Smeared Ink, Human Connection and Donor Love


Editor’s Note: the following is a guest post from John Lepp of Agents Of Good.  John’s book, Creative Deviations, is a master class in how to *think* about fundraising.  Yes there are lots of tactics and cool ideas to steal.  But if you can start thinking the way John thinks you will unlock your ability to raise money.  ~Steven

I like talking about the 1,000 things you can do in your direct response program because it speaks to the obsessiveness you must have about our craft. It also highlights the humanness of our craft.

Everyone is looking to automate since it is less work, more profitable (HIGHLY debatable) and faster…

BUT: human connection and love are not check boxes, my friends. There are no short cuts, magic bullets or quick ways to build meaningful connections with other people.

I want to share a few examples with you.

My pal Francesco Ambrogetti (formerly the director of development at UNICEF Italy) created a “Donorlove Department.” He would test all sorts of things to see what would increase a donor’s lifetime value and retention rates.

And he found that he could do that by doing two of the simplest, most human things possible.

He would send a handwritten card within 48 hours of getting a gift. The card simply shared that the donor’s specific gift was received, expressed gratitude and appreciation and reiterated what the gift was used for. He would also call donors on their birthday or the anniversary of their gift. A phone call. To say thank you.

A card. A phone call.

These two things helped him see a 30% increase in retention and 50% increase in the lifetime value.

A card and a phone call. Forget all the shiny objects and gee-whiz factor of technology…

A couple other ones I like to share are things like paperclips. Or stamps. Or smeared ink.

A card or photo or insert paperclipped to your letter sends a signal to your donor that a human was involved – quite simply since machines CANNOT attach paper clips to things.

A stamp (or many, many stamps) on your envelope WILL get looked at and noticed. The more the merrier… especially when placed willy-nilly and on angles. Machines and computers do not do things WILLY NILLY… Humans do!

I am left-handed. So whenever I address an envelope or write in a card, I smear my ink all over the place. Computers don’t do that. They are perfect.

Imperfections make for incredibly effective (and profitable) direct response. They will help you raise a lot more money.

These are just a few quick examples of things I have included in Creative Deviations. You can find it on Amazon or Apple Books around the world.

I would love for you to get yourself a copy, dive in and tell me ( what you think. Unless you hate it.

Editor’s Note: Steven here again. Get John’s book. Really. 

Legacy Seeds

Legacy Seeds

Editor’s Note: the following is a guest post from John Lepp of Agents Of Good.  John’s book, Creative Deviations, is a must have if you’d like to get better at raising money through the mail and email. 

Before we cultivate, we must plant. And when it comes to legacy giving, the best time to plant the seeds for legacy gifts was about 20 years ago. HOWEVER… it’s not too late. You can still start today – but please start.

I wanted to share with you a few ideas on how you can plant some seeds that will help your legacy giving program start to grow immediately.

Your donors are, in fact, real humans that have their own story to tell. We do a remarkable job talking about our story all the time but often leave little space for them share bits of theirs with us.

They can also be moved by the smallest of gestures at times.

Let us never forget, your charity is a vehicle for your donor to do something that they care deeply and passionately about. They care about your cause and want to take action for something they believe in. They want to help. They want to fix something. They want to make an impact, and they want to feel good about it.


Our job is to connect to our donor’s values and emotions in every conversation we have with them, for the first time, for the 100th time. Not just when we want to have a conversation about legacies.

So, one of the greatest lessons you can learn is that money follows value. It was one I learned a very long time ago. And when you believe that to be true, your life and your fundraising program will be transformed.

24 hours before every organization like yours was founded, a bunch of restless people got together and insisted on action. They knew they had to do more for something they believed in: human rights, social justice, saving the environment, the health of loved ones.

These are not transactions. These are things that define us as individual humans. These are things that speak to our core values that we are emotionally connected to.

Tell stories that connect to the shared values of your donors. Demonstrate how their gifts allow you to put those values into action.

Legacy seeds are tiny seeds planted in your donor’s heart that, if tended properly, will grow into something beautiful.

An effective annual program should be constantly planting these seeds. I’m talking about something beyond that basic legacy check box on the bottom right corner on the back of your tiny reply form. Seriously… that’s not how you run a legacy program.

Here are a few examples.

Hopefully you send your donors a simple but moving thank you letter that gushes some appreciation for a recent gift (please, oh please tell me you do at least this) and lets them understand the impact of that gift. You might also send it along with a receipt for that gift for taxation purposes.

I’d like you to consider adding a simple “buckslip” (so named since it literally was the same size and shape of a dollar bill) to your mailing.

