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Why Long Fundraising Letters Outpull Shorter Ones

November 2012

Excerpted from The Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications: Real-World, Field-Tested Strategies to Raise More Money

Aunt Ruth was smiling. Aglow with happiness. I couldn't figure it out.

My 79-year-old aunt had just brought in the day's mail. There was a lot of it, including several fundraising appeals. She threw one away unopened. The others she set on the small table next to her comfy chair. Smiling. The whole time.

"I'm going to read my mail now," she said in the same tone someone would say, "I'm going skiing this weekend."

Suddenly it came to me: Aunt Ruth likes reading her mail. Even the "junk mail." To Aunt Ruth, those unsolicited letters aren't an annoying fundraising tactic—they're a connection to people she's interested in and causes she cares about.

One time Aunt Ruth called to tell me something she'd read in an appeal: "Did you know it only costs twelve cents to keep a little boy or girl from going blind? Twelve cents!" That wasn't a clever marketing proposition to Aunt Ruth—it was an exciting piece of news. A relevant fact worth sharing.

Aunt Ruth is a reader. Her love of mail may strike you as bizarre, but it's common among donors.

Every fundraiser needs an Aunt Ruth. She can keep your mind open to different ways of thinking, including the radical notion that many donors love to hear from us.

That love of reading what the postman brings helps explain why direct mail is such a powerful fundraising medium. It dwarfs the next runner-up, which is the telephone. It also sheds light on an even greater mystery: why longer messages usually work better at raising funds than short ones.

I hate long letters. I wish they'd just get to the point. I bet you don't care for long letters either. Nevertheless, long messages work.

I've tested long against short many times. In direct mail, the shorter message only does better about 10 percent of the time (a short message does tend to work better for emergency fundraising).

But most often, if you're looking for a way to improve an appeal, add another page. Most likely it'll boost response. Often it can generate a higher average gift too.

It's true in e-mail too, though not as decisively so. In my experience, a longer e-mail outperforms a shorter one about two out of three times. Brevity may be a virtue in the e-mails you write to coworkers, but longer e-mails still get through to a lot of donors.

In surveys and focus groups, donors often complain about long fundraising messages. They say exactly what you or I would say: "I don't have time to read something that long. Why don't they get to the point?"

That's what they say. But in real life, donors respond more often to long messages. We don't know why, but here are some theories:

  • The Aunt Ruth Theory: Many donors just enjoy reading. More words mean more reading pleasure, and that means more connection and increased chances a person will give.
  • The Multiple Triggers Theory: Some donors are likely to give when you help them visualize a life-threatening need. Others will be moved if you emphasize a great deal. The longer the message, the more triggers you can include.
  • The Hopscotch Theory: Few people read everything you've written, starting with the first word and ending with the last. Just watch someone, anyone, while they read their mail. They start where their eyes land. They bounce around, leaping forward and backward, skipping entire sections, reading other parts more than once. I once watched my mother read an appeal I'd written (she didn't know it was mine). She started at the end and worked her way backward. The last sentence she read was my carefully crafted lead. A longer letter has more entry points. More calls to action. More chances for a reader who isn't following your logic to get pulled in.
  • The Gravitas Theory: The very fact that a message is long may signal to donors in some subliminal way that it's important. They may not need to read every word, because the length tells them all they need to know.

I've found that the best long messages have two characteristics: repetition and story.

Repetition is the important part. Repeat yourself because you don't know if readers understood what you said the first time. Repeat yourself because you can't be sure they even caught it the first and second times. Repeat yourself because sometimes it doesn't sink in until you've said it a few times. Repeat yourself because you never know what way of making the case is the one that will get through.

The outline for an effective long fundraising message might be something like this:

  • Introduction: Why I'm writing to you.
  • Ask.
  • Why your gift is so important today.
  • Ask.
  • How much impact your gift will have.
  • Ask.
  • Story that demonstrates the need.
  • Ask.
  • Remind the donor of his values and connection with the cause.
  • Ask.
  • Another story.
  • Ask.
  • Help the donor visualize what will happen when she gives.
  • Ask.
  • Conclusion: Thank the donor for caring. Ask again.

You may think I'm exaggerating. I'm not. If you're serious about raising funds, you really have to ask, again and again.

Stories can shine in a longer message. The difference between a richly detailed story and one that's been pared down to fit in a small space can be like the difference between a snapshot and a film. For example, here's how you might write about the cruel practice of bear baiting if you're writing a short message:

The bear sat on its haunches, bleeding from its injured mouth.

The longer version is more vivid:

The bear sat on its haunches, rocking back and forth, blood pooling in the dirt beneath it. One side of its mouth was torn open and hanging loose, exposing the teeth and drizzling saliva and blood into its matted fur.

The reality quotient, the sense that the reader has actually witnessed the scene, is higher in the long version. And when the reader has a vivid experience with your cause—even when it's only through the written word—she's much more likely to give.

Some people believe the era of long messages is ending. They say text messaging, 140-character tweets, and changes in the ways people communicate and retrieve information work against people sitting down to read the way Aunt Ruth does. Maybe. But so far, longer messages are holding their own.

The important thing is this: You can't judge this issue by what you'd want in your own mailbox. You can't even base it on what donors tell you they want. You have to watch actual donor behavior as it plays out in the form of response to your messages.

So until you learn otherwise, keep sending those long messages. Aunt Ruth will certainly thank you.

Jeff Brooks
© 2012, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Excerpted from The Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications: Real-World, Field-Tested Strategies to Raise More Money; excerpted with permission.

Jeff Brooks, creative director at TrueSense Marketing, has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 20 years, working as a copywriter and creative director on behalf of some of the best nonprofits of North America and Europe. His clients have included St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, CARE, The Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald House, World Vision, Feeding America, the American Cancer Society, and many more. He is deeply grateful to be part of an industry that makes the world a better place.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may or may not represent GuideStar's opinions. GuideStar is committed to providing a range of topics and perspectives to our users. We make every effort to obtain articles from knowledgeable, trustworthy sources, but we make no warranties or representations with regard to articles written by persons outside GuideStar.

Jeff Brooks