I'm trying to get back to my self-appointed task of reading academic papers on fundraising so that you don't have to, and summarizing any of interest. So, here's the first, starting with the conclusions:
Those stickers, return address stamps, or other goodies you've been tucking into your direct mail enclosures? They might catch some people's eyes, but turn others off. And the colorful stories that we're all schooled to start off appeal letters with? They help only a little.
Now, for a few details.
The study was laid out in the Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing's Fall 2007 edition (Volume 18), in an article called "Creating Effective Direct Mail Charitable Solicitations: The Effects of Enclosures and Different Appeals," by William D. Diamond and Easwar S. Iyer.
What the authors did was to send different versions of a wildlife-related appeal letters to different lists of donors. One list contained people who already donate to wildlife causes and another list contained people who donate to medical causes. Some letters started with a colorful vignette, and some included a sticker saying "Save the Buffalo."
Essentially, the sticker seems to have served as a clue to the readers about whether this was a cause they were interested in and should read any further. Many of the wildlife-donor types kept reading, while the medical-donor types tended to say, "Nope, not for me."
As for the story that opened some of the appeal letters, I wish we could have read it to judge for ourselves whether it should have raised the readers' interest significantly. But the authors' conclusion (which I'm paraphrasing hugely) seems pretty logical: That, for people already interested in a topic, hard information is also quite important, especially given that they're savvy consumers who've probably read a million of these stories.
There's just no getting around the fact that direct-mail recipients are, more and more, looking for an excuse to drop nonprofit appeal letters into the circular file. The study's authors also pulled together some telling statistics, namely that Americans receive around 14 billion direct-mail solicitations per year, and a substantial number of people receive over 1,000 solicitations per year. Gulp.
The bigger conclusion here seems to be that people are either going to donate to your cause or not, for reasons that have little to do with the appeal letter's contents. (Not a reason to do a bad letter, but nor is it a reason to sweat the small stuff.) I'm not ready to get on the "direct mail is dead" bandwagon -- it's obviously still a way to let donors know you're there, working hard -- but the stats also suggest that finding other ways to raise that awareness would be wise, too.