4 Things Your Cover Letter Needs To Do (and 1 Thing it Shouldn’t)

What’s the hardest working piece of any direct mail package? Your cover letter. The first thing your donor sees when they open the envelope, your cover letter can do some heavy lifting—if it’s done right.

Here are four things your cover letter needs to do (and one it shouldn’t).

1. Connect Individually

The cover letter of a marketing package is usually the one piece of content that comes with a signature. It’s your opportunity to bring the depth of your organization into a singular voice. It should come from “I”, representing one person speaking personally to the donor.

So, who should the “I” be? We’ve found that one of these three gets the best results:

  1. A respected, well-known member of your nonprofit that the donor will recognize by name.
  2. A donor who has given a gift. This helps establish social proof.
  3. The person who will answer the phone when the donor calls to learn more.

Tip: Read the cover letter out loud. Does it sound conversational, friendly? Are you tripping over words? You are likely using language you wouldn’t actually use in a conversation. Struggling to take a breath? Your sentences may be too long.

2. Get Personal

Know who you are mailing to. Make the cover letter about them and how their partnership is crucial to future success. This means no “Dear Friend.” Those two little words immediately make the reader feel like a number, not a friend (ironically). If you don’t know their name, why would they bother reading any further?

Tip: Use variable data and list segmentation. This allows you to welcome the reader in a way that says you know and value them. Beyond just their name, variable data and segmentation can help you localize the message, offer giving opportunities by age and tailor content based on the stage of the donor journey your reader is at. While segmenting may take a bit more of your budget, the ability to speak more personally to the recipient is worth the cost.

3. Tell a Story

Use your cover letter as a narrative. Tell a story about the need you (a student, an animal, a patient, the environment) are facing and explain how the donor can help. The best stories make us feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Science shows that when we hear a story that resonates with us, our levels of oxytocin increase. Oxytocin is the “feel-good” hormone responsible for boosting feelings of trust, compassion and empathy.

In his research, Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, professor and the CEO of Immersion Neuroscience, found that “…the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.”

Zak explains this concept further in his video, “Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc: Paul Zak at the Future of StoryTelling 2012.”

4. Prompt Action

Be clear on what you want the donor to do—call you, return the reply card for more information, attend a special event. Most readers skim, so make sure you are clear on the action you want them to take and then repeat it (and repeat it again).

P.S. Include the call to action in the P.S. Not using a P.S.? Here’s why you should.

What Your Cover Letter Should Not Do

Make the sale. A cover letter won’t close a planned gift. What it will do (if it’s good) is earn you a phone call, email or reply card response. And that gets you your next conversation and takes your donor a little further along their donor journey.

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