Prologue re: indents Your donor-base’s bottom line… Are your charity’s toes touching reality bottom?

Tom Ahern

Do you know, for instance, that research persistently finds that TYPICAL donors are older than NGO insiders (board, staff) presume.

OK, dear fundraiser, if you’re younger than 55, can let’s conduct a quick reality check. Go to the restroom. Look in the mirror.

Your donors don’t look like you. Reality check over.

2012 TRUTH (and sure, things have changed since 2012; just prove it before you assume it): about 2/3rds of typical donors in North America are 55 and older.

2012 TRUTH: About HALF are 65 and older. Blackbaud, drawing on massive amounts of data: “On average, US donors over the age of 65 gave more than three times the amount donated by those ages 18-24 and nearly twice as much as donors ages 25-34. On average, UK donors ages 55-64 donated twice as much to charity than those ages 35-44 and four times as much as those ages 18-24.”

The reasons for these age-based discrepancies have nothing much to do with innate generosity or values or a desire to help another in distress.

All generations are equally generous (and that’s tru-ish).

What different generations DON’T have are equal amounts of discretionary income; i.e., money you can throw away … and your lifestyle doesn’t change. Broadly speaking:

  • When you’re younger, you’re building and buying
  • When you’re older, you’re done with a lot of that

> Results vary, of course. And I’d love to know the “age-of-typical-donor” truth for YOUR specific charity. So, PLEASE, do be in touch! <

But let’s assume for now that a typical donor base in an English-speaking country skews older…


Where this all was headed, re: indents…

In defense of old school

Indents don’t really matter. But “pattern recognition” does.

In May, 2020, fundraiser Jenn M. asked….

“Do I really have to use indents in my direct mail? It looks old school, out of touch, outdated.”

My opinion (no need to elevate it to an “answer”) ….

To be fair, Jenn, that’s how most US donors look, too (including us):

old school, out of touch, outdated

About 50% of these donors are 65 and older. Their brains trained on indents.

2/3rds of them are 55 and older. Their brains also trained on indents.

Pattern recognition.

You said: I am in a friendly stand-off with my boss, a dedicated Tom Ahern disciple. She insists we must indent our appeal letters because it 1) looks warmer and more like personal correspondence 2) creates more white space and 3) is recommended by fundraising gurus. She believes it works especially well for the planned giving appeal we are working on now. (We have a carefully thought-out strategy for this appeal and its timing in light of the impact of COVID-19.)

More my opinion ….

Indents are definitely NOT the deal-breaker in direct mail appeals.

In fact, in email appeals, indents might seem a teensy bit odd, given the conventions of our digital world.

What DOES matter more than indents?

How good’s your offer? That matters a lot. Is it clear? Is it simple? Can I absorb it in a moment?

How good’s your list? Ditto. Are you putting that clear offer in front of the right people?

Indents? Not even in the top 5 things I’d lose sleep over.

Honestly, if your direct mail is warm in tone, personal, lots of you’s, conversational, easy to skim, you’ll be fine. Indents are just a cultural convention in the US: personal letters have indents, business letters do not.

But it’s not the 11th Commandment.

In England/Canada, in my unscientific observation, the personal letter convention is the opposite: no indents.

Whatever is the norm is your model: pattern recognition. If I glance at your letter and think “business,” then you’ve lost. If I glance at your letter and think “sort of personal,” then you’ve just won the all-important 3-second test.

However, please, do thank your boss for me.

She’s standing up for getting everything just right.

I’ve never written an un-indented appeal in my career, mostly because I was rigorously trained by the best (in the US) & you just wouldn’t miss any trick you could get your hands on.

A professional direct mail appeal has about 2 dozen things going on, all of them aimed at improving response rates … in volume.

Volume is the key differentiator: if you’re mailing a million pieces, one small factor such as stamp vs. indicia [or maybe indents] can make a measurable difference in terms of response (i.e., re$ults).

These differences become hard to measure though below, say, 25K pieces.

Pour your heart on the page and don’t worry about the indents (unless you want to, of course).

Good luck with this upcoming summer, given everything. Camp looks wonderful.

~ tom

  • Tom Ahern