How NOT to Push The Envelope

Non-profit organizations can sometimes learn things about direct mail from their commercial counterparts. But not every technique that’s effective in a business mailing works when it comes to a charitable one. Take outer envelopes.

Many commercial mailers have enjoyed success over the years by tricking recipients into opening their envelopes. The tricks have worked because Mr. or Ms. Consumer will open the envelope out of curiosity or because they think it contains something they want. Yes, most are disappointed upon learning the truth, but enough people respond to make the devious methods worthwhile to the mailer.

So why shouldn’t non-profits stoop to the same level if the tactics work? Because the companies that employ such approaches are happy with a one-time sale. Non-profits, however, need to work on long-term relationships. And you don’t build a trusting relationship on chicanery.

Here are a few envelope approaches to avoid:


They give no hint as to who the sender is. No logo. No name. No teaser. Not having a clue as to who mailed them, the curious recipient opens the envelope. It’s only then that they discover who the author is and why they’ve written them.

I received such an envelope just the other day from a well-known non-profit. It left me full of questions.

Why didn’t they put their logo on the OE? Are they ashamed of who they are? Or don’t they realize that, as a donor, I welcome messages from the charities that I support? 

Even if I weren’t a donor, a message on the outside might have put me into a frame of mind to pay attention to their appeal instead of wondering which snakeoil salesperson was trying to sell me something.

And what if I’d mistaken their package for junk mail and had thrown it out before opening it? More importantly, what are they going to do if, like me, donors become so ticked off at being tricked that they refuse to donate the next time they’re asked?

Or what’s the charity going to do if, on the other hand, the technique works? They can’t do it again, because the intrigue factor will be gone and people will recognize them as the sender.

Stealth envelopes are one-trick ponies in every sense of the word. And, shortsightedly, the non-profit that used it on me went for a single transaction instead of working to reinforce our relationship. They showed me that they view our relationship as a parasitic one in which I provide a donation and get no respect in return, instead of a symbiotic one in which each party contributes and both benefit in different ways.


Almost everyone’s been hoodwinked by this one. You look through the window of the envelope and see what appears to be a cheque. You open up the envelope and discover that the ‘cheque’ is simply a reply device that’s been made to look like you’re in the money. And when you discover that it’s you who’s supposed to write a cheque, how do you feel towards the parasitic sender?


Commercial mailers can use strident language to create a sense of urgency. After all, they might be promoting a sale, be making a limited-time offer, or have a dwindling inventory of a particular item.

By screaming the necessity to “Act NOW”, they might actually be acting symbiotically and doing the recipient a favor: the seller generates revenue and the buyer saves money or gets a bonus.

But as a non-profit you don’t have the luxury of coming on too strong. Even if you’re trying to raise funds for a desperate situation like the Tsunami, a hurricane or an earthquake, donors aren’t going to leap to the rescue just because you order them to. It certainly put a damper on my altruistic feelings when a charity recently told me, “You have to act now.” My answer of course was, “No, I don’t.”

It’s often good to look beyond the non-profit world for direct marketing inspiration and techniques that your charity can use. Just keep in mind that, while segments of the corporate world can thrive by acting like a parasite and making transactions, your organization lives or dies by the long-term, mutually beneficial relationships that it makes and maintains.