Many fundraisers spend entirely too much time on their direct mail letters. Is the signatory a good storyteller? Is the ask strong enough? The subject compelling? I’m guilty of this as well. But, in reality, nothing much matters if the donor (or prospective donor) never opens your envelope!

Today’s post is all about how best to ensure that your outer envelope piques your donors’ curiosity, so they’re compelled to open it and read on.

Is about pulling at the heart strings? Maybe. More often than not though, it’s about the right combination of words or wordplay.

Here are 5 proven ways to get your next direct mail envelope opened, including specific examples that have performed well for us.

Start the story on the outside

Why not start the telling of a great story on the outer envelope, to capture a donor’s attention right off the bat?

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This prospect package was from a local women’s shelter and included a letter from a “dining room table”. The letter touched on all of the stories told and overheard around the table, the tears of joy, sadness, grief and anger, the support provided, laughter shared and lives rebuilt.

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This package recounted the story of a young man who had been in a terrible car accident. As a volunteer member of the local fire department, his father was called to the scene of the accident and realized that his son was the victim.

Sum up the contents in just a few compelling words

This works especially well when positioned as a question.

Here are a couple of examples to give you an idea of how you can use questions to get donors or prospects thinking.


This package featured a story about a woman living in Bangladesh. Through donor support of a local charity, she received a loan that enabled her to purchase 35 ducks. Those ducks now produce approximately a dozen eggs a day. With this, she’s able to support her family on the money she makes from the sale of her eggs.

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This package featured a letter from the executive director of a shelter for abused women and their children. In this letter, the signatory talked about why women may stay in an abusive relationship (Incidentally, this is one of the main questions donors and prospective donors ask themselves and the subject of a recent public poll aimed at breaking down some of the myths), why they finally choose to leave, and how donations help to break the cycle of violence.

Tap into emotions and feelings

Even better, conjure up a visual! People give to people. As fundraisers, we know this to be true. Focusing on the emotions that all of us experience such as fear, anger and love can help draw the reader in and encourage them to read on.

Your life can change in just 60 seconds

This package featured a letter from a man who suffered a cardiac arrest at just 32 years old. He had just finished working out at his local gym, and was on his way out the door to work. In just 60 seconds, he very nearly lost his life, but thanks to the quick actions of an off-duty firefighter, he lived to tell his story.

Our one wish was to take <child’s name> outside

This package included a letter signed by the mom of a former children’s hospital patient. Her son was born with a serious heart problem. A few short weeks after he was born, the family learned that he was not eligible for a heart transplant and would not live much longer. Doctors asked the parents what they would like for him and they decided they’d like to take him outside. After seeing him outdoors, a feeling came over his mom and dad and they knew it was the right place to let him go. They had doctors remove his breathing tube and spent the rest of the day holding their son in their arms.

State a fact or quote that piques interest

It doesn’t have to make perfect sense. Let me give you an example. As part of a recent package for a client, I chose the following teaser:

If a kidney could talk, this is what it would say.

When I tested this with my husband, he responded with: “But I have no idea what a kidney would say. What would it say? I’d have to open the envelope to find out.” Bingo!

Here’s another example of how this works.

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This is an envelope teaser chosen for a client whose work includes protecting natural areas, forests and trees. The teaser copy relates back to the letter, but only hints at the content. You want your donor to have to open the envelope to find out what it’s all about.

Leave the envelope blank

Yep, just a plain white envelope. No teaser and no image.

We’ve tested a plain envelope vs. a teaser and/or image, and the plain envelope often outperforms the latter. Why? Plain old curiosity. Donors are intrigued about what’s inside the envelope, and without teaser copy, you haven’t given them any clues. You wouldn’t always want to include a plain envelope, but it’s something you may want to test for yourself.

We’re always researching and testing concepts – tried and true or new and fresh. If you have any other examples that have worked well for you, we’d love to hear about them!

This post was written by Heather Brown, former Philanthropic Counsel at Good Works and fundraiser extraordinaire.