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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

When Not to Ask for a Specific Amount

by Steve Hitchcock

How many times have you been encouraged to ask for a specific gift when corresponding with prospects? As many times as you’ve attended fundraising workshops, I imagine.

But there are instances when it makes sense to NOT ask for a specific amount – either in your letter or on the reply card. In fact, my sense is that the majority of your letters shouldn’t ask for a specific amount. Especially when you’re sending letters to your current members or donors, you’ll find it is more effective to ask for “a generous gift” or a “special gift.”

Even when you’re writing to prospects or those who’ve never given, you may wish to be less than specific in your letters, asking the reader to consider a range of gift amounts.

For example, “Please join the Friends of the Zoo with a membership gift of $25, $50, or $100 if possible.” Other groups find it effective in their acquisition letters to ask for an initial gift of “$15 or more.”

What these prospect letters try to do by offering a gift range is to set a floor or threshold for initial gifts – and yet allow for those new members or donors who wish to make more significant first gifts to your organization.

Testing for the best initial gift request is perhaps the most important test for any medium- or large-scale direct mail program. Asking too high may dampen response. Asking too low may enlist too many new donors whose subsequent gifts are too small to justify the cost of sending them newsletters and other mailings.

Even though most of your letters shouldn’t ask for a particular amount, there are special circumstances when asking for a specific gift can have a tremendous impact on both response rate and the size of gifts you receive:

1) When you’re sending personalized letters to your best donors, so that you can refer to the date and amount of their last gift and ask them to match it or give more.

2) When you’re sending letters – perhaps pre-printed letters – as part of an annual renewal mailing and want to encourage slightly higher gifts from lower dollar donors (typically those who have never given more than $29 or $34).

3) When you’re trying to reactivate lapsed members or donors, especially those who have been generous or have given many gifts. You may ask them to match the specific amount of their last gift or even ask specifically for a lower amount.

4) When a special project or a noteworthy anniversary warrants it, your letter may reference a unique dollar amount, for example, “$55 will provide seeds and tools for a family” or “Please help us celebrate our organization’s 80th anniversary by sending a special gift of $80.”

Beyond these special situations, most of your fundraising letters will ask the reader to send a contribution, but not suggest a specific amount.

That’s because, when you’re mailing to donors who have made three or fewer gifts in the $10-49 range, it’s simply too expensive to personalize letters or to print lots of different versions with specific gift amounts. Very few donors will give larger gifts so the appeal is unlikely to generate enough response and income to pay for the higher costs of using personalization.

Remember, though, your letter should clearly request a gift, even if the amount is unspecified, and not simply communicate information about your organization or your programs.

And the reply device that accompanies your letter should suggest one, two, or three gift levels. For a person whose highest gift has been $35, you could, for example, have a reply device with $150, $100, and $50. Of course, there should also be a tick box for the donor to write in his or her own amount. Again, only in extraordinary instances, would you give a donor or a member a gift amount lower than his or her previous high gift.

Just as important, your gift requests should be varied throughout the year. Don’t send the same donors the same gift requests mailing after mailing. In the course of the year, one or two mailings could ask for ambitious increases in giving levels. At least one mailing a year should make it easy for a member or donor to give exactly what she gave last year.

Other mailings, especially renewal mailings, can have reply devices that suggest modest    increases in giving. 

Because your donors lead busy and complicated lives, their perceptions about their capacity to give will vary over time. Direct mail is an effective fund raising tool because it enables you to give a variety of opportunities – at different giving levels and at different times throughout the year – to support your organization.


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