The essentials of direct mail fund raising are:

  1. A strong, dramatic case. Potential donors must be convinced that the park has real needs and that their help is vital.
  2. A segmented audience. Who has a logical reason to support the park? What are the demographics of park visitors? What special user groups does the park appeal to?
  3. A targeted list of names. Most organizations will start with past supporters. Other lists can be obtained by exchange, purchase or loan.
  4. Effective mailing pieces. The package must say "open me", the letter must say "read me", and the reply form/envelope must say "contribute now".
  5. An effective tracking/record keeping system. The name of the game is testing. An organization must know which lists and appeal letters pay off and which ones don't.
  6. Committed staff. No success is possible without dedicated, creative and responsive staff.

Patience and an investment of resources is also required because major revenues from direct mail campaigns don't come for at least 3 years. During the first few years of a direct mail campaign, success is measured by the number of names added to the list of supporters, not by the amount of money generated.

Creating the Package

The Letter

Direct mail letters are judged by one criterion: How effective are they? Grammatical perfection, brevity, a dignified tone are not necessarily attributes of successful fund-raising letters.

One fund-raising letter will not do it all. The letter you write for prospects is very different from the one written for existing members or donors. The goal with prospects is to gain their interest and support. For existing donors, interest must be sustained. Lapsed donors need their interest rekindled.

There are some basic rules for writing a letter appeal. They must always:

  1. Interest the reader within the first paragraph.
  2. Present information in a way that holds interest.
  3. Present enough information to make the case.
  4. Clearly ask for a contribution - the more specific the amount the better.
  5. Motivate the reader to take action.

The style of the fund-raising letter involves:

  • Tone: Many fund-raising letters sound an alarm. The tone of direct mail pieces should imply a positive opportunity for donors to help the NPS go beyond basic levels of service and resource protection. We need to be sensitive to not cast Congress and the Administration in a negative light.
  • Flow: Ideas should flow from one to another in the right order of logic and interest.
  • Suspense: The letter should be too interesting to put down.
  • Personality: Even if a letter is ghostwritten, the signer should edit in some of his or her own style.
  • Language: It should be personal, hard hitting and dramatic. Phrases like these are tried and proven true:

    • "And in just a moment I'll tell you how."
      "And that's where you come in."
      "My pledge to you is this."
      "If you haven't yet decided whether to join me, let me."

The format of the letter should:

  1. create interest.
  2. state the problem.
  3. arouse emotion.
  4. offer hope for a solution.
  5. allow the reader to participate in solving the problem.
  6. induce action.
  7. thank the reader for acting.

If the first paragraph doesn't hook the reader, the appeal is sunk. After the writer drafts the letter, someone should look back through it for an even better opening buried in the text. A winning opening often goes beyond creating interest.

For credibility, either the Board of Directors of the sponsoring organization, a distinguished honorary sponsoring committee, or both, should be listed. The letter may be signed by a known celebrity, provided the celebrity has a plausible connection to the issue. Otherwise one of the organization's top executives or Board Chair should sign.

The letter should be long enough to present a compelling case. Four to six pages is becoming the norm. The challenge is to sustain interest.

Underlining, handwritten margin notations, parentheses, bullets, italics and boldfaces are often used to draw the reader's attention to key points. However, the letter shouldn't be embellished to the point of confusion or illegibility.

The "P.S." is also very important. It is the last chance to drive home the most important point and urge the reader to take action.

Captioned photographs can really help. Photos should be crisp. People shots work well, especially pictures of children. Group shots should show the full range of racial and ethnic segments who visit the park. Pictures of animals also work well, and are often related to the goal of fund raising efforts on behalf of National Park areas. Humorous photos don't work very well.

Mailing Lists, Mail Houses, and Postal Regulations

Mailing Lists. An in-house mailing list is an organization's most treasured possession in direct mail. An organization starts with lists of its supporters. The sponsoring organization may ask the park to share lists of people who have attended hearings or public meetings, who have written the park requesting information, or who have signed a guest book at the visitor center. They may ask the concessioner for a list of guests using concessioner accommodations. Organizations may also ask list brokers to help them locate rental lists of people likely to be interested in the park.

