Your Direct Mail Donors Should Be Arrested (By Your Letter Opening)

Alan Sharpe

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The first time I was shelled by enemy artillery, I learned a vital lesson that applies to the success of your fundraising letters.

I was lying in a slit trench on Mount Wall, about 35 kilometres west of the town of Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. The year was 1982, the Falklands War. The Argentines were lobbing 105mm Pack Howitzer shells around my position, trying to dislodge my Royal Marines Commando troop.

But their fire was ineffective.

You see, the soil in the Falkland Islands consists largely of peat bogs. The soil is dense and wet and soft underfoot. That means the enemy’s artillery rounds penetrated the soil before detonating, sending most of their force and shrapnel upwards rather than horizontally, in my direction.

When you want to leave a lasting impression on your target audience, you must use the right ammunition. If the Argentines had used the kind of artillery shells that explode above the ground rather than in it, you would not be reading this article today.

So here is the principle applied in practice, in the battle for the mind of your target audience. You must open your fundraising letters in such a way that you compel your donors to read on right to the end, and take action. Your opening sentence is the most vital sentence in your letter. If you use the wrong ammunition here, your letter will misfire.

So start your letters with your largest cannon. Grab your prospect’s attention so that he simply has to read on.

Here are some creative examples of ways to do that.

Pose a provocative question
“What happens when a snow leopard catches a cold, a walrus has a toothache or a 3,000-pound rhino comes down with an intestinal disorder?”

Start with an arresting story
“She stood on the curb looking scared and lonely in a skimpy halter top and bright red lipstick. It was two in the morning. A chilly breeze whipped up in the street and seemed to make her shiver. She was a child . . . just a child. We pulled our Covenant House van up to the curb and rolled down the window . . . . ”

Open with a scintillating (and relevant) quote
“’I complained because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet. ’ Perhaps your parents taught you this when you were young. Mine did. It keeps things in perspective, and I have learned, in my better moments, not to complain. ”

Present an arresting fact
“America’s neglect is killing our children. In the past year, 40,000 babies like Andrew died before their first birthday. Virtually no other industrial nation lets so many of its babies die. ”

About the author
Alan Sharpe is a professional fundraising letter writer, instructor and mentor who helps non-profit organizations raise funds, build relationships and retain loyal donors using creative fundraising letters. Learn more about his services, view free sample fundraising letters , and sign up for free weekly tips like this at


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