I’m a fundraiser. This means, as year-end giving season approaches, I actually get excited when my mailbox fills up with lots of direct mail appeal letters.

I read all of them.

Why? Because I want to see what other fundraisers are doing. I want to observe trends and benchmark what’s happening in the annual fund space. These appeals say a lot about the organizations that sent them – they tell me what they care about and what’s most important during the biggest giving season of the year. Fortunately or unfortunately, they also reveal how savvy the organizations are about fundraising, how much the organization knows about its donors and why they give.

A couple weeks ago, I received what may go down as the most interesting annual fund letter I’ve ever received from an organization. It didn’t have any return address labels, a heart-wrenching story or images to catch my eye. It included a letter, gift form and a stapled two-page report with metrics and numerical results of their programs over the last five years. We’re talking full-color charts and graphs. No narrative. No images aside from graphs.

At first glance, I wondered if the organization sent the appeal to the wrong person.

Guess where that appeal ended up? In mail purgatory.

Mail purgatory is that pile that ends up being “I’ll deal with this when I have time.” It’s mail that doesn’t automatically get filed for action – like bills or my kids’ school permission slips. And it’s not mail that I know I won’t act on – those go in the “circular file.”

It ended up in mail purgatory because, at first glance, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t have context for what the numbers meant and whether they were reporting good or bad results. I wasn’t sure what the organization wanted me to do as a result of getting the letter and report.

Was any of the information in the appeal wrong or incorrect? Nope.

Was any of it offensive? Not in the least.

I know the organization well, and they do some great things to benefit the people they serve and their community. It’s a shame that the organization spent time and resources on a letter that likely ended up in a lot of mail purgatory piles (or probably, more likely, in the ol’ circular file).

This appeal missed the mark in a big way. In their efforts to show the results of their work, they forgot that donors respond with gifts when they make an emotional connection to the cause.

I know what some of you are thinking: But Heather, what about analytical thinkers and number crunchers? They are donors, too.

And you’re right. I’ve been surrounded by generations of analytical-thinking engineers in my entire life.

But guess how many times I saw my elders reach into their wallet after seeing a chart?


Conversely, guess how many times I saw gifts result when they heard the story of one person and how that person’s life was changed?


So, as you think about your year-end campaign, please utilize an emotional appeal. People give when they can help another person – not when they can help an institution. Your organization isn’t the hero. Your donor is. Directly connect the donor to the beneficiary. For example, if gift support to your organization provides safe and supportive after-school programs for kids like Julia, say, “Your gift will give Julia a safe and supportive place to go after school.”

Your organization may serve an incredible record-breaking 37,642 Julias this year. But your reader can’t conceptualize that. They can, however, picture one Julia. They can picture Julia playing in a safe place with people who care about her well-being.

So, your appeal letter should tell me all about Julia – I should read her story, see her picture and know with certainty what I can do to help her. And if you happen to have really stellar program results this year, maybe you can include an infographic to demonstrate that and appeal to my analytical side. But that graph better show how Julia fits into that big picture.

Otherwise, off to mail purgatory it goes.