Bristol Organizations

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Ask like you mean it: 9 tips to improve the way you ask in your fundraising direct mail...

by .Jules Brown


One of the things I love about all those old-guard admen in the TV series Mad Men is the unabashed honesty they show when it comes to what they do for a living.


They don't (as so many of today’s advertising types do) try dressing it up in fancy terms like ‘building brand personalities’ or ‘shifting market paradigms’.


No, instead they openly admit they're in the business of "selling."


Of course, in the non-profit world, we don’t sell . . . we ask.


But how well are most non-profits doing this? Especially the smaller ones.


It should really go without saying that the primary goal of any fundraising direct mail appeal is to obtain a donation. 


Sadly however, a great many appeals I see either fail to make the most of every opportunity to ask for a gift, or actively stand in the way of doing so.


If your direct mail results are in the doldrums, addressing the way you ask is one of the first areas you should look at. Asking properly can dramatically lift your response rates, average gift levels and total income.


So here are 9 tips to help you ask like you really mean it . . .


1. Ask

Shockingly, many non-profits are simply too shy to ask at all (as the website Asking Matters shows). Many fundraisers don’t like to write what they feel are ‘begging letters’. They feel that simply sharing the wonder of their work will be enough. It isn’t.


The first law of fundraising applies: "If you don’t ask, you don’t get."


True, you may spare the sensibilities of some of your more prickly supporters. They may smile on you with appreciation for not stooping so low as to actually ask them for money. Wonderful! But your response rates will be paltry. Money will stay away. In droves. And you’ll be left wondering why it is your direct mail program is becoming increasingly less profitable.


You can’t afford to be shy. More importantly, your beneficiaries can’t afford for you to be shy.


2. Ask early

Make your first ask just as soon as you can. I believe this should be in one of three places:

  • Right up front on the envelope
  • At the very top of your letter in a headline
  • Or in a Kicker paragraph (Johnson Box or Standfirst) above your letter text


Failing this, make sure the first ask is made within the first three paragraphs of the letter’s body copy. Your donor deserves to know why you’re writing to her.


3. Ask often

Opinions vary on just how often. As do tastes. But the guiding principle should be to ignore your personal feelings on the subject. You’re in the business of asking - so you need to make sure your donor finds an ask, no matter what part of your letter she happens to be looking at or reading.


Weave asks into the fabric of your letter so that your story and your case for support are married to your asks. Erect “signposts” throughout the letter using underlining, emboldening and maybe subheads to make your asks stand out.


My personal rule of thumb is:

  • One ask above the letter body - in the headline/kicker area
  • One ask in the P.S. - yes, you must have one of these
  • And at least one ask per page within the body of the letter itself


So for a 2 page letter, that’s four asks minimum. For a four page letter, at least six.


4. Ask strong

According to an old expression, “a faint heart never won a fair maid.” And when it comes to fundraising appeals, faint asks don’t win generous donations either.


Hinting at what you want is not good enough. Tentatively suggesting that your donor might, if it’s quite okay, like to consider making a small donation, simply won’t cut it.


You have to ask strong, and that means:

  • Say how much you want - precisely how much
  • Say what it will achieve for your beneficiaries
  • Be polite, but open, up front, and firm


You're a charity. Your donor understands that this is a giving relationship. She understands that you will ask her for money. So when you ask, ask strong.


5. Ask for more

If you’re average gifts are down. Then you’re probably not asking for enough. Ask for more and donors will give more. I’ve seen this happen time and time again.


Linking your asks to previous giving is the tried and tested method  - with recent research suggesting that your donor's average gift is the metric to pay attention to (See Roger Craver's article on "Asking Amounts" at The Agitator)


Try asking for 20% more from each of your donors. A 20% lift in average gift across the board for a small non-profit can amount to a significant increase in revenue.


6. Ask (properly) on your reply form too

Again, this should go without saying, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Many forms are confusing looking affairs with no clear directions to the donor.


Try thinking of your form as a page ad with a very large coupon. A good page ad needs an attention grabbing image, a benefit laden headline, and a good strong ask. So does your reply form.

A form without a good headline ask is like a bicycle without pedals. It’ll go. But not very well.



7. Don’t forget to include a reply paid envelope

Hard to believe anyone sends out appeals without reply paid envelopes these days. But just in case: you must include one. Making it hard for donors to respond is just chasing gifts away.


8. Use an implied ask on your reply envelope

Nothing too complicated, just a simple line on your reply envelope is all it takes, for example:

  • My life-saving gift is inside . . .
  • Here’s my gift to help a dog find a new home . . .
  • Please rush my gift to a child in need . . .


Not an explicit ask as such, but an implied one all the same. This single line lifts your reply envelope above the level of stationery, and makes it work to earn a gift.


9. Ask in your other enclosures as well

If you’re enclosing a separate case study, lift note, buckslip, gift catalogue, or anything printed – use it to make an ask as well.


How soft or hard this ask should be depends on the item in question. A lift note from someone else in your organisation should have a clear, strong ask. If it’s from a beneficiary, it could be softer. For charts and fact sheets, use large-type, bold headlines and subheads containing clear, strong asks that direct your donor to the reply form and envelope.


In conclusion

Asking like you mean it means making sure everything your donor sees in your pack states clearly that you are looking for a donation, why you’re looking for it, and what it will achieve for your beneficiaries.


It means weaving repeated and effective asks into the body copy of your letter. It means using headlines, kickers, bold paragraphs and your P.S. to create "ask signposts" for your donor.


It means being a fundraising Don Draper.


Dear Joan is dedicated to one subject - writing better donor direct mail. Specifically for small to medium non-profit   by .Jules Brown 


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