Year-End Fundraising Success with Laura Amerman

Episode aired Sept. 16, 2020: Year-End Success

As an experienced and expert fundraiser and copywriter, Laura Amerman of Blue Canoe Philanthropy knows the ingredients needed to make a year-end direct mail appeal a success. In this episode Laura discusses

  • when to prepare the appeal. November is not acceptable
  • why length matters
  • how crucial the outer envelope is to success
  • what 3 things must be included in the appeal
  • why proofreading by committee is a recipe for disaster and
  • why your P.S. better be strong.

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.


Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us my friend and nonprofit fundraising expert Laura Amerman. Laura, how are you today?

Laura: I’m doing pretty well, considering I just got back from vacation. So you know, re-entry is a little tough.

Ephraim: I got it. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Laura joined Blue Canoe Philanthropy as a senior associate in July 2020. Prior to this she served exclusively as a development practitioner, most recently as the chief development officer for an education focused nonprofit organization serving students from systematically marginalized communities in New York City. Laura has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 15 years for a variety of causes, including mental health, religion, health care, youth advocacy and education.

She began her professional career in the maritime industry and spent 20 years in advertising, corporate communications, health care sales, training and marketing. Laura’s volunteer service includes a recently completed eight-year tenure on the board of the AFP New Jersey chapter, where she served as chapter treasurer and chair of the website and marketing task force. She served two terms on the AFP international conference education advisory committee and is a current member of both the marketing and awards committee and the board nominating committee. Laura holds a degree in anthropology, archaeology and classics from Drew University. She received her CFRE credential in 2012. Laura lives in Bergen County, New Jersey with her family and three pit bulls who think they are lap dogs.

When To Prepare The Year-End Appeal

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss year-end appeals. So let’s dive right in. Laura, when should a nonprofit begin preparing its year end mailing?

Laura: Great question Ephy. Now or earlier. Actually, before now. You know a lot of us nonprofits have a fiscal year that ends June 30th, particularly here in the States and I would say that you need to start planning your year-end appeal as soon as you close your year. So you know July, August. In my last shop, we would start our story gathering in August, we’d already have a concept in place hopefully and we’d be getting it prepared then. My printer, who is fantastic, would always just be like right there with us saying, What do you got? When do you want it to drop? Let me know how many pages, format, blah blah blah because he was always pushing to make sure we got it out on time. But I would say you got to have it pretty solid by August.

How To Stand Out

Ephraim: Got it. So with every nonprofit sending mail and email to people as December 31st approaches, how can an organization’s year end appeal stand out?

Laura: Good one. There’s a metric out there that you’ve got seven seconds from the time someone has that envelope in their hand before they decide to shove it in the recycling bin or the shredder or open it. And so you’ve got to have a compelling envelope, something that’s a little bit different and sometimes that little bit different is something that’s really plain. So it doesn’t have to be like this super snazzy, highly produced envelope, right? Because a lot of times they can look like junk mail. So something that is recognizably from you, that has some kind of hook that will convince somebody to open the envelope. That is the only job that envelope has, aside from getting your letter there safely through the postal service. Something on that envelope that will convince them that they should open it. And sometimes that’s nothing. They’re like, oh what’s this? I don’t know who this is from or I know who this is from but I don’t know why. I’ve tested both and it really depends on your audience. And you have to test it with your audience to see what works better. But you’ve got to convince somebody to open the envelope first.

I think what really sets you apart after that is the relationship that you’ve built with the donor over time. Direct mail isn’t this magical wand that’s going to automatically distinguish you from all of the other direct mail pieces that people get at the end of the year, unless you’ve done a lot of really good stewardship and cultivation and work are ready. Putting some premiums in always help, like I love stickers. Depends on your audience. If your audience is Gen X or younger, I think stickers are really valuable because they’re sticking them all over water bottles and laptops and all that kind of stuff. It used to be magnets but nobody’s refrigerator is magnetized anymore, so you can’t even stick a magnet on a refrigerator. But I think just knowing your audience and knowing kind of what does it for them.

We don’t… a lot of smaller nonprofits don’t have those massive mailing lists where you can afford to say goodbye to ninety percent of that list if it doesn’t work. So you’ve got to really have some kind of relationship established with your folks, aside if it’s acquisition. That’s a different story. But I think for the most part we’re talking about established donor bases and you have to have done the work already.

3 Things A year-End Packet Must Include

Ephraim: Yup. So along those lines, today’s actionable item: Please tell us three things a year-end letter and appeal packet must include?

