Individuals Writing to Individuals


Person with binocularsTo progress through this course, use the navigation bar on the left side of the page. You can also click on the section titles, which are found at the bottom of each page.

Before getting started, download these printable tip sheets to help you craft your own direct mail campaign:



Welcome AmeriCorps VISTA Community Members!

We hope that this online course will help guide your approach towards reaching potential supporters, donors, and volunteers. This course works to expand your knowledge and comfort level with a variety of physical and digital direct mail outlets.  You will gain insights on how and why individuals respond to requests for support, and learn to leverage these insights to attract more support for your organization.


Learning Objectives

To keep your program running year after year, you need individuals whose support you can consistently secure. This course provides tools and ideas for outlining an annual giving appeal for either physical or virtual delivery direct to individuals. In addition, it introduces cost-effective techniques to keep donors engaged through memos, newsletters, annual reports, and e-newsletters, as well as how to utilize social media as an effective communication vehicle.

As a result of this course, you will be able to:

  • Describe how the look and feel of direct mail materials should impact recipients

  • Craft a written appeal that captures reader attention

  • Identify effective communication methods for successful fundraising appeals

  • Describe an effective reply device to secure gifts

You will also have:

  • Created a preliminary communication schedule for your organization

  • Identified specific words, phrases, and tools to craft your appeal letters


Before beginning this 30-minute course, we ask that you to take the quick pre-assessment quiz to identify what topics you already know, and those where you will be able to build new knowledge. 

What is Direct Mail?

EnvelopeDirect mail is a fundraising technique that can bring your program closer to your donor’s home or office. But, in order to receive a return gift, your letter has to be opened and read.

Think about the last time you received a direct mail appeal letter - or a request for support - either physically or electronically.

  • What did the package looked like?

  • Can you recall how the letter was addressed to you?

  • What was the type of postage used?

  • If it was in an email, what was the subject line?

Did you open it? If so, why? If not, why not?

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Opening the Mailbox

Person opening a mailbox with a letter insideThe look and feel of direct mail materials, whether physically or virtually crafted, impacts its recipient.

Written appeals are intended to prompt a response. They could be used to gain financial or member support, recruit volunteers, or court potential community partners.

There are four key elements to an individual appeal letter:

PackagingTimingAudienceMaking the Ask
  • Envelope
  • Subject line
  • Letter or visual
  • Enclosures and links
  • Reply device
  • Reply envelope
  • Time of year
  • Day of the Week
  • Time of Day
  • Number of Communications
  • Who will receive the letter?
  • How and when will they be reached?
  • How will they be addressed?
  • What is the purpose of your appeal?
  • How much are you asking for?
  • Why shoud someone get involved?

Which Mailbox Should You Use?

The phrase “direct mail” may conjure an image of a physical envelope with a stamp on it. However, with the widespread expansion of virtual marketing, you may find that communication through email may suit your goals.

This chart outlines the various considerations for each type of mail:

Physical MailEmail
Handwritten notes create a personal touchLess expensive than bulk mailings
Reaches an audience that does not regularly utilize emailProvides a path to quickly reach a larger audience
Envelopes allow for assorted enclosuresAllows the user to be creative with design elements
Adheres to a traditional method of communicationReaches a “plugged in” audience

Often, a combination of these two methods is effective in reaching the most widespread audience.

The Direct Mail Package

Open envelope with letter insideWhether it is physically or virtually sent, your direct mail package includes the following pieces:


The Envelope

This is your first – and maybe your last – chance to appeal to a donor.

  • Your logo should be recognizable and a point of identification with your organization’s brand. For virtual mail, your organizational affiliation should be apparent from the subject line or sender’s email address.

  • A teaser is used to entice donors to open the letter. A well-crafted subject line or compelling picture may pique the recipient’s curiosity.

lightbulbTIP: Test Your Subject Lines

Once you have established a regular direct mail schedule, you may want to experiment with the effectiveness of your letter choices. According to a November 2012 article by Bloomberg BusinessWeek, President Barack Obama’s campaign team tested a variety of email subject headings, tracking which ones resulted in the most donations. The team concluded that subject lines with a casual tone were the most effective, with the cautionary advisement that trends can change over time.  

