I’m starting to realize how important personal relevancy is when charities ask for money. I believe that a donation appeal from a brand that hasn’t made itself relevant to donors would have to be 10x as effective as an appeal from an engaged brand, in order to have the same result.

Case in point: I received two solicitation letters in the mail this week – both of them mediocre. One was from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS); the other from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).

The letter from the LLS had a nickel taped to it (what?) and some cheesy Christmas-themed return address labels. I’m not sure what the tactic was, but I think that the money and labels were supposed to make me feel obligated to help the LLS in return. Maybe that’s some tried-and-true tactic in the direct-mail world, but to me it just felt manipulative.

The letter from the ATC wasn’t much better. It relied mainly on a four-page, single-spaced letter; who has team to read that? And despite the fact that the Appalachian Trail is one of the most beautiful parts of the East Coast, the appeal was surprisingly lacking of photos. That’s like dating a supermodel but only telling your friends how your girlfriend is a really safe driver. Kind of missing some key points.

So what did I do with each letter? I threw the one from the in Leukemia & Lymphoma Society the trash and put the nickel they sent me in the change bowl. Meanwhile, I wrote the Appalachian Trail Conservancy a nice fat check. Why such different treatment? It all comes down to relevancy.

I’ve hiked every foot of the 2175-mile Appalachian Trail, so I have plenty of personal interest in keeping it protected for future hikers. I’ve even visited the headquarters of the ATC, and I know first hand how important their efforts are. And while I’m sure the LLS does great work, I know no one whose been affected by those diseases, so I don’t have nearly the same connection.

The ATC could have sent me a cardboard postcard asking me for money, and the LLS could have delivered as glossy, well-produced report (free of money and address labels) and my actions wouldn’t have been much different. So I don’t think that these organizations are even looking at this the right way. Instead of coming up with fancy ways to mail me junk I don’t want or won’t read, these organizations need to focus their efforts on getting people engaged with their work – well before the solicitation letters go out. Anything else is probably just wasted effort.

What do you think? Should charities go straight for the ask, or should they focus on engaging people with their brands and their programs first?