Laura: Number one I would say emotion, not logic. And I steal that directly from Leah Eustace who’s done some great presentations on this. Your appeal needs to address the part of the donor brain where generosity lives, which is the emotional brain. The logical brain is the part of the brain that’s going to decide whether or not somebody can afford something, which is not where we want to be. You want to have an emotional hook. You want to have a distinguish… a distinct story that you’re telling that not only honors the donor but honors the person whose story it is. I’ve always said like the folks that we work with who tell us their stories, that is a gift they’re giving us and so as writers, we have to honor that and make sure that we are sort of making the recipient of the charitable gift as honorable or more honorable, as heroic or more heroic than the donor because I think that’s where dignity and fundraising is. So you have to have that emotional hook.

I would say it needs to be long. It needs to be a long letter and that is one of my top three and it’s the one that causes the most amount of grief. I think sometimes you need to have a long message and it needs to have repetition in it, which are the two things that if you let somebody who doesn’t know about this stuff read it, they will edit out. They’ll say this is repetitive, you already said that, this is too long, I don’t want to read a long… I don’t want to read a long letter. You know what? Every donor out there that you survey will tell you they don’t want to read a long letter but they want to read a long letter.

There’s a really great resource, Jeff Brooks and I just recently re-looked it up for our conversation and he had a post, I’ll send you the link, why long fundraising letters out poll shorter ones. And again, you got to test this against your list. If this doesn’t work for your group of donors, then you shouldn’t just do it because somebody said to. But there’s a bunch of different theories as to why they work and we can we can talk about that a little bit more later but I would say, make it a long letter.

And most importantly, multiple asks in the letter and the first one had better be on the first page.

And then the last one, which sort of goes along with this in terms of multiple asks, is you need to have a really strong PS message. And the reason why is oftentimes that might be the only thing they read. So they’ll kind of scan through, they’ll see who it’s from, they’ll scan through, they’ll look at who it’s from, who signed this letter. Do I care about this person who signed this letter? And oh look, there’s the big powerful PS message right below that. You’ve got to have a strong PS with an ask often, depending on what your letter’s about. But have a strong PS. I’ve gotten to the point now when I get you know appeals in the mail, that’s the first thing I look to see if they did it. I’d say a strong PS message as well.

Advantages Of A longer Appeal Letter

Ephraim: Excellent answer. So to follow up, there is research as you mentioned that longer appeals do better than short ones. For example, four page appeals do better than two pagers. Can you tell us the advantages of a longer appeal, versus just give me the news and let me do my thing?

Laura: Okay. So it’s been tested. I hate long letters, you hate long letters, Jeff Brooks hates long letters. But here’s the thing: In surveys, that’s what people say, but in real life donors respond more often to long messages. We don’t necessarily know why but there are some theories and some of them I think really work with the whole neuroscience of how we obtain this information.

There’s the Hopscotch Theory. People don’t read every single word you wrote. I hate to break it to you. It hurts your feelings. I know you sweated and cried and agonized over this beautiful letter and nobody reads it. They skip around, they bounce around, they scan. They start here, they go there, they do this, right? If you don’t have it be long and you don’t have a lot of repetition, they’re going to miss on a one-pager because they’re just going to glance at it. If they have to go through a couple pages, they’re going to see that bold type, they’re going to see that repeated ask, they’re going to see those things. It has more entry points, it has more calls to action. There’s a greater chance that a reader who isn’t necessarily following your logic will get pulled into it.

And the other one that I really like is a gravitas theory and Jeff Brooks brings this up. He says that they may not read every word but a length of a letter may signal to them that it’s really important. Long messages have two characteristics that are really important: they have repetition and they have story. You need to repeat yourself because again, they’re scanning. I saw something a while ago about women. They said smart women don’t read. Smart women scan. It was like business communications. It’s just like yeah because you don’t have time to read all that stuff. So there’s an introduction. You have an anchor. The anchor is that first number that you mentioned. Should be a high number because that’s the amount of money you want to raise. So rather than saying only one child or whatever, you can say a larger number. You have an ask, you have your impact, you have the story, you remind the donor of their values, you have another story, you have a visualization of what will happen. You don’t have time to do all of that in one page but you have time with a longer message to bring out all these things, to have a story shine in a long message.

I was a marketing person, so I was always like, why say it in 50 words when you can say it in five? And the rules are opposite here. They don’t make sense to us necessarily but this is what works, this is what tests. If you think about the age of our donors, a lot of them are older folks. They like to read, they like to read a long thing, they like that you took the time to craft something meaningful for them to read. So I think those are some of the reasons why. I’ll send you this link to Jeff’s article and it’s excerpted from a really great book that he wrote called The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications and I think of all the fundraising books you can have on your shelf, if you’re writing appeals this, is a really good one to have. So these are all… a lot of these are Jeff’s points, not mine but the things that I have internalized and taken to heart.

