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A Compelling Letter: Less Is More

As a small not-for-profit with limited resources, Happiness Is Camping/For Children With Cancer needed to create a reliable cadre of direct mail supporters. The problem, as ever, was developing a direct-mail approach that would be at once familiar and fresh, at the same time routine and unique.

We have managed, with 36 appeal letters during the past 12 years, to achieve an average response rate of 21 percent, with an average contribution of just more than $100. Our direct mail program has generated more than $1 million at a cost of a few thousand dollars. If we could bottle our formula and license it to other not-for-profits, we would.

Constrained by necessity, we invented an extremely simplified mailing format with no inserts, coupons, sweepstakes or other hooks to attract our audience. We opted, largely for our resource base, to pursue a less-is-more approach, to create a spare, single-page series of direct mail pieces that, over time, would constitute a mosaic of our mission, which is to supply a summer camping experience for children too sick, and often too poor, to attend a normal summer camp.

The technique worked embarrassingly well, primarily because we have sustained a strong sense of continuity, a quarter-to-quarter, year-to-year journal of experiences at camp. Our organization experiences continual tragedy – kids come to camp, play their hearts out, go home and die. Others go into remission and return year after year as counselors. The parents and siblings of our campers have seen how much our program has meant to someone they love.

The nature of our organization dictated the nature of our approach: We have developed a core group of supporters who either have had cancer themselves, have a child or a sibling with cancer or have volunteered to help children with cancer have fun.

Cancer is a small world, where words like mortality and help take on profound meanings. We have formed powerful bonds with a group of potential supporters who love us for what we did for them, their sibling or their child. But, as Tina Turner put it, “What’s love got to do with it?” Bonding is great, as is a core of potential supporters who love you, but crafting an appeal letter that generates enough revenues to make our program possible is greater still.

So how do we write continually fresh appeal letters to a steady group of supporters? How do we not repeat ourselves constantly, reiterate the same old themes, the same old problems? How do we make each direct mail piece new, fresh, compelling? We decided that the Happiness Is Camping appeal letters would focus on real-time human interest stories from those at camp, the latest versions of the same old story, like the tales of campers who have gone into remission and returned to camp as counselors as well as those who simply never came back.

Fortunately and unfortunately, we have a never-ending supply of such stories, and we have attempted to weave them into a direct mail program that has become, in one board member’s words, “a tribal memory” of life at our camp – a virtual newsletter, a living journal, a documentary of what we are about. Our appeal letters demonstrate rather than describe.

Once as we implemented this new approach, our response rate surged from a very good 8.5 percent to a stunning 23 percent. As we suspected, our supporters did not want to hear about our agenda of capital improvements, our sensible business plan or our mission. They wanted to hear about something wonderful that we made happen because of their support, and they wanted to hear it told straight, with a one-sentence pitch at the end of the letter.

Our letters begin smack dab in the middle of things. One letter began, “A 14-year-old friend of ours with acute neuroblastoma wrote to tell us about the happiest day of her life.” Another letter began, “We get a lot of strange requests around here.” The concept at work here amounts to a sort of immediacy-immersion, an abrupt catapulting of the reader into a situation, with virtually no introductory remarks. The approach both disorients and captivates the reader.

As the architect of this approach, as well as the guy who writes the letters, I argued that our core group was sufficiently informed, our mission as an organization as obvious as our name, and that a very soft sell was the way to go. In making my argument for this quiet but cumulative approach, I argued that even nonprofits that I personally support sent me hyper-redundant direct mail pieces that wasted my time and bored me.

I convinced the board of Happiness Is Camping that a direct mail piece has to do two things: get the reader’s attention, and keep it.

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