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 see in annual appeals from arts organizations, as well as what we have found works.

  1. Do 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. These days, people sort their mail over their trashcan. 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.
  2. Do create a package with clarity and unity, around one theme. Carry this theme from the outer envelope to the letter to the PS 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.
  3. Do 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. They won't. Assume you have 1- 5 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.
  4. Do 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 language from your business letter or grant proposal.
  5. Do use at least one story. Stories are a great way to convey the difference that your work makes. Select someone whose life has been affected by the work you do, and whose story fits in with your theme. It can be an audience member or a teen in your after school program. Use visuals and testimonials that support your stories and convey this meaning.
  6. Do pay careful attention to your vocabulary. Don't use art-speak. Avoid terms such as "commission" or "production" or "post modern" unless you're sure your readers will understand and connect with them.
  7. Do 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 your messages to coincide with the interests of the recipients. This is standard practice in other industries and increases open rates.
  8. Do remember the importance of the response form or donation page. Donors often file this form with their bills. At the end of the month, when deciding if they 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.
  9. Do use other features that increase response rate, such as personalization, design, color, graphics, and photos. The PS is important - make sure it sounds personal. And yes, they should all relate to the theme.
  10. Finally, Do 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, 2009