Featuring Students in Appeals

Posted on 09/01/2018

Despite the increased use of digital tactics by fundraising organizations, direct mail is alive and well. In fact, many annual giving programs still generate more than 50 percent of their revenue – and a significant number of their donors – through letters and other printed appeals. Direct mail is a scalable and relatively low-cost method for soliciting large audiences. It can also be an especially effective and efficient way to remind donors when it’s time to renew their gift each year.

Printed appeals do, however, come with their share of challenges. For one thing, it’s not easy to make them stand out from all of the other letters, magazines, and promotional materials that often clutter a donor’s mailbox. While people don’t typically think that nonprofits face competition, the truth is that there are millions of charities out there all vying for prospects’ limited attention and a share of their philanthropic wallet. If your appeals look generic, there’s a much higher likelihood that they’ll go unnoticed and unopened. Boring envelopes often find themselves on the fast track to the recycle bin.

With that in mind, there are tactics one can employ to make an envelope stand out, such as using attractive or unusual colors, testing different fonts, or luring prospects to “look inside” with curious messages and offers of special gifts. And while testing new ideas and mixing up the look and feel of each appeal is certainly important, one of the most effective ways to capture the attention of a prospect – and more importantly, to connect a prospect with your institution and its mission – is simply to highlight those very things that make your organization distinct on the outside of the appeal.

The annual fund team at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) not only recognizes how important the envelope can be to a successful appeal, but also that unique offerings make their institution a special place. As a school that’s focused on training the next generation of artists and designers, CCS wanted to emphasize its mission and inject a little creativity into their direct mail strategy.

The CCS annual fund team designed a direct mail insert that featured art from current students, but instead of using a standard envelope format for the appeal, the student art insert was folded so that a portion of the art was visible through the window of the envelope. With the art peeking through, recipients were enticed to open the appeal and see the full enclosure. The inserts were produced on high-quality paper to fully showcase the art, and the artists have rotated over the years to fully highlight the spectrum of degrees offered at CCS. Since annual fund gifts at CCS primarily support scholarships, students receiving aid were selected for the appeals, and the students’ names, hometowns, and photos were included to accompany their art and further connect donors with gift impact.

The team saw a 25 percent increase in donor counts over previous direct mail appeals in the first three mailings that featured the new student art inserts, and all subsequent appeals have had higher response rates than the previous letter-only strategy. While the insert appeals have been more expensive to produce due to paper quality and the hand-matching process that the vendor uses, the team has been pleased with the response to their new approach – so much so, in fact, that all mailed appeals now include a picture of student art, either on the custom insert or on the letter itself.

If you expect to cut through the mailbox static, you’re going to have to get creative, try new approaches, and push the envelope from time to time. And there’s no better way to do this than by highlighting something that makes your institution unique. Not only will you make your appeal stand out, you’ll create an instant connection with donors who find your institution special too.


AGN Members receive unlimited access to our resources, discounts, and other benefits. Click here to learn more.

Want to stay up-to-date on best practices in annual giving? Click here to follow AGN's Page on Linkedin!