The Letter

An effective letter is your opportunity to involve your reader in your organization’s mission.

Enclosures, including handwritten notes or a newsletter, provide individuals with creative ways to learn more about your organization and feel personally invested.

lightbulbTIP: Know Your Photos

Take a close look at your collection of photos used for publicity. Make sure that your file of photos is revised regularly to avoid overuse of favorites.

For more tips on creating effective enclosures, check out The Power of Direct Mail, an interactive resource, on the VISTA Campus.

The Reply Device

Once you have planted the seed, provide your reader with a direct and easy way of giving back.

  • Your reply device should include a place for a respondent to enter their contact information and reason for replying.

  • The return envelope, sometimes called the BRE (business reply envelope), must include a reference to return postage. This could be a pre-paid postage envelope or an affixed stamp.

  • For virtual giving, a direct URL or a “Donate” button provides your audience with a way to learn more or make a donation.

The Letter: Who, What, and When

Person sitting at a desk with empty thought bubbleEffective direct mail campaigns require a careful thought and a thorough plan. You are now ready to begin crafting a campaign for your project. 

To get started, make sure to have the following tip sheets ready:


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The Audience: To Whom Do You Write?

Group of three people

How does your audience influence your communication method?


The Prospect List

Developing a prospect list is critical to the success of your campaign. Knowing to whom you are writing will help you determine what to write.

  • For a solid start, take a look at current and prior volunteers and supporters.

  • Capture names and addresses at every opportunity – you never know from where your next supporter will come!

  • Keep the prospect list as detailed as possible. Make sure to include all household partners.

  • Make sure your names are spelled correctly and that they include the proper salutation.


  • Google Drive provides a secure space to share spreadsheets or documents. If there are multiple people keeping track of a prospect list, this tool allows everyone to view and edit the most up-to-date version at any time.

  • Mailchimp and other such providers allow you to divide your prospect list into groups. This way, the organization can segment their communications and share them with a specialized list of supporters.

The Timing: When to Write

When developing a schedule, consider these tips:

  • Write consistently and often. Organizations that have a consistent direct mail program raise more money year after year.

  • Focus on fall and early winter communications. More than half of an organization’s annual gifts come in between the months of September and December.

  • Include non-appeals in your plan. Organizations that send out additional correspondence, such as newsletters and annual reports, generate more money from their direct mail campaigns. For further information, go to the non-appeals section of this course. 

  • Thank your supporters early and often. Acknowledgement of gifts should be ideally sent within 24 hours of receipt.

Your Communication Schedule

Developing a strategic communication schedule will create consistency in your outreach efforts.

To get started, here is a portion of a sample communication schedule:

Executive Director UpdateX X 
Direct Mailing to Donors X X
Thank You LettersXXXX
Newsletter with Reply Device  X 

Depending on your organization’s size and scope, you may need to create multiple schedules for different communication groups.

Consider your organization’s current communication mechanisms. Are there additional types of communication to supporters you would add?

Exercise iconYOUR TURN: Communication Schedule

Fill out the worksheet titled Sample Communication Schedule to begin developing a schedule for your own program.


Social Media Counts!

Social media outlets - such as Twitter, Facebook, and a blog – can be effective ways to communicate with your supporters without spending additional money.

Having a carefully-crafted social media presence shows your audience that your organization is dedicated to keeping supporters well-informed at all times, not just when appeal letters are circulated. Users can also “share” these updates through their own social media outlets, broadening your reach within your supporters’ circles of influence.

Here are some popular social media outlets and some examples of how they can be used effectively:

Social Media PlatformUsageFrequency of Updates
  • Post pictures, videos, and links to other sites to interact with stakeholders
  • Connect with prospective and current supporters
Two or three times per week
  • Share good news quickly!
  • Raise funds in crisis situations
  • Mobilize community members instantly
Two or three times per week



  • Provide online visuals of an organizational project and its impact in the community
  • Recruit a donor or supporter for a brief video discussing why they support your program
On a rolling basis



  • Collect visuals from a variety of projects and supporters
  • Utilize the “tagging” feature to easily identify photos by topic area for later use in additional communication avenues
On a rolling basis



  • Offer communications on activities, upcoming events, and community activities
  • Engage the community by opening a section for comments at the bottom of each post
Once per week
  • Curate relevant content from around the Web on a visually-appealing format
On a rolling basis

To keep your organization on track, develop a communication plan or schedule for your social media outlets – and stick to it! Be prepared to monitor which posts get the most attention.