The message on the buckslip should point out the importance of a legacy gift to your organization regardless of size, what a legacy gift will help do and absolutely should invite personal contact to a real human at your organization. Ensure you include a photograph of that person so the donor can see who they will be talking to if and when they call.

This is a pretty big “seed” to a donor who just made a $50 gift to the holiday appeal, but it is very intentional.

Another place to plant a legacy seed is in your donor newsletter (please, oh please tell me you an actual donor newsletter), which already gushes love and appreciation for the hard work of your donors.

This type of newsletter is a fantastic vehicle for celebrating all donors of all shapes and sizes – not (or never ideally) just the ones who come baring large cheques and entourages.

We often place articles about volunteers, monthly donors, annual donors and legacy donors on the back page where the reader is least likely to miss it.

Your donor gets to read a lovely story that shares the “why” of this donor deciding to leave or give a gift to your organization. Other donors will be nodding along to their story, recognizing bits of themselves in her words and her shared values. Once again, space should be provided to invite personal feedback.

Another opportunity in your print materials would be your gratitude report.

One example of a good gratitude report is a collection of donor voices. Undoubtedly, they will represent just a sampling of the completely normal and utterly amazing humans who support your organization!

Sharing a story of a donor or two or three and the “why” of their legacy gift is an easy way to remind donors that these types of donors are valued by your org.

Two final examples.

If you print your own membership magazine, you can hopefully find space to do some advertising for your legacy program. The ad should be direct, inspiring and share your organizational vision for the future and why legacy gifts are so important. Once again, it should invite a personal connection to a real human that is standing by to talk more about this.

Lastly, let us not forget there are a lot of other channels for reaching out to current and new potential donors for your organization. Digital options are Google Ads, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, moving Youtube ads as well as traditional channels like press ads in community newspapers, short or long format direct response television ads again on small community channels – these are all great vehicles for planting seeds for having these types of conversations.

The next 20 years will witness humankind’s largest generation to pass to whatever greatness lies beyond these pastures – you have the beautiful privilege of allowing these inspiring people we call donors leave something remarkable behind.

The “past” truly can be a part of a glorious future.

TOP 10 list of design mistakes I see in direct response over and over again

John Lepp is a fundraiser you should pay attention to. And he has a blog you should subscribe to.

His bio says he’s a long-time marketer, designer, and ranter. All those things are true.

John gets righteously fired up about the design of your fundraising. And here’s a fantastic guest post from him on the design mistakes we all make (I’m guilty of #3).

I’m proud to point out that I’ve been a student of direct response and direct marketing for more than 20 years. That’s a lot of ideas, testing, concepts, tactics, tricks, tips, nerd knowledge, and history packed into this tiny brain of mine.

As a designer and communicator, I understand my job is to make sure something gets:
– seen
– understood
– acted upon
– results

My job isn’t to make something pretty. My job is to make sure something works. That’s what a designer does.

I go through my mother-in-law’s (your donor) mail quite regularly and see the same “design” errors over and over again. And knowing how much we all love a SOLID TOP 10 list, here’s my TOP 10 list of design mistakes I see in direct response over and over again.

1. Too much clutter in pursuit of “interesting” design
Through the years, I’ve heard that my design solution is too boring, too plain, or too simple. I’ve been told to make it more interesting, to SEXIFY it, to add, you know, something to make it “STAND OUT” – mostly uttered by people who have no idea what good and effective design is.

I see a lot of mail that is WAY over-designed.

In testing, I’ve seen over and over that, a simple, larger envelope with just a logo and return address will beat almost ANYTHING else.

A letter that looks like a personal letter from you to me is far more effective and gets better results.

At the end of the day, THE BEST, THE MOST EFFECTIVE direct response looks like a personal piece of communication from you to me.

Leave the Starbursts to the candy manufacturer.

2. A total lack of understanding of what makes an effective tagline or image on your outer envelope
A great and effective tagline can be one or maybe a couple of different things. It should provoke the donor to take action (hopefully by opening the envelope, obviously). It can ask a provocative question, it can make the pack seem mysterious, it can be the phrase from a commonly known song, or it can tell the donor that there’s something unique inside just for them.

Tagline writing is an art form. Even the absolute best direct response folks know at the end of the day it had better be perfect, or you might be better off sending an envelope without one altogether (to my point above).

Using a perfect image can instantly stop your donor in their tracks and get them to consider and open your pack. Images with great eye contact and large enough to be seen from a distance are a great starting point.

Abstract images or photos with a hundred people in them printed at 1.5”x 1.5” are not great starting points.

3. Using a white #10 envelope
As I’ve already covered, in testing, almost ANYTHING other than a white #10 envelope will win in testing. Why? Because 75-90% of the mail your donor gets arrives in a white #10 envelope. No rocket science needed here, folks. Just the knowledge that there are visual things you can do to stand out from the crowd.

4. Direct response that looks too design-y or computer manufactured
The best design tool I ever held in my hand was an HP Pencil. Sharpened and ready for action. The pencil, like my hand, are imperfect. The smudges, the changes in character size, the squiggles, the changes in density all tell you that a human wrote or created this thing.

When you go to your mailbox at the end of the day – what do you look at first?

Everything in our world is perfect. Everything lines up, everything looks good, and everything is glossy. These days, the more your work isn’t that, the more noticeable it is.

Designers who don’t know what they’re doing go out of their way to make everything look perfect, but that doesn’t equate into effective.

5. Using tiny, left-justified, sans serif type
In your letters, newsletters, magazines, and brochures!

But hey! At least it adheres to your soul-destroying graphic standards produced by a commercial design study that wouldn’t know a donor even if they walked up and asked to give you some money to make it all go away.

Look around. Almost everyone over the age of 40 has some type of visual impairment. There is a reason why there’s a large print version of Readers Digest.

Not a single direct mail letter we send out is printed at anything less than a 14-point indented serif font. Our donors thank us by reading it and responding to it.

Ask your designer what their favorite typeface is. If they respond: COURIER – hire them. They likely know what they’re doing. (If you don’t know why this is the correct answer, just ask me.)

6. Reversed out type
Sure it looks pretty. But as you’ve figured out by now, a lot of donors find reversed out type extremely difficult to read. JUST DON’T DO IT. All type should be 100% black on 100% white, which will result in 100% readability.

7. A total lack of understanding on how donors are reading your letter
Ask your designer who Siegfried Vögele is. I’ll wait…

Ok, there’s this book called the Handbook of Direct Mail (I’ll make you a deal on my copy), written by a fellow named Siegfried Vögele back in 1984. In German. But there are English versions! I haven’t read it cover to cover, but I’ve read enough to understand the concept of eye movement.

The Coles Notes version of this is, your donor looks at their name and address at the top, their eye falls down and to the right as they scan the letter, turn it over, and read the P.S.

Some donors, right then, decide to give or not to give.

So let your ‘P.S.’ hating Executive Director know why you need one that clearly states what you’re asking your donor for.

Then, you have the skimmers.

They look at their name and address, and as their eyes fall down and to the right, they linger on things that arrest the eyes. Emphasis of any kind. Bolding, underlining, hand-drawn stars, larger type, etc.

I always ensure that if this is all that the donor reads, they will know what I’m asking them for and that I recognize them for being someone who does good things (in other words, anywhere the magical “YOU” is utilized.).

The first rule of design is: READ THE LETTER FIRST! Everything should be designed around that.

8. Using those crappy little boxes on the donor reply form for credit card numbers
When you consider that close to 40% of people have arthritis, (higher the older you go up), forcing donors to somehow squiggle their handwriting into those tiny little boxes on their reply is almost downright cruelty.

You’re literally hurting your donors.

And a lot just won’t bother. So you won’t get the gift.

Those little boxes sure look neat and tidy, but they are a visual and physical hell to certain donors.

Hey, the more you know…

So – nicely tell your designers – just a simple line with about 0.5” space at least above it will be great, thanks.

9. A total lack of understanding of good typography principles and practices
When I first started, I worked with this amazing English art director named Richard. With a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, he would snatch the loupe out of my hand and implore and show me how I needed to get right up close to the type to UNDERSTAND IT! Look at the characteristics, the nuances, the swoops, and empty spaces. Is it angry or hopeful? Is it showing off and chest-thumping or understated and shy? Female or male or something else altogether? How much leading (no, not ‘letting’) does it properly need? How and why do you baseline type? What types of face go together? What makes a font a classic?

I see appeals that use six different sorts of typefaces, even on the outer envelope. I see random bolding, underlining, or switches in face that make absolutely zero sense.

What I see are designers who are eagerly trying to “design” but obviously have no idea (back to point 5) why “Courier,” to most really good direct response designers, is easily the MOST beautiful font in the world. (Again, if you’re still scratching your head, just holler.)
And lastly,

10. Random formatting, placement of design elements, boxes, circles, swooshes, and blobs
Yes, I know who you are.

And yes, I know why you’re doing it.

I think we overcomplicate things when we actually don’t really know what we are doing. This doesn’t go just for design – I see it over and over again in our sector.

The more we over-design (or overcomplicate) something, it only does one thing – it decreases the likelihood of someone taking the action you want them to take because it’s just too much.

Every single design element you or your designer add to something must be very carefully considered. Will adding it increase the response rate or decrease it?

If the answer is “I don’t know” – then either test it or leave it.

And if your designer really knows their stuff, they will know. Or just ask me.