At least once a year, your in-house mailing must be "cleaned" by sending an appeal in an envelope with the following words:

    "Address Correction Requested"
    "Return Postage Guaranteed"

The post office will return each one with a new address, if known. The cost is $.25 per piece returned, but it saves a bundle in eliminating wasted or misaddressed mailings.

List brokers are an invaluable source of advice, as well as the source of targeted lists, for organizations conducting direct mail campaigns. Since they work with lists on a daily basis, they often know who else has used a particular list and how it worked for them, the type of appeal that works with the list, and how clean a list is.

To locate mailing lists on their own, organizations use a reference book, Standard Rates and Data Service - Direct Mail List, found in most major libraries. The book contains names of almost every mailing list available in the United States, with a description of the kinds of people on each list, how to get the lists, and restrictions on their use.

Mail Houses. For a mailing of any substantial quantity (5,000 or more), a mail house or lettershop is used. These firms are professionals at stuffing and mailing direct mail using lists provided by the client. Mail houses receive the printed material and mailing lists. The client's job is to get the correct postal permits in advance, send the mail house a list of the mailing lists that will be arriving at the mail house, and send detailed written instructions and a sample package that makes it clear what is wanted.

Postal Regulations. As of 2005, the nonprofit bulk rate is $.165 per piece for presorted mail. This mail goes third class, and there is no guarantee on when delivery will occur. Delivery is usually within 10 days, so the savings from using the nonprofit rate is usually worth the risk of slower delivery. If timing is crucial, organizations will mail first class.


Direct mail is a natural for computerization. For efficient list and record storage, results reporting, personalized mailings, elimination of duplications (merge/purge), improved acknowledgement of donors, a computer is essential. For many organizations, it pays to hire a computer service bureau to handle the sometimes specialized computer applications needed.

Reply Envelope. Unless it's a snap for a donor to send a gift, some contributions may be lost. A donor should only have to put the reply device and a check in the business reply envelope provided by the sponsoring organization, and drop it in a mailbox. The organization will pay 37 cents for each reply delivered, but it's worth it for a donation that will average $15 or more. Some nonprofits print a line on the reply envelope reminding donors that "your stamp will allow us to put an extra $_____ directly into the cause."

Monarch (3 7/8" X 7 ") envelopes, which fit easily inside number 10 carrier envelopes, are standard for reply envelopes. Envelopes with no message are preferred.

Other enclosures. The direct mail package is sometimes spiced up with copies of recent news articles about the organization, or a strong letter of endorsement from a well-known personality. Depending on the goal of the package, a brochure or program schedule might be in order, though most organizations make their case in the appeal letter without a brochure.

Decals can increase the rate of return and publicize the organization, so long as the recipient knows he or she is under no obligation to pay for or return the decal.

Premiums are sometimes offered as an inducement to join an organization or make a contribution. Posters, personalized mailing labels, books, tote bags, and t-shirts can certainly increase the return rate and average contribution, but the cost of the premium must be deducted from the net return of the appeal. In many cases the extra costs will cancel - or more than cancel - the extra revenue.


Design. The best direct mail packages are designed by experienced graphic artists who often know what works, what doesn't, and how to make the package look good without looking slick. The design may take a month from concept to camera-ready.

Printing. If consulted early and often, printers can head off problems and advise an organization on how to save money on materials or labor.


When to mail?
It takes a minimum of two months to produce an initial direct mail package. This includes creating the written material, designing the package, and printing time. Mailing time adds at least another 10 days. In general, the best months to mail to "prospects" are January, February, March, September, October and November. The priority order depends on the organization's particular circumstances - milestones in the organization's year, special event, etc. For mailing to previous donors, "renewal" and "upgrade" (contributing at least $10 more than the last time) appeals are sent annually. Special appeals can be sent no more than two to three times a year.