The Ask: What to Write

Icon showing ask letterLetter Tips


  1. State the problem, the solution, and how your organization is responding.

  2. Share a story of success.

  3. Refer to the supporter directly using “you” statements.

  4. Keep your paragraphs short (11 lines maximum).

  5. Make your sentences short.

  6. Utilize white space.

  7. Describe what’s in it for the supporter.

Letter Review

The next page provides an example of an appeal letter that incorporates these tips. 

Sample Appeal Letter

Before reviewing this letter, make sure you download and print the Direct Mail Letter Review Worksheet from your packet. 

Pluses Wishes







Provides a sense of urgency and action


Speaks about success






Utilizes white space




Clearly states a solution



Includes an appeal to the reader to accept an offer to participate.



Asks for a specific amount of money


Shows how money is for direct services.






Includes a "P.S." that restates the ask

December 28, 2013


Dear Sam and Martha,

I’ve personally seen the incredible difference that free cleft surgery can make in as little as 45 minutes.

I’ve watched the tears stream down the cheeks of children who cannot believe their long nightmare has really ended. I’ve seen mothers who hardly recognize their babies after surgery. And I’ve seen how children who were born with clefts are able to start a brand new life.

By providing free surgical repair to children born with clefts, The Smile Train makes these amazing transformations happen more than 100 times every day all over the world. In virtually an instant , a child’s face changes from tears to a new and bright smile.

Since our establishment in 1999, The Smile Train has provided over 150,000 free cleft repair surgeries to desperately poor children living in developing countries. If it weren’t for The Smile Train, none of these kids would have an opportunity to attend school, make friends, or ever find a job.

Surgery gives them more than just a new smile – afterwards, they can speak without an impediment, eat properly, and not suffer from the incredible taunting of other children because of their disfiguring cleft.

The Smile Train has found a way to help end the suffering of tens of thousands of these children by providing cleft surgery that is safe, effective, and affordable.

It takes as little as 45 minutes.

It costs as little as $250.

It changes a child’s life forever.

By partnering with local doctors and hospitals in developing countries, we can provide free cleft surgery for a poor child for as little as $250. We empower local doctors to provide free treatment for poor children through free training, free medical equipment, and financial support. 

By working together, we’re able to provide surgery that might cost $10,000 or more in the United States for as little as $250.

But we need your help.

As one of our 2014 goals, we plan to help more than 40,000 children receive surgery, but there are millions more that need it. A donation from you – of any amount – will help us help more children.

Our founding supporters pay for all non-program expenses such as overhead, administration, and yes, even letters like this. Every dollar of your support directly benefits children born with clefts.

As we begin the new year will you help us give these children a second chance at life?

With compassion and hope as your guide, I hope you can send a generous gift of $250 to cover the cost of a complete cleft surgery…

…a gift of $125 can cover half of the cost of a cleft repair for one child…

…a gift of $75 can pay for the anesthesia and sutures needed to bring a smile to the face of a child with a cleft lip…

…a gift of $50 can pay for the anesthesia for one cleft surgery…

…or a gift of just $25 can provide for the sutures necessary for the surgical procedure to close a cleft palate on the roof of a child’s mouth.

In return, I will send you regular reports on how we used your gift to change the lives of children with clefts all over the world. I promise it will not only put a smile on the face of a child, it may just put one on yours, too.

Thank you,

Brian Mullaney

President and Co-founder

P.S. The attached card demonstrates how your support can make a world of difference in a child’s life. Please join us in this incredible uplifting experience by sending your best gift today. Thank you.





Would benefit from more "you"  statements to engage the reader early on






















Change "we hope" to "we urge" for strength

Exercise iconYOUR TURN: Letter Review

Once you are finished, use the Direct Mail Letter Review Worksheet  to begin crafting your own written appeal. What key phrases or words best capture your specific ask?

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Segment Your Mailing

Personal attention gets better results than a general appeal. Therefore, you may find it appropriate to provide different letters to different donors, depending on their level of gift or their history with your organization.

