The 3 pillars of asking for money by direct-mail

by Stephen Tall on February 21, 2012

Last Friday’s Guardian-hosted #HElivechat on the role of the philanthropy in universities, on which I was one of the virtual panellists, covered a range of issues.

One perennial issue that emerged was ‘What makes for a really good piece of direct-mail asking for money?’ I revisited the three principles of a good ‘ask letter’ that I blogged about here in September:

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.

For the record, I still stand by them!