Is it best practice to thank, report AND ask in your donor newsletter?

One expert says NO! I say, YOU GOTTA!

Hi Tom,

I wonder if you could give us your thoughts on this. Recently I heard a webinar by Lynne Wester where she vehemently defended the idea that a true donor thank you cannot include an ask, even a soft ask.

That means in donor newsletters no envelopes or reply devices, and in donor e-newsletters no Donate Now buttons.
I have to admit this idea appeals to me and we are thinking of testing it. But this goes against your formula as we understand it, and we are wondering if you have any feedback we need to consider?

Thanks so much!
Lorraine McCallum

Fund Development Coordinator

Alzheimer Society (Ontario, Canada)

Dear Lorraine…

First of all, in my book, if Lynne Wester says something, it must be true. She IS that good.

Still, with all due respect and enduring admiration….

I’ve come to a very different conclusion. Here’s why….

Meet the Domain Group.

The Domain Group was this amazing Seattle-based direct-mail fundraising agency that rose to prominence during the 1990s. By 2005 it had grown to a staff of 85. Then a competitor bought it out. Top talent scattered. Some, like Jeff Brooks and Bob Ball, went to work for growth-hungry national firms. Other alums started new agencies: Steven Screen and Domain co-founder Richard Perry, for instance.

The relevance? Way back in 1999, I stumbled into a presentation by the Domain Group, given at the AFP (then NSFRE) international conference in Miami.

During that miraculous, career-changing-for-me presentation, the Domain Group revealed something truly astonishing to the audience….

>> Brace yourself.

Some of the Domain Group’s clients were actually making MORE in donations via print newsletters than via their direct mail appeals.

>> OK, now you can breathe again.

Through rigorous testing, the white witches and wizards at the Domain Group had figured out the EXACT formula for lucrative print donor newsletters.

It sounded preposterous. Counter-intuitive. “You’re joking, right!?!?”

Nope. Absolutely true. Domain had the data. Stunned, I packed away my presumptions, my assumptions, my country-mouse da-dumptions … and embraced Domain’s methods.

I raced back from Miami with the Domain Formula in hand and found a client willing to test the idea. (Thank you forever, Nisia!) We tried it with a small, inner-city Boys & Girls Club. Held our breath. Lo and behold … the Domain formula worked!!! We made good money with each and every newsletter mailing. This was our modest envelope….


Eventually I even wrote a book about donor newsletters … to spread the word; in its 2nd edition, that book now talks about digital newsletters as well as print. But nothing much has changed: my book still celebrates Domain’s breakthrough formula. Domain’s presentation in Miami was the pebble. I was a willing pond.Layout 1

The Domain Formula has proven profitable to many charities in the years since. I’ve heard success tales from fundraisers in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. They’ve all taken the plunge … and experimented successfully with the Domain Formula. The results they’ve seen: stronger immediate giving … better donor retention down the line … and more response in the bequest realm.

And all those newsletters include a reply device.


Someone who took the Domain Formula and made it her own.

Michelle Brinson is the genius editor behind the Heart of the Mission‘s printed newsletter. The cover of her May 2016 issue appears at the top of this article.

Here’s the happy bottom line: every $1 she spends on her newsletter generates almost $7 in added giving!!!!! Her monthly newsletter alone hauls in more than $2 million annually in extra giving … put to excellent use helping Nashville’s homeless stabilize battered lives.

BUT … for want of an envelope, that $2 million in badly needed help would go uncollected.

That’s why I respectfully disagree with the “no envelope” policy mentioned in Lorraine’s letter.

Michelle has generously shared some of the other elements in her monthly newsletter mailing.

The outbound envelope:





The reply device:





A few more thoughts on the power of thanking

Lisa Sargent, a specialist on thanking, says, as a rule, “never, ever, include an ask in a thank you. And never, ever, include a donation reply slip.” However, she adds, “I reserve the right to change my mind based on results.”
Jeff Brooks has had different results. “We’ve found,” he wrote in 2014, “that it’s BEST to include a reply coupon in receipts (plus a return envelope). It dramatically increases response, which leads to better retention. The thing NOT to do is use standard ask techniques, like sad stories, negative photos, urgency, etc. The tenor of the package must be thankfulness and good news. The ask is just ‘My next gift.’ You’re talking to someone who really gets it, and is emotionally well positioned to give again.”
Lisa continues to test her “never” premise, but so far it’s held up with her clients. One client does add a Business Reply Envelope to every thank you, as a convenience if someone wishes to send a check. But there is no reply device with the envelope, nor does the thank you letter ask for a gift.
Like Lisa, keep an open mind. Angel Aloma, executive director at Food for the Poor, reports, “On average, we get more than one fifth of our net income from direct mail from our thank you letters….” Like Lisa, he does not make an ask in these letters; but he does include an envelope and a reply device.
Consider one more bit of data.

In 2012, Angel ran a test with 50,000 of that charity’s top donors:

  • 25,000 received an extra thank you at the beginning of the year. This mailing was a simple expression of gratitude for past generosity. There was no ask or reply device included.
  • 25,000 did NOT receive this extra thanks.

Twelve months later, Angel reviewed the results.
Both groups had given the same number of gifts. But, tantalizingly, the group that received the extra thank-you note was more generous. That group gave almost $450,000 more in total during the year than the group that did not receive the extra thank you.

What do you think of that? Time for an extra thank you?

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