  • New donor prospects, such as those who signed up for a mailing list, will receive a general letter introducing them to your organization or program.

  • General donors, or those who give regularly, will receive a timely and unique acknowledgement of their generosity, with a gentle encouragement to increase their gift.

  • Larger donors will receive first-class letters with a personally signed note from the director or a volunteer.

  • Irregular donors, or those who give some years, will receive messages that they’ve been missed and should include encouragement to renew their support

Follow Up

Person putting a letter into a large mailboxOnce you have secured support, be sure to promptly express your appreciation. This section provides tips to showing your gratitude to support of all levels.


Express Your Appreciation

A thank you letter is also a support letter. Prompt and meaningful appreciation is an important way to honor your supporters.

Be sure to:

  • Include the date. If you physically send a letter of gratitude, it may take some time to arrive at your supporter’s home. Be sure to place a date on the letter itself to highlight your prompt response time

  • Praise the donor’s generosity

  • Describe the impact of their gift

  • Reaffirm your gratitude using a “P.S.” statement at the end of the letter

TIP: Add a Subtle Request

When a donor or supporter receives a thank-you letter, adding another request for donations may be off-putting. However, you can still encourage supporters to continue “donating” their support. Include a reference to your social media outlets or website if appropriate. This will keep your audience engaged and ready to support your organization at all times.

For more tips on creating your letter of gratitude, check out The Power of Direct Mail on the VISTA Campus.

Five Ways to Say "Thank You!"

  1. Send a formal thank you letter. This is required by law for gifts over $250. Always have a handwritten signature and an informal postscript, such as “Thanks for your continued support!”

  2. Acknowledge upgrades or continued giving. Consider directly recognizing a donor’s total contribution. For example: “Thank you for increasing your donation to $50!” These notes can be incorporated into the body of the letter or added by hand.

  3. Use the phone. Turn the concept of a solicitation phone call upside down. You will surprise and delight many donors with a quick acknowledgement call or brief message.

  4. Acknowledge donors in your newsletter. Before doing this, check with your supporter first, as they may wish to remain anonymous.

  5. Invite contributors to a program or activity. Use every opportunity you can to showcase your group in action. Ask them to join you at a meeting, rally, or even just to tour your facilities. 

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Course Summary

Icon for Course SummaryWe hope that you now feel comfortable exploring the following tasks in your own work:

  • Determining the look and feel of your direct mail materials, whether they are physical or virtual, on different groups of potential supporters

  • Creating a communication schedule for different direct mail campaigns

  • Developing and segmenting a prospect list to identify the right audience for your campaign

  • Crafting an appeal letter that effectively captures a reader’s attention

  • Following up with supporters through a thank you letter

Additional Resources

Additional Resources iconImportant IRS Reporting Information


Additional VISTA Campus Resources



  • Mailchimp offers free guides to online marketing, very basic HTML coding for newsletters, and other helpful tips for online marketing campaigns.

  • Constant Contact provides a blog with tips and guides to managing virtual giving.

Test Your Learning

Congratulations - you've completed this course! Now, test your learning with this brief assessment. 

The Fine Print

This material is based upon training and technical assistance supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

The Corporation for National and Community Service is a federal agency that helps more than 5 million Americans improve the lives of their fellow citizens through service. Working hand in hand with local partners, CNCS taps the ingenuity and can-do spirit of the American people to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing the nation. CNCS invests in thousands of nonprofit and faith-based groups that are making a difference across the country.

Campaign Consultation, Inc. has extensive experience in helping people acquire the confidence, skills, and resources to design and advance “out of the box” strategies for goal achievement. Since 1998, Campaign Consultation, Inc. continues to serve as the training/ technical assistance provider for all areas related to resource gathering for the Corporation for National and Community Service. 

Copyright © 2014

Campaign Consultation, Inc.

All rights reserved

Campaign Consultation, Inc. grants permission for photocopying, for limited or internal use, by participants of training events provided by Campaign Consultation. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works or for resale. Requests for permission or further information should be addressed in written form to:

Director of Operations

Campaign Consultation, Inc.

1001 N. Calvert Street

Baltimore, Maryland 21202

T.410.243.7979 F.410.243.1024

Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Corporation for National and Community Service. 

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