Outer Envelopes

One prevailing theory of the direct response envelope is that if you hand write it, or at least make it appear that you did, donor prospects will open it. And whether the envelope is hand-written, in color, with graphics or without, many theories of what works crowd the landscape.

In theory, there are three types of direct response mail, the A-pile, the B-pile and the C-pile. According to Tom Gaffny, executive vice president of Burlington, Mass.-based Epsilon, a database direct response marketing company, the A-pile is the one that “you know you just have to read,” the B-pile, is the one “you might read while standing over the garbage can” and the C-pile is the one that gets thrown unopened into the garbage can.

While all nonprofits would like their mail to be in the A-pile, there is one way they can almost assure it, Gaffny said. “This is the single most powerful tool to get a potential donor to read your mail — a handwritten, closed face envelope with a First Class mail stamp on it,” he said. It works especially well if it is blank faced and does not have the organization’s name on it. “It is the best way to get it into the A-pile, maybe at worst the B-pile but never in the C-pile,” Gaffny added.

Dan Doyle, president and CEO of Warwick & Associates of Berkeley, Calif., said that he believes that not only does a handwritten-appearing outer envelope work, but a package that has the appearance of being handwritten on the inside works even better.

However, other direct marketers like color, lots of color, teaser copy and graphics, according to Howard Golberg, president of the Montreal-based Pinnacle Direct Marketing.

“That carrier envelope is by far the most critical part of the mailing,” said Lester Zaiontz, vice president of creative strategy and development in the fundraising division of the Concord, N.H.- based Concord Litho. “If you don’t get it opened, what’s inside is moot.”


With the development about 10 years ago of printing fonts that resemble handwriting, direct marketers have been able to make their envelopes appear to be hand addressed, which piques the interest of the recipient.

He also suggested sending the piece out via First Class mail. There is something about a First Class postage stamp on the outside that helps lure the donor or prospective donor into opening the piece, Gaffny added.

“Not a lot has changed over the years,” Gaffny explained. “If the recipient is curious, then he will open the package.”

What works best of all, Doyle said, is a number 10 envelope that is actually hand addressed. Now, obviously hand-addressing of envelopes can’t be done for large drops but smaller ones of a few hundred can be done that way, and Doyle insists it can’t be beat. “Do it with your highest value donors,” Doyle said, “especially with your highest value lapsed donors. It will really reactivate them.”

Golberg agreed with Gaffny and Doyle about blank envelopes, but with qualifiers. “Historically, this is something that some organizations have always done,” he said. But Golberg recommends that if they do want to use a blank envelope, do it for their high-end donors. “For your upper end donors, you will want your envelope to look more business-like, more professional,” Golberg said. Some mailers are getting away from the more commercial look and going with the blank envelope look, but Golberg said he really believes in strong visuals.

Zaiontz said he’s seeing a lot of the blank envelope look and “the market is getting saturated.” What really concerns him about the blank envelope is that United States Postal authorities might mistake it for First Class mail and might flag it.

With confusing postal regulations concerning what constitutes Standard Mail and First Class Mail, Zaiontz said that he believes mail that is not clearly nonprofit solicitation mail might have the postal authorities“go after it.”

Color, teasers, pizzazz

Golberg and Zaiontz are of the same mind, that outer envelopes should be unique, innovative, and colorful. “We try to be interesting and as dynamic as we can,” Golberg said. On the back you have the address, sometimes a window, but on the front “you can billboard. Use strong visuals.” When soliciting lower end donors, many charities will use bright colors and teaser copy, Golberg added.

Said Zaiontz, “You want to create curiosity with the teaser copy you put on the outer envelope. If the mailings have become routine, shake them up with different color.”

It used to be that only the bigger charities would use color on outer envelopes, Zaiontz said, “because it cost a lot. It was like black and white televisions and color televisions. The color TVs were more costly so most people owned black and whites. Color doesn’t cost that much any more, so unless you are a really small charity that has to watch its pennies, use color.”