What Your Copywriter Needs

Ephraim: Excellent. So I will link to that in the transcript of this podcast episode. You’re not just a fundraising expert but you are an excellent fundraising copywriter. What do you need from an organization before sitting down to write a year-end appeal for them?

Laura: I could go back to Tom Ahern’s rule of… the Ahern clause of: You don’t get to edit anything I write but I’m not Tom Ahern. I would say I need access, I need access to your stories. I don’t necessarily need your data. Your data is really fascinating, save it for your annual report and the foundations who want to read that stuff. I always want to see your last two to three appeal packages and I want to know how they did. I want time. I want you to invest the time in letting me interview people, whether it’s program staff, fundraising staff, board members and constituents, people that you serve or people who are the recipients of whatever it is your charities mission is. I want to have time to talk to someone whose story it is directly… in some cases I’ve not been able to do that and so some nonprofits have been really good about interviewing recipients of their charity and so I can look at videos and try to get a story out of that. But it’s always so much better if I can talk to the person themselves and I always always always let the constituent, the person whose story it is, have the final approval on the story and how it’s portrayed.

The other thing that I really really need is for you not to proofread it by committee. It’s just a terrible idea. You get conflicting feedback. Recently I looked at some feedback on a letter and it was conflicting feedback on it and I need the in-house fundraising expert. You have to own that you are the in-house fundraising expert, be the person who approves it. Oftentimes you’ll get a CEO or an ED who says, well it’s my name on the letter and nothing goes out that I don’t approve. Yeah sure. That’s also a really good reason to not have them sign the letter. But depending on who it is.. I’ve had students sign a letter, I’ve had constituents sign a letter, I’ve had a board chair sign a letter. It really depends on how your letter is crafted. But don’t approve an appeal letter by committee. Let the experts do it and if it makes your board chair uncomfortable and it makes your ED uncomfortable, you’ve probably done a really good job.

Learn More About Laura

Ephraim: I love that, I love that ending. Perfect. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Laura: I needed to pay rent. A lot of people have some very noble reasons why they got into fundraising. I was going back to work after my daughter was born and I needed to pay rent. I’m the primary wage earner in our family, my son was starting school, he was going to private school and I knew I needed a full-time job. I’d been doing some part-time work and the first job that I found happened to be at a nonprofit. It was based on my years of marketing and advertising, all that experience. But once I was there… it wasn’t my first fundraising job, it was the second one, the second nonprofit job that really hooked me and that was because I got involved with AFP at the time but it was accidental. It was because I could write, it was because I was a good communicator.

I can’t stress strongly enough how important a liberal arts education was for me. Here I am proof that a liberal arts major can get a job. You can study what you love in college and still be successful in your career. I was an anthropology major but I think you have to love this work to stay in it because it’s really really hard. But I did not get into it intentionally. I think more and more people who are younger than me- I’m a boomer, I’m the tail end of the boomers but I’m a boomer- a lot of us did get into it a little bit accidentally but younger folks, where now you can actually study this as a major in college, I think the profession is growing that way. But to me it was accidental. I had to make rent. It was a job I got and then I ended up loving it.

Ephraim: Okay. So now that you’ve been in this profession for so many years, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Laura: If I could what?

Ephraim: If you could shake up…

Laura: Oh gosh. You know, 70% or so of fundraisers are women, a lot of the leadership jobs aren’t. They’re male. I think just the sort of casual misogyny that it’s not just in the nonprofit sector but we’re still good at it here too. Believe me we still had it in the private sector for sure. And I think the feeling, the sort of this white saviorism of the charity world, oh we can’t find any people of color for our board because we don’t know any and they don’t have any money and I only know other rich white people and I really want to help these poor folks. It all kind of goes hand in hand of… around the white supremacy of our sector and of our world frankly. We operate within it but that needs to get shaken up. I think there’s some people out there who are pretty dedicated to helping that happen. I think more white folks need to get involved and we talk about women’s issues at AFP, we had the women’s impact initiative, I looked around the room at some of these sessions and it was all women and I was like, guys, you got to show up for this stuff. I know there’s men out there who are committed to it but… I read something recently, it’s an old saying but preaching against racism from black pulpits and black churches is not what we need. We need white preachers and white churches to preach against racism and it’s kind of the same thing. Sometimes I find we’re preaching to the choir. And we need to get the people who don’t agree with us in the room and have those really difficult conversations.

Ephraim: So you just mentioned it a little bit. Biggest difference though between working in the for-profit sector and the nonprofit sector?

Laura: Yeah. My salary. I think it’s… some of it is personal satisfaction. The ability to honestly sometimes sleep at night. Honestly sometimes sleeping at night means you’re paying your rent too. So like if you’re in the private sector, that’s also okay because you need to provide for yourself and your family. But feeling like you’ve done something meaningful, for me when I worked in health insurance, having these interactions with our customers of our health insurance product did not necessarily give me a warm fuzzy feeling at the end of the day. Maybe I’d get some satisfaction because I might have served them well or answered their questions or done whatever. But at the end of the day when I’ve had an opportunity to interact with the people that we served at a nonprofit, to see what the impact was, to hear their stories, being the recipient of the generosity of someone, sharing their story with you is profound to me. We have such a responsibility then to treat it like gold, to honor it and to treasure it. So to have that experience, if I went on a program visit or anything like that, just to be able to interact with these people to me is such a gift that I did not get in the private sector. At all. Even though I might have been paid more. Sometimes at the end of the day I don’t want to have Sunday night anxiety every night for the rest of my life like I used to have.

Ephraim: Totally get it.

Laura: That’s not to say we don’t get it in the nonprofit world. I know plenty of us get Sunday night anxiety there too.

Ephraim: Person or mentor who influenced your professional career the most?

Laura: Oh gosh, I have to pick one?

Ephraim: Yeah.

Laura: Yeah. There’s been many over the years. It would be totally self-serving for me to say Leah, so I’m not going to say Leah Eustace, my boss. I would say it was Alice Ferris from Goalbusters consulting. My very first AFP ICON was an ICON where she spoke as I believe the first ACFRE under 40. I just remember saying… it was also the ICON where Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke. So like think about the room… my mind was continually blown but I just remember her speaking and being so impressed and having the hutzpa to contact her after that, to ask her to come speak at the AFP New Jersey chapter at our conference and she did and she was so lovely.

But I’d say anybody who’s been a mentor to me in my career has been somebody who’s just been extraordinarily generous with their time, with their advice, with their patience, who let me ask really stupid questions and sometimes reviewed my resume for me. But Alice has just been a really tremendous cheerleader and she knew people and she connected me with them and she was somebody who was an includer. If you were you go to ICON or you go somewhere and she would invite you to things and ask you to come have dinner with them and just make you feel like you were part of her family and by extension, the larger fundraising family. So today my answer is Alice Ferris. On different days I have different answers because there’s been more than one for sure.

Ephraim: It’s all good. Alice is an excellent choice. If not New Jersey, then where?

Laura: Canada. That was easy. I just got back from Maine and I used to say Maine.

Unfortunately not a ton of jobs in Maine. But Canada for sure. My husband’s wants to retire soon, we’re going to need health insurance. Frankly that’s one reason but also I just love the north country. I like the winter, I like butter tarts and poutine and beaver tails and good beer and hockey and really nice people. Definitely Canada.

Ephraim: That’s a good answer. Let’s turn the table. You get to ask me a surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Laura: So Ephy, if you were to take a two-month sabbatical, where would you want to do it and what would you do?

Ephraim: Well option A would be in a very dark closet with wi-fi. I’d be very happy with that, that’d be fine. B is in bed. C the honest answer, the very honest answer it’s on my bucket list, is a coast-to-coast drive from Boston to LA. I have always wanted and if I could, I’d get into an RV and do it. I’ve actually priced it out. I would get into… I would even do in a regular car because I happen to love to drive. I don’t care.

I would go coast to coast and be able to see parts of America that I just haven’t seen during my summer tours and when I lived there. I’d love to do it. If I could I’d take my kids with me and take a month or two and just do it. But being perfectly honest, it’s on my bucket list and I have actually planned it out. Like a couple of years ago I priced it and I planned it, I looked at it. So yeah that’s what I’m doing if I have two months off and I got nothing to do. I’d love to drive cross-country Boston-LA and then on the way back, I just can’t decide if I want to drive down south through the desert and through Texas or if I want to drive up north and go through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, the Dakotas, that area or just get on a plane and fly back east and call it a trip. But either way I’m going cross country. I’m going.

Laura: The good news is that if you do that, there will still be closets and beds!

Ephraim: That’s fantastic.

Laura: Especially if it’s an RV. It would be a really small closet.

Ephraim: Yes but like I said, I would even do it in a… I would do it in a regular car because I have thankfully enough of a network that wherever I drive to, I have where to stay. I mean I stay at a hotel but I also have friends throughout, so for me not a big deal. I would totally in two seconds. I’m doing that cross country Boston to LA. That is a dream one day when money is not an issue and there’s plenty of time to do it. Yes, that’s what I’m doing.

Laura: There’s a lot of baseball stadiums and hockey arenas in between Boston and LA too.

Ephraim: Correct. Plenty to see, plenty. Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast today. I encourage you to connect with Laura on twitter at @LEAmerman so you can learn from her two decades of nonprofit experience and knowledge. Laura, thank you very very much. Have a wonderful day.

Laura: It was fun Ephy. Thank you.

Ephraim: A pleasure. Have a good one.