News and Information about the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts. Check back frequently to keep informed.
December 3, 2021
Hairsplitting Traps to Avoid in Direct Mail Fundraising
By Stephen Hitchcock

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—does 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 anymore 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 post cards.

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.

This article is excerpted from Stephen Hitchcock’s book, Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why , published by Emerson & Church. For more information, visit or call 508-359-0019.
SUBSCRIBE FREE – Keep current with the Wednesday Report emailed to you free each week. Click here.
Got news, advice, resources? Send it to