Paul Beegan, president of B&W Press, Inc., in Georgetown, Mass., said that while he sees some blank envelope mailers, for the most part charities are using color — four color, two color, top over bottom and no number 10 envelope.

Teaser copy on the outside of the envelope, direct marketers either love it or hate it. Gaffny favors the blank envelope look, believing if a recipient sees the name of a charity outside, they’ll know that it’s a solicitation and in most cases toss it in the trash.

Golberg disagreed, using the phrase “interesting and dynamic” believing that something with copy on the outside will make the recipient curious, which will result in the package being opened. And, the message will vary depending on what the charity is after. If it’s an acquisition package the copy will be emotional, but if it’s a renewal then it will be logical. “Acquire with emotion and renew with logic,” Golberg said.

The teaser copy should vary depending on “various circumstances,” Zaiontz said. If there is a premium in the package then the charity should “splash on the copy,” letting the recipient know that something is inside. And while a number of charities use the phrase “Urgent Open Immediately,” on the outer envelope, Zaiontz said, charities should think carefully before using it. “People are getting more sophisticated,” Zaiontz said. The “urgent” phrase will work sometimes, “if the package looks unique. But, it will always work better than just a number 10 envelope.”

Teaser copy should be used to create interest, Zaiontz said. The best way to do that, he added, is to “know your donors, know what they have an affinity for and use something that will reinforce the organization’s message.” If you are a children’s charity, then your outer envelope should have something on it that your donors will identify with, Zaiontz said. Perhaps add a picture of a child or teaser copy concerning children, which will lead the recipient to open the package.

Doyle said Warwick & Associates has been experimenting with affixing a return address label on the outer envelope rather than just a printed return address. He also suggests putting the president of the nonprofit’s name on the return label. “It creates curiosity,” Doyle said.

Going big or small

The envelope’s size doesn’t matter, large or small, as long as it is not a number 10 envelope that blends in with the rest of the mail, said Beegan. He said his clients ask for different size mailers to make them look interesting.

“You want to make the recipient curious,” Gaffny said. “You want to make it bulky or an odd shape so that they believe something is inside.”

“The package should stand out,” Zaiontz said. Sometimes charities will get into a rut with their package, Zaiontz added. Each year they will mail the same type of package, the same size package, at the same time of the year, “so it is important to occasionally shake things up.” Use different sizes, different color and different outer copy, he explained.

However, Doyle disagreed, saying that he has found that a blank number 10 envelope has been working great for his firm’s clients.


Imagine a standup comedian doing his act and no one is laughing. The audience has heard the same stale, tired, old jokes. That’s what can happen to nonprofit packages, Zaiontz said. One of the most important things to consider is changing its package every 18 to 36 months. “We recommend they do this because they get into a rut,” Zaiontz explained. “If a nonprofit mails often, then they should change every 18 months but if they don’t mail as often, then every 36 months.” He explained that testing backs up his observations.

“We test as much as we can,” to find different packages that work, Golberg said. “But as a general rule, we test more for acquisition than for donors. We test different elements of the package because we always worry that at some point the control will begin to lapse.” When that happens, marketers want to have something ready to quickly replace it, Golberg added. Unfortunately for some nonprofits, especially the smaller ones, they are limited in how much they can test because of budget constraints.

“We test on every appeal,” Gaffny said. “Most of our important changes come from our tests. We do it for two reasons — the first is to make incremental changes to improve the control and the second is to test to see what will work for when we need to replace the control.”

“It doesn’t matter how much it costs,” Doyle said. “What matters is how much it raises, and if it costs a little more and you don’t do it for that reason, then you are just leaving money on the table.”

Depending on how many colors are used, and the size, as well as the number of pieces, a single piece can run anywhere from 8 cents on the low end to about 10 cent on the high end.

On an average run of approximately 500,000 pieces, the costs range from $12 per thousand for a standard two-color inexpensive number 10 envelope, $36 per thousand for a more expensive four-color 6×9 envelope and $50 per thousand for the top line, high quality stock, four-color 9×12 envelope.