How do you ask people for money by mail?

by Stephen Tall on September 8, 2011

We signed it off today: the first ‘annual fund’ for the University of Oxford in a couple of decades.

This opening sentence might surprise you. After all, we launched ‘Oxford Thinking’: The Campaign for the University of Oxford way back in May 2008. So why are we only just getting round to asking our alumni for money to support it?

In fact, a lot of asking has already happened. Lots of it personally: that the Campaign passed the £1 billion milestone last year is testament to that. Lots of it personally by telephone, too. And of course many colleges have been asking Oxford alumni to contribute for a number of years.

But what Oxford hasn’t done for a very, very, very long time is ask alumni to support the work of the University and the colleges in the world-changing research that happens here.

Which is odd when you think about it.

After all, one of the UK’s most successful charities is Cancer Research UK. I’m a donor myself. Cancer Research UK: and where is much of that Research taking place? In universities such as Oxford. You can read it about it on the CRUK website hereor at the University of Oxford website here.

For too long, universities have been bashful about pointing out that many of the discoveries that will transform lives happen as a result of research undertaken by the brainy folk who research in Oxford and elsewhere — and who not only make breakthroughs that make a difference today, but also teach students whose future learning will make a difference tomorrow.

But back to Oxford’s ‘annual fund’. And for the uninitiated let me explain that an ‘annual fund’ is the letter (plus brochure, donation form, and reply envelope) which is sent to alumni on at least an annual basis asking them to make a gift to their alma mater to help their successors.

It’s been an exciting, tortuous, fun-filled few months getting to the point of signing off the ‘annual fund’ package.

The brief we gave the designers was clear: this has to be a mailing that represents some of the most cutting-edge research taking place at Oxford today; that shows the impact Oxford people — academics and students — are having on the most pressing world problems; that demonstrates how every alumnus and alumna of Oxford can make a difference; and that triggers them to make a gift the moment the ‘annual fund’ package drops through their letterboxes. Not much to ask, no?

All credit to our design colleagues at NB Studio: they have hit the mark. With a little guidance from us. Creative tension? Absolutely. It’s worked. I’ll show you the results soon enough.

But there’s one aspect of ‘annual funds’ about which I am incredibly particular: the ask letter. All the more so in this case, as it’s coming from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and therefore has to meet all and more of the following criteria: gravitas, direct, dignified, brief, authentic, impactful, personal, credible, intellectual, interesting.

I have 3 rules when it comes to ‘annual fund’ ask letters:

1) The opening line has to ask the recipient for a financial gift.

This may sound obvious, but you would be amazed how long it can take ‘ask’ letters to get to the point. It’s not rude to ask someone for a donation to a charitable cause. What is disrespectful is to waste their time doing so.

2) You must, absolutely must, have a PS.

Oh, the arguments I’ve had over the years about this piece of marketing schtick! To the point where, in a previous job, I hid from my boss (the letter’s signatory) that I was including a PS in his name to avoid the arguments I knew would result. Yes, you might hate them. So do I. But — you know what? — they’re the second part of every ‘ask’ letter I read from any organisation who contact me… after the first line. So, your PS must re-inforce your opening sentence.

3) Ask for a specific amount today.

I cringe when I receive a mailing that, finally, eventually, embarrassedly, gets around to asking me for a gift — and then refuses to tell me what the organisation’s need is! Do you need a one-off gift of £50? Or £500? Or a regular monthly donation of £5? TELL ME! If you don’t tell me, one of two things will happen: A) you’ll get nothing because I’m (i) confused, and/or (ii) don’t believe you really need it if you couldn’t bring yourself to ask for it; or B) you’ll get far less than you were hoping, even though I was clearly warm enough to make a gift simply because you didn’t tell me what you needed! And ask for the gift today: it’s only a word, but it imbues your letter with a sense of urgency. Especially important, I might add, if you’re a university that’s been around for nine centuries…

I’m pleased with where we’ve got to, here at Oxford. Of course, my opinion doesn’t matter a jot: the proof comes when we mail our letter and brochure to 175,000 alumni this autumn. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, I recently dug out the first ‘annual fund’ mailing I ever produced: for St Anne’s College, Oxford, nine years ago. See if you think the mailing obeyed my 3 rules. Here’s the letter…

StAnnesAnnFundLetter2002

… and here’s the leaflet…

StAnnesAnnFundLeaflet2002

PS: you’ll have noticed that, throughout this post, I’ve referenced ‘annual fund’ in inverted commas. Here’s why.

I hate the term.

It’s an American import that has little relevance to the UK, where fundraisers typically ask for regular gifts (monthly/quarterly/yearly). I’ve used it here because it’s a term that’s commonly understood within fundraising. But the sooner we can abolish it, the better.

First, because it means nothing to donors like me who get paid monthly and therefore prefer to give monthly.

And secondly, because it implies we will ask alumni for money only once a year when the reality is we should and must ask as frequently as our cause has need, and our donors have warmth.