What Every Non-Profit Ought to Know about Direct Mail Fundraising

by Joe Garecht

Non-Profit Mailing

Most non-profits I know are skittish about direct mail fundraising, because it requires an initial investment of time and money.  Picking up the phone to call a donor takes courage, but it doesn’t cost money.  Sending out an e-mail is easy and free.

With direct mail, on the other hand, there are lots of costs involved, so organizations worry about whether they should use it, and if they do use it, they worry about whether or not they’re doing it right.  To answer those questions, I have put together this list of 4 things every non-profit – including yours – ought to know about direct mail fundraising:

#1 – Every Non-Profit Should Be Mailing their Housefile.

There are two main types of direct mail: housefile and prospecting.  Housefile mail is mail you send to your current donor file – those who have already made a gift to your organization at one time or another.  Prospecting mail is sent to a list you purchase or rent… in other words, a cold list of people who haven’t ever (or recently) given to your organization.

Every non-profit (no matter how small) should be using direct mail to reach their housefile list.  Even if it’s your first year in existence and you only have 18 donors, mail them a solicitation letter at least once this year.  Housefile mail is almost always profitable, and is a great way to stay in touch with your donors.

#2 – Prospecting Mail Isn’t for Beginners.

Successfully using prospecting mail is an art that takes time and experience to learn.  Your goal with a prospecting letter is to break even… to make back the cost of the mailing, so that you can add the new donors to your housefile, where they will become profitable.  If you send out a poorly worded prospecting letter, or mail the wrong list, you could lose a significant amount of money.

Don’t attempt prospecting mail unless your team is already experienced or you are bringing in a competent direct mail consultant with a proven record of successful prospecting through the mail.

#3 – Your List is Gold.  Treat it that Way.

The biggest indicator that someone will give to your non-profit through the mail is if they have done so in the past.  That’s why housefile mailings are almost always profitable.  Your direct mail donor file is as good as gold for your non-profit.  In order to keep it that way, you have to treat it with respect.

This means that, except in rare occasions, you shouldn’t over-solicit your list by sending a letter every other week.  It also means that you shouldn’t  only send asks to your list… you need to send some cultivation mailings, like newsletters, updates, thank you letters and holiday postcards to your list to keep it fresh and let your donors know that you see them as more than just their wallet.

Treat your donor file with respect, and your donors will continue to support your organization.

#4 – Don’t Use Direct Mail Unless You are Prepared to Measure and Test.

Successful direct mail fundraising is built on the foundation of testing and measuring.  This is particularly true for prospecting mail.  If you want to send out a certain letter to 100,000 prospects, first test the letter on 5,000 prospects randomly selected from that list.  If it’s profitable in the test, it will likely be profitable for the whole list.  If it’s a dud on the test, write a better letter or find a better list.

You also need to measure and test if you want to optimize your housefile mailings.  While you generally won’t need to mail your letter to a test list first for housefile donors, you should keep close tabs on what letters are more or less successful for your list.  For example, if your list doesn’t respond as well to a survey-style mailing as it does to a straight fundraising letter this year, the same will likely be true in the year to come.

More Resources on Direct Mail Fundraising

If you’d like to learn more how to write and design great direct mail letters, read 4 Tips for Designing Fundraising Mail that Works.  Be sure that when write your letter, you follow the 5 Steps for Writing Profitable Fundraising Letters.

Photo Credit: Smabs Sputzer


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