Asking for money by mail: here’s how Oxford’s done it

by Stephen Tall on September 27, 2011

The moment of truth is here. A couple of weeks ago, I declared:

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

Well, it was mailed out on Friday, so will start arriving through the letter-boxes of alumni this week. In total, 170,000 people will be sent their copy in the coming weeks inviting them to make a donation in support of the ‘Oxford Thinking’ Campaign. My fingers are fixedly crossed that (i) they will like it, and, more importantly, (ii) they will respond with a gift.

I promised you in my earlier post that I’d show you the results soon enough. So here goes…

The format…

In some ways, it’s a conventional enough direct-mail ‘appeal’: a letter from the institutional head (in our case the Vice-Chancellor), together with a brochure explaining more about how Oxford can make a difference with the donations it receives.

… how we’ve played with it…

In other ways it’s not conventional. For the last 18 months we’ve been working with Michael Wolff and NB Studios, who have challenged the University to try new and innovative ways of telling Oxford’s story. Some of it we’re not yet ready for (click on that last link and you’ll see some design elements that never made it to the final proof).

One argument they made, however, that I was definitely won over to… that our direct-mail piece should give something back to our readers, that it should have a shelf-life beyond simply asking them for money. There’s a very good reason for that.

… and why.

Most charity direct-mail has a response rate of between 0.5 and 3% (depending on many variables) even at its most successful. Which means that somewhere between 97% and 99.5% of your sunk costs are ‘wasted’ in terms of response. So what you want to make sure is that whatever you send is sufficiently captivating that it will at least survive the recycling bin for a few weeks, and that its message will resonate even if the recipient chooses not to respond by returning a gift.

Why? Because that experience of having received something worth keeping (or at least worth not throwing away) will leave the recipient that much more likely to respond favourably the next time you ask for money, whether that’s by mail, phone, online or in person.

In other words, the direct-mail piece should be as much about building a relationship which makes your audience feel personally valued as any other aspect of fundraising, no matter that it’s being mailed to thousands of other folk also.

So how have we gone about trying to put that principle into action with Oxford’s mailing? Well, let’s have a look…

The big reveal

Here’s the Vice-Chancellor’s covering letter:

University of Oxford direct-mail, 2011: Vice Chancellor’s Letter

Please note that the letter obeys my 3 rules of ‘ask letters’!
1) The opening line has to ask the recipient for a financial gift.
2)
You must, absolutely must, have a P.S.
3)
You need to ask for a specific amount today.

Asking for a specific amount by letter was tricky. We’re mailing this one letter to 170,000 individuals of all ages, of all different income levels, all over the world. We’re not segmenting by demographic. So this letter had to speak to the 83 year-old widow as much as to the 30-something investment banker. The reverse of the letter, emphasising how gifts add up to fund specific projects, deliberately offers a range of options and illustrates how regular donations with Gift Aid make a cumulative impact.

The Oxford Book of Puzzles (University of Oxford direct-mail, 2011)

So that’s our brochure: a 24-page A6 booklet intended to echo the puzzle books sometimes given away with newspapers, posing quirkily challenging questions of the kind which Oxford academics and students grapple with… and to which the ‘Oxford Thinking’ Campaign will help fund and find the search for solutions.

It aims to tread the fine line between showing the seriousness of the endeavour that underpins university research, while not lapsing into the po-faced preachiness which can sometimes saturate charity direct-mails. The font and the captions, which continue the design theme of our Campaign Report 2011, help lighten the tone, and offer a counterpoint to the otherwise deadly serious content.

Oxford publications are normally deeply traditional; indeed, so are most universities’. Though what we’re doing is by no means revolutionary in marketing terms, it is a departure for us and something of a risk. For some the design may be a bit too much, off-putting even. However, we hope our alumni will read it and enjoy it in the way we intend: as an engaging way of communicating world-changing research, and the impact they as individuals can achieve through giving.

Will it work? I hope so.