How to Get Your Nonprofit Appeal Opened: The Envelope Please!


Guest Post by Claire Axelrad

You’re working on a direct mail fundraising appeal for your non-profit.  You’ve got a great story to tell, and your letter is well-written, emotionally compelling, and includes a strong ask.  Good!

But… could you have overlooked one of the most important components of your fundraising offer?  What about the envelope!!?

Too often, this key element is given short shrift. It’s considered as an afterthought. Or it’s delegated to a mail house which knows very little about you or your donors.

When you don’t think strategically about this part of your mailing, the entire effort may go up in smoke. And you may never know why.

In fact, you may spend countless hours revising your copy for next year. Or choosing different photos. Or changing up your remit piece. And then you’ll repeat the same mistake again. More smoky ruins.

Because… the failure occurred before folks ever got to even see your appeal.

Too many appeals wind up in the garbage before they’re read.

You can spend oodles of time crafting the most perfectly compelling copy in the universe. But if no one opens your envelope then you’ve completely wasted this effort.

Time and time again I see nonprofits fail to consider their envelope until the very last minute. By then there’s no time to think about it, let alone get what you finally do come up with printed! So folks revert to a standard white #10 carrier that completely fails to stand out amidst the sea of bills and junk folks receive in their mailboxes.

I don’t know about you, but I receive my mail in my garage. I stand over my recycling bin, trying to discern which pieces will go there immediately, and which will get carried upstairs into the house.

Will your appeal make it inside your potential donor’s door?

Your carrier envelope must inspire folks to open it!

What will get your reader to bring your letter inside? I’ll tell you what won’t work: Playing it “safe.” While you may not offend anyone, you also won’t inspire them. And a fundraising appeal that doesn’t inspire is a failure.  Instead, consider the following:

Plain envelope.

I’m a huge fan of the plain white envelope with nothing. No logo. Not even your name. Just a return address (and a place where a volunteer who is adding personal notes can hand write their own name). It’s hard for folks to simply toss a mysterious plain envelope. Note: the post office won’t allow this unless you’re using a first-class stamp, so it’s for renewal and warm prospecting letters more than for direct mail acquisition.

Colored envelope.

This is something to test. I’ve had a lot of success with brightly colored envelopes that don’t even match the design of the enclosed appeal. They simply stand out in the mail box and do their job of getting opened. Others have success using their brand colors so folks (who are already loyal) recognize their organization and open the appeal because they love them.

Over-sized envelope.

This is another trick to get folks to take notice. An oversized envelope stands out in the mail. Of course, it requires extra postage and this can backfire, making folks think you’re using money for the wrong purposes. I find it works best for event invitations rather than annual appeals.

Envelope teaser.

Direct mail fundraising guru Mal Warwick describes a range of needs that can be accomplished with a teaser, ranging from describing what’s inside to asking a question to starting a story. He also says “Often the best teaser is no teaser at all. Fundraising letters are almost always crafted to mimic personal letters, so teasers may well cheapen or undermine the effect the writer wants to achieve.” Use some judgment. And ask folks outside your office if the teaser would turn them on or off.

Bonus Tip

Begin your own collection of appeals at home, noting which envelopes get you to open them and which ones you’re inclined to toss.  What made these winners? Was it the envelope color? The envelope size? A photo or teaser? If the latter, what type of copy worked? Was it the promise of a premium? A question to which you simply had to know the answer? A horrible problem that you instantly knew you needed to help address? Something that piqued your curiosity so that you had to learn more?

Remember, there’s a reason folks spend time and effort wrapping up presents with pretty paper and ribbons.  It just makes what’s inside more enticing.  Do the same with your fundraising appeal. It will give you an important leg up.

Want to get more great fundraising tips and strategies sent to you each week by e-mail?  Be sure to sign-up for our free Weekly Fundraising Round-Up using the form below:

About the Author

Claire Axelrad is a well-respected fundraising consultant, author and speaker and the founder of Clairification.  She has over 30 years experience helping non-profits build cultures of philanthropy, not fundraising.

Photo Credit: KP