work, and whose story reflects your theme. It can be an audience member, a teen in your after-school program, or a volunteer. Use visuals and testimonials to support your story.

5. Pay careful attention to your vocabulary. Don’t use art-speak. Avoid terms such as “commission” or “production” or “postmodern” unless you’re sure your readers will understand and connect with them.

4. Keep in mind your audience. Decide what will appeal to the people who will open the envelope or email. One factor that determines the appeal is who signs the letter, or sends the email. Keep them in mind as you write. Especially with email, if at all possible, segment your lists and adapt your messages to coincide with the interests of the recipients. This is standard practice in other industries and increases open rates.

3. Remember the importance of the response form or donation page. Donors often flag this form or file it with their bills. At the end of the month, when deciding if they will give, they are looking at the response form. It should convey urgency and remind the donor of your package’s theme. The same is true for web pages that solicit donations; folks are deciding if, and how much, to give as they look at that page.

2. Use other features that increase response rate, such as personalization, design, color, graphics, and photos. The P.S. is important — make sure it sounds personal. And yes, they should all relate to the theme.

1. Finally, ask for a donation! The average artist is overly timid about the “ask.” Don’t make your reader work to figure out why you are writing or what you want them to do. Tell them the gift ranges, how you will use funds, and how to give. Be sure your “ask” relates to your theme. 

© Callahan Consulting for the Arts, 2020