Direct Mail Is Not Dead

by | Jul 28, 2021 | Development/Fundraising

Direct Mail Is Not Dead Is direct mail one of your funding streams, or would you like to consider adding it to your fundraising plan? Are you using direct mail but not finding it very successful? Direct mail response rates are five to nine times higher than any other advertising channel (Maddie Shepherd).

During my two decades as a Development Director, I worked for both small and large nonprofits. Some organizations had a small shop of one (me), and some had a few development staff. I worked in organizations that did direct mail and some that didn’t. As a development coach, I also have clients with small shops of one, some with a few development staff, some that do direct mail, and some that don’t. I want to share some thoughts on direct mail to get your juices flowing if you are considering a direct mail campaign for the first time or looking for ways to generate more impact with your next direct mail campaign.

1. Have a plan!  Before working on a direct mail campaign, answer the questions, “What is our goal with this campaign? What are we trying to accomplish?” 

  • Are you trying to acquire new donors?
  • Are you hoping to re-engage lapsed donors?
  • Are you establishing a monthly giving campaign? 
  • Are you trying to raise a specific dollars amount or raise awareness of your mission?

Once the goal is determined, planning for a successful direct mail campaign becomes easier. Make sure you tailor your message to communicate to each target group effectively based on the plan goals. This is called segmenting and will help guarantee the highest possible return and allow you to evaluate your results more accurately. You can’t reach your destination without good directions.

All donors/prospects are not the same. – Avoid the “one size fits all” model when sending out direct mail pieces. Letters, messages, and asks should be different depending on the target audience (ex: current donors, lapsed donors, major donors, businesses, faith-based partners, acquisition lists, etc.).

Trying to acquire new donors? Try a simple message to introduce them to your organization, coupled with a smaller ask as you warm cultivate them. 

Reaching out to current donors? Tell a success story tied to their support. Segment your donors into categories based on prior giving and tailor the ask amounts to those different levels. You don’t have to send your appeal to everyone in your database, but you can. Choose the segments you intend to target and then create a custom message, reply card, and thank-you letter for each segment. **Having a donor database will be very helpful for making this task easier.

Some segments to consider are: 

Current donors (donors who have made a gift in the last 365 days), 

acquisitions (a list you may have purchased/rented based on specified demographics), 

LYBUNTS (people who gave last year but unfortunately not this year), 

volunteers who have donated time but have not yet made a monetary donation, 

SYBUNTS (people who gave some year, but not this OR last year), and other community groups such as churches or businesses.

You can even segment these groups further. You could pull out major donors, loyal donors, or first-time donors from your current donor list and so on. You can go down a deep rabbit hole with this kind of work. My recommendation is to choose a small set of groups to segment if you are new to this process. The work can be time-consuming, and you want to make sure you have the time and staff to manage the process. Once you choose your segments, you will need to customize your appeal to that audience. The basics letter may remain the same with some tweaked areas.

Customizations within the letter for each segment:

  • Perhaps you have a greeting of Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ or whatever faith-based greeting is most appropriate for your audience. This is one small section of the mailing but is hugely impactful for the reader. You may also find mission-focused scripture and sprinkle those in once or twice in your appeal letter. At the end of the appeal, you may consider adding an invitation to partner.

Example: Many individuals qualify for [insert service or program] in our community. We need your help to serve them. Please reach out to us if your faith community wants to explore the many ways you can partner with [insert organization’s name] to fulfill Christ’s call to serve others and consider donating to help those in need today. *obviously make this verbiage faith-specific/appropriate. This is just one of many examples. It is great for other segments to avoid generic greetings like Dear Friend or Dear Donor and customize with a first name or Mr./Miss./Ms./Mrs./Mx. with the last name, etc., based on the records in your donor database and the donor preference. ( I get that this is a lot of work.)

  • Consider leading with strong impact or goal statements for lapsed donors, so the donor sees why their continued support is so important! If you have the data, you can also create a message like, “Thank you for your _____ years of support of [insert organization or program supported].”
  • For volunteers who have made a financial contribution, consider acknowledging the “volunteers” contribution using impact statements such as the following:
  1. We truly appreciate the many ways you share your time and talents to provide [insert the things your organization/program provides] to [insert who you serve, such as families in our community].
  2. We have all heard the adage “time is money!” We are so grateful for the x volunteers who contributed more than x volunteer hours to our organization this year. Volunteers saved our organization more than x dollars [As of 2021, a general volunteer hour in NC is valued at $28.54]. You can customize this by national stats or state-specific stats on the website above.
  3. Closing statements to volunteers should express gratitude and extend an opportunity.

