Direct mail is the silver bullet of fundraising
Posted September 20, 2016 by Virginia Davidson

As fundraisers, we’re always on the lookout for a strategy or tool that will help raise more funds for our organization. It can be tempting to view a new tool as the silver bullet of fundraