By Billy Sharma

We all have come across a brilliant idea that we wish we had thought of or which we have filed away in order to adapt some day. Here is my humble grab bag of ideas for you to steal from with abandon.

Many of these simple “swappables” are either ones I admire or are mine, but either way I am sharing them with you because they have been field-tested and have worked each time. So, feel free to adapt, steal, reproduce, share, or pass them on to your friends or clients, but please don’t just copy them blatantly.

Here’s the list of things that work in direct marketing:
1. Use any device to get readers involved.
2. Add an item in your direct mail piece to tell a story.
3. Use your creativity to make a single important point.
4. Tell a good story.

Direct mail offers two huge benefits. First, it has been scientifically proven that the brain retains information gathered from paper for much longer than it does from digital messaging. In other words, people trust paper.

Second, you can practically mail anything. This tactile nature of direct mail, that is inherent only in this medium, is a big plus in telling stories and raising funds.

Here are some examples and the explanation for each of the above.

1. Use any device to get readers involved.
The beauty of involvement devices is that they engage your reader and draw their attention. And getting their attention is crucial in getting results.

Example 1: Here alongside is a brilliant example by a charity for the prevention of suicide that gets you from the start before opening the package. The idea of using string and button envelopes as a noose is a powerful visual demonstration of the message. By allowing recipients to untie the string and free the noose around the victim’s neck, they got them involved in a powerful way. This simple act drove home the point that saving lives is that easy. This almost forces your reader to paint a mental picture while they read, which anchors an image in their consciousness.

Example 2: Here is another way to get your reader involved. A detergent company in Malaysia mailed this package to people who had just purchased a washing machine. Once they opened the package they found the product was wrapped in a t-shirt as below: And the message inside said it all.

Example 3: Amnesty International. Simulated Chopsticks. They put a clever twist on a familiar item. Pencils instead of chopsticks were handed out with these instructions:
• Tuck under thumb and hold tightly.
• Write the Chinese government to help end torture.
• Don’t let human rights violations by the Chinese government give China a bad name.
• Take further action at:

Example 4: Talking about involvement, here is an insert for the Canadian Paraplegic Association that I used to convey what it feels like to be disabled.

Go ahead just follow the instructions and see for yourself.

2. Add an item in your direct mail piece to tell a story.
I have used many physical objects to tell a compelling story: I’ve sent brass keys to sell Fiberglass; I have mailed a single glove to get recipients to write back and request the other glove; I have used a piece of cardboard to dramatize the plight of the homeless.

Example 1: Here I used a bandage to talk about partner abuse.

Example 2: Or even a toothbrush to let the reader know that when a woman is fleeing from her abuser, she barely has time to pack even her most basic necessities.

Example 3: I mailed a pack of sugar to talk about obesity in children for the charity Food Share.

Example 4: A Boston homeless charity mailed ID cards to their donors to demonstrate that homeless people lose their identity.

3. Use your creativity to make a single important point.
Example 1: When I learned that some young girls at the Massey Centre became homeless due to physical abuse, I wanted to highlight the plight of these girls.

So, here is the letter donors received:

The idea was to make the bold words hard to read and to involve the readers by making them hold the letter up to a lamp or window. Because most partner abuse cases are hidden. Once it was backlit, it clearly revealed the words: PARTNER ABUSE, because the other half of each letter was printed on the back of the paper.

The main idea was to inform the readers that PARTNER ABUSE is mostly hidden behind closed doors, so it needs to be exposed. And stats showed that partner abuse is prevalent especially among young mothers from impoverished families.

Sadly, 80 percent of the women at the Massey Centre come from such backgrounds. How well did it do? In the first two weeks the response was well above 18 percent with 3 or 4 weeks still to go.

Example 2: Then there is this simple post-undelivered slip from JWT London placed in the mailboxes of selected recipients. To communicate the chunkiness of Kit Kat Chunky, JWT London’s card claimed that they couldn’t deliver a Kit Kat Chunky because it was “too big for your letterbox”. Recipients were directed to collect their free Kit Kat from their local newsagent.

Example 3: In an emergency, flash the crisis as loudly as you can. Here is an appeal I wrote for the Canadian Children’s Fund of Canada to send to people who sponsored children in India. It was very successful.

Example 4: Wedgewood created a ceramic envelope that was mailed to couples that had registered to get married, because there is a tradition among many cultures to break a plate for good luck. When the recipients smashed the ceramic envelope, there was a discount coupon inside for them to redeem many Wedgewood products.

4. Tell a good story.
Truth be told, the power of a good story cannot be underestimated. There is plenty of proof in the many novels we read and the number of movies we watch. More amazing, stories captivate us because we want to know what happened next and how it all ended. Stories have the ability to open our eyes and hearts to someone else’s plight. Stories can be agents of change.

Example 1: Stories can humanize your mission. Donors want to see how their money is spent. They want proof of your fiscal accountability. What better way to show this than by sharing a story that embodies hope and goodness; a story that reminds your donors how they can help change the lives of children who may have a serious or terminal illness.

Example 2: If you want to convert more donors to monthly donors, stay focused and be transparent; tell them where their last donation went. And tell them how important they are.

Example 3: Paint a picture of the surroundings of your main story character and bring it to life. That’s what I did with this dying rose, to speak about the bond between a dying wife and her husband.

Example 4: I have even used one of the best children’s storytellers, Munsch, in my letters, to show the plight of one disabled child for Easter Seals, Ontario. He wrote a story about her. Twenty percent is creative.

You can use the names of your donors and the communities where they live to first try to figure out their ethnic backgrounds. But, if you look a bit deeper, you will find the donation amounts that they generally give to your charity may give you a clue too.

A person’s name may not specifically indicate their original ethnic origin. Many charities ask for rounded up amounts like $25, $50, and $100, but receive other donations such as $18 or $36. What these donors are telling us is that they are probably Jewish. The number 18 in Hebrew also means “life” so it is customary to give gifts in multiples of $18. If you run a report on your database of donors who have given a gift of $18, $36, $180, $360, $1,800, $3,600, you will likely find some who gave that amount. By their giving behaviour, they are identifying themselves to you as likely Jewish.

Similarly, the Indian community generally adds an extra dollar to rounded up amounts, so they traditionally give $51 or $101, etc, at weddings and other occasions.

Chinese people often have specific numbers that they regard as lucky or unlucky. In China, lucky numbers have pronunciations that are similar to words with lucky meanings. Number 8 holds huge significance as a lucky number. To a lesser extent 2, 6, and 9 are considered lucky. While 4 is the unluckiest number in China.

Different donation amounts can give you a hint about your donor’s ethnic background and how to best use that knowledge.

For Muslims, 786 is a sacred number because the Arabic letters of the opening phrase of the Quran add up to the numerical value of 786. Asians also go by Chinese or Indian astrology and numerology.

For the Chinese, even numbers are considered lucky, since it is believed that good luck comes in pairs. Now why is all this important? As a charity leader, you are always looking for good ways to contact and steward your most loyal donors.

So, if your donor has signalled to you that you may not want you to send them a Christmas or Easter card, mark your calendar for early August and send out wishes for a happy and healthy New Year (Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year). Or send a Diwali greeting to those who celebrate the Indian New Year in October, or the Chinese New Year in February.

To ensure better stewardship, you can build your donor base to reflect your research. Through customizing your stewardship and your giving levels, you can show your donors that you are paying attention to them. They will appreciate the personalization and your thoughtfulness, and you will be able to appeal to them more effectively. You can ask them in certain amounts and during appropriate holiday periods that are a better fit for them.

And that is what smart fundraising is all about.

Billy Sharma is President & Creative Director of Designers Inc. He started his career in the advertising world and have worked in four major cities — Munich, Montreal, New York and Toronto for some of the largest advertising agencies. For the past three decades he has run his own company, Designers Inc.

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