You don’t make money from “beautiful”

publication date: Sep 3, 2014
author/source: Tom Ahern

Which is likely to raise more money in either email or direct mail appeals?

  • [ ] Attractive design
  • [ ] Ugly design

Answer: Ugly design.Tom Ahern photo

Notes and assumptions....

For this particular judgment call, I turn to a leading copywriter, someone with vast and profitable experience of fundraising appeals for all sorts of charities, Jeff Brooks.

His bottom line: “Ugly works. Tacky works. Corny, embarrassing, and messy all work. In print, or in digital.”

There are exceptions. As Harry Lynch wrote on The Agitator blog in 2014, “Art museums and gardens, for example, find that beauty has a place in their marketing arsenal. Cutting-edge advocacy causes often need to push the envelope – pun intended!”


“[T]he best performing social services and health charity direct mail is plain (I’m trying to avoid saying downright ‘ugly’) because it’s best when their packages simply frame powerful words that convey their stories and evoke passion.”

Harry’s not guessing, either. “Hundreds [of tests] we can cite [show] that muted, straightforward packages win out over the colorful and flashy.”

Wishful thinking and human nature urge us to get it wrong.

We like some things. We turn our nose up at others. But personal taste is no predictor of success in sales ... as the President Obama re-election campaign discovered in 2012.

“We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing,” says [Amelia] Showalter. “Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty ‘Donate’ buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, ‘How could we make things even less attractive?’ That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to.”

I recently spent a day with the fundraising creatives at an elite university, a talented crew.

We were analyzing the common features of successful donor newsletters. Every issue we examined had pulled in shocking amounts of additional charity. We looked at newsletters from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the Nashville Rescue Mission, from Food for the Poor, etc.

As we finished, a graphic designer on the team burst out in honest despair, “Do they have to be so ugly?” The lead fundraiser agreed instantly, “They are. They really ARE ugly.”

It was a funny moment because it recalled me to planet earth. I’d been seeing these publications as successes, not as design efforts.

It made me realize that fundraisers need to redefine “ugly” and “beautiful” in graphic design.

  • “Ugly” is when it doesn’t make as much money as it could for the mission.
  • And “beautiful” is when it does.

This article is reprinted with permission from Tom Ahern’s free e-newsletter at

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