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The Importance of Controls in Fundraising

Direct Mail 2 071013

By Donna Baier Stein, Award-winning copywriter

As a freelance copywriter, my reputation stands on the results my fundraising campaigns produce. I’ve been writing copy for a variety of nonprofits since 1980. Often, the assignment is to write an appeal mailing, or renewal series, or even an annual report.

But I am also often invited to develop a new acquisition mailing (snail mail or email) to test against the client’s current control.

A control is the direct mail package or email or landing page that pulls in the best return on investment. Developing a long-term control—one that consistently beats other comers for years—is the holy grail for copywriters…

My first experience with creating a long-time control mailing was for a leading environmental organization founded a half century ago with the mission to conserve critical land areas. Today the organization works in more than 35 countries and all 50 states here in the U.S.

The organization works by buying up private lands to protect vital natural habitats for plants and animals and also by working to effect national and international policy on increasingly urgent issues like climate change and destruction of coral reefs and rain forests.

The non-profit is set up on a membership basis and offers various ways to donate through monthly giving, workplace giving and matching gifts, tribute and honor giving, gift and estate planning and more.

In the 1980s, I was hired to write a direct mail package that would help the organization acquire new members. The ask was for $10 annual dues. The new member would receive a full year’s subscription to the organization’s monthly magazine and a free high-quality tote bag – with our stand-out logo.

The existing control mailing had been written by legendary copywriter Frank Johnson. Frank invented the Johnson box, the copy found above the salutation in a letter. His package for this organization showed a sandhill crane on the outer envelope with this teaser copy:


Both of you.

(A $10 nest egg will do it.)

At my first meeting with the client I presented four ideas for new creative approaches to test against this mailing which, by then, had been the control for 20 years. I suggested a survey package (an involvement technique I’ve had great results with for other fundraisers), a membership card package, a gift card box package. We discussed the pros and cons of each.

Finally, I noted that since Frank Johnson’s package had been so successful for so long, perhaps we could build on its success. “Not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” I said.

And so a new 20+ year control was born. We selected a new attention-getting bird for the Outer Envelope, this time a baby night heron. Both Johnson’s and my packages depend on these strong visuals to get the recipient’s immediate attention.

The offer remained the same: donate $10 and receive a year’s membership, the magazine, and a free tote bag.

The components of the package included:

• 6 x 9 Outer Envelope, printed 4/color on both sides

• 4-page letter

• Response form

• Buck slip highlighting the tote bag premium

• Postpaid return envelope

These are typical components for a fundraising package. And usually a nonprofit can get by with 2/color rather than 4. Not only does this save money, it also shows the recipient of your mailing that you aren’t wasting money on expensive printing and formatting options.

The reverse of the outer envelope is often a good place to add copy. In this case, we showed a photo of the tote bag with the word FREE in all caps. I’ve been involved in many fundraising tests and inevitably the packages or emails with free premiums outpull those without.

The outer envelope is, of course, the most important element of the package. It’s your first, best chance to make your sale. If you don’t catch your prospect’s attention here, in 1-2 seconds, your effort will end up in the physical or digital trash can.

The second most important component is the reply form. This is where you put a succinct statement of your ask and benefits. In this case, our reply form was titled MEMBERSHIP APPLICATION. It offered two options: donate $10 for one year’s dues or give an extra donation of X dollars. The fact that the donation was tax-deductible was highlighted. And a handwritten note reminded the reader that if they gave $10 they would receive a FREE tote bag.

The letter is the component that is the most fun for a copywriter to work on. Frank Johnson’s letter took a somewhat unusual tone for direct marketing copy. It was arch and funny while still getting the message across that the environmental crises we were facing were real and urgent.

I took a similar approach in my copy. Even the salutation was unusual:

Dear Friend of the Family,

The letter continued…

It goes (almost) without saying that the baby black-crowned night heron on our envelope depends on you for her survival.

But you have dependents, concerns of your own. So why should you help this short-legged, short-necked bird who’s usually awake only at night?

Because her future is your future. The wetlands our baby calls home are vanishing – under the plows, bulldozers, cement trucks. And the wetlands, bogs, ponds and marshes that are vital to both your lives are being destroyed as never before.

The first page of the letter breaks mid-sentence (a trick I use in all my packages to keep the reading moving forward). The second and third pages describe current projects the Conservancy is involved in and ways your donation is needed to help. It’s critical in fundraising copy to involve your reader emotionally, to make them feel they have a real stake in what happens.

One formula for fundraising letters is Problem – Solution – Ask. Tell your reader what the crisis is, why you are the best nonprofit to address this crisis, and how their donation to you will help provide a solution beneficial to all.

The letter is formatted for easy reading. There are bulleted lists of current projects, double-indented paragraphs emphasizing key points, underlines and bold type used to call out key phrases. Most readers will scan your letter. So after it’s written and formatted, scan it yourself. You should be able to get the gist of the letter simply by reading the highlighted areas, including the all-important postscript.

In this case we used a double postscript. The first restated the urgent need to help protect endangered habitats for the baby night heron and other species. The second, handwritten, was a reminder that a donation of just $10 would bring a sturdy, handy tote bag.

This package, which built on the long-time success of Frank Johnson’s package before it, was mailed to prospects and donors for more than 20 years. Different printing formats were tested and, of course, the copy was updated to reflect changes in conservation programs. It is one of the packages I am most proud of having written in my 30-year career.

(Contact Donna Baier Stein for consultation.)


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