What’s in My Mailbox | Here’s how to get your envelope opened

August 25, 2022

Close-up Of Woman Putting Letter In Mailbox

At the end of the day, when you’re sorting your mail over the recycling bin, what is it that compels you to read that one solicitation letter and go to your phone to make an online gift?

Or set it aside to later write a check?

#TruthBomb. You can have the most heartfelt, compelling copy in the world, a beautiful reply device, and accompanying materials and it won’t make a bit of difference if your appeal is tossed into the trash, unopened.

According to direct mail guru Mal Warwick, despite the efforts of graphic designers everywhere to design an envelope that everyone will open, his research shows that what everyone looks for first is how their own name is spelled!

And, in his new book, Creative Deviations:: how you can infuse your storytelling, fundraising and direct response with more creativity, the ultimate masterpiece for direct response fundraisers, John Lepp writes:

If I get the envelope wrong, then all the other hard work that went into that appeal will be for nothing. All the strategizing, all the segmentation, all the storytelling… for nothing.

An outer envelope can include something known as a “teaser” (Receive a Free Backpack When You Join Now, The Favor of a Reply is Requested, COVID Emergency, are a few examples of teasers.)

When teasers are good, they have an almost irresistible curiosity factor. But they often fall flat and are best left to professionals unless you really know your audience.

A better never-fail technique for getting your outer envelopes opened is to use hand-addressed envelopes.

I’ve been doing this with clients for years. When your database is still on the smaller side (think under 500 donors) gather your board together and put them to work hand-addressing envelopes. Don’t be afraid to pen a short note on the back of the envelope.

I’ve insisted on hand-addressed envelopes whenever possible and have mailed to databases as large as 5,000 using hand-addressed envelopes —and a whole lot of volunteers. Other options are to reserve mailings to your best/major/most loyal donors for the hand-written touch. Your print house may also offer a handwriting font.

How can you guarantee your envelope will be opened?

Postage: Nothing signals “junk” quite like a self-mailer or bulk mail. Whenever possible, use a live stamp. Nonprofit precanceled stamps look like regular stamps and come in self-adhesive stamp rolls of 500, 3,000, or 10,000, but again, and can be used by nonprofits that have applied and been approved to use the nonprofit rate.


I learned this lesson from our friends at Agents of Good. How will your envelope stand out in a sea of sameness? Use a 9”x6” envelope. John Lepp has noted that “Testing tells us that almost anything other than a white #10 will do better in the mail.”


If there’s anything “Dear Friend” signals it’s that you’re not. You’ve got your data, use it!

How can you take it a step further? Segment out your most loyal donors for a special note on the envelope (“Thank you for your loyalty!”). It goes without saying that your best donors and monthly supporters are receiving letters tailored to their giving.

Make it “Lumpy”

How can you make a piece of mail irresistible and guarantee that it will be opened? When I owned a graphic design business one of my clients was the founder of something known as Lumpy Mail®. That’s where I learned the tactic of special “lumpy” packs. When your mail arrives in a “lumpy” envelope, the curiosity factor is off the charts. What a way to delight your donors!


Take advantage of the post office’s nonprofit precanceled stamps. They look like regular mail which gives your envelope another “edge. Print shops usually have machines that can apply precanceled stamps to mail pieces. And, for your best donors, consider first class stamps.

We labor over and test different subject lines in an effort to get our emails opened. Put the same amount (if not more) of care into the envelope for your fundraising letter.

For more ideas on getting your envelope opened, check out Creative Deviations by John Lepp.

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