For example: Again, thank you for serving our organization. We welcome your feedback as [insert organization name] seeks ways to improve our volunteer program/experience.

  • Please let us know if you would like to explore new/additional ways to support our mission or would like to share ways our team can better support YOU as a valued member of our [insert organization name] team/family.

Reply Card Customization

  • What are the giving levels? For a lapsed donors, you may have reply card levels starting a little higher than an acquisition donor. The lapsed donor has a history of giving and is familiar with your organization. The acquisition donor may have heard of you but is not currently a donor. These levels could be as simple as:

 Acquisition Mailer: $25  $50 $75  $100          

Lapsed Donors Mailer: $50 $100 $250 $500

These numbers will be determined by current giving levels, average gift amount, etc. These are just examples and by no way a guide to what you should do with your specific organization. You will need to research donor history, giving levels, success with direct mail, etc., before creating your reply cards. Perhaps your churches typically give between $250 and $5000; that reply could look very different than an individual donor card. Perhaps you have $250  $500  $1000 $2500 on those cards. You will also want to consider a code on the reply envelope and reply card to help identify the group associated with this gift. Your designer/printer should be able to help you with this. I try to use obvious codes to tag a gift easily and then calculate my return from each group.

For example, if I have current donors, LYBUNTS, SYBUNTS, and churches as my segments for an appeal going out in the Spring 2022, I would use these codes:

Current = CS22 (current spring 2022)

LYBUNTS = LS22 (lybunts spring 2022)

SYBUNTS = SS22 (sybunts spring 2022)

Churches = CHS22 (churches spring 2022) You can make up any coding system you want as long as you understand it and it works for you.

2. Cultivate, cultivate, cultivate. It cannot be understated: It is much easier to gain a commitment from a donor that feels connected to your organization. To make your donor feel valued, you have first to understand how valuable each donor is. Whether they give you $10 a year or $10,000, they are sacrificing their hard-earned money for a cause they believe in. Thank them and give them another reason to believe in your mission. Send a handwritten thank you. Explain to them how their donation is contributing to your cause. Call them to express gratitude. These things, when done consistently, will build a sustainable, engaged donor base. 

3. Clearly communicate what you need. Don’t fear being direct – it’s what most donors want! The fact that they are supporting your organization shows that they are already invested, so show them the need and ask them to meet it!

4. Tell your story! Why does your organization exist? What is your mission? Become an expert at collecting stories and tell them at every opportunity!  These success stories are the reason you ask and the reason your donors give – don’t keep them to yourself!

Remember: Integrate direct mail with all your other resources (website, social media, email blasts) to achieve maximum success. According to, 50% of donors are more likely to respond to direct mail when receiving multiple messages across fundraising channels to reinforce the call-to-action. Suggestions for how to make this happen:

  • Get a story in the local paper(s) a few weeks before your direct mail drops. Get an interview on a local, new channel or radio station a week or two before your mail drops so you are foremost in folks’ minds.
  • Schedule an e-newsletter/article/e-blast with a story/message similar to your direct mail appeal a week or so AFTER the direct mail drops so you catch folks who may not have opened their mail, who forgot to write that check, or didn’t have time to read it all initially. Be sure to have a donate now button on the email.
  • Get an interview on a local, new channel or radio station a week or two before your mail drops so you are foremost in folks’ minds.
  • Schedule an e-newsletter/article/e-blast with a story/message similar to your direct mail appeal a week or so AFTER the direct mail drops so you catch folks who may not have opened their mail, who forgot to write that check, or didn’t have time to read it all initially. Be sure to have a donate now button on the email.
  • Update your website to have content associated with your appeal (could be on the main page, a new page, the donate now page, etc.) so visitors can learn more when they come to your site. 

The more integrated your appeal, the more chances for returns on your investment of time and energy. Next steps: How will you track the success of this appeal? How much did it cost, and how much did it cost to raise a dollar? Have you segmented the metrics overall and for each segment of your appeal? What was your average gift overall and from each segment? Who is tracking this data, and where? After your appeal drops, you need to know the next steps to donor relations that create donor retention. What is your donor relations plan? How will you thank each donor, and when? What will their next donor touch be, and when? Development work is a never-ending planning project and once you have a plan, your success will be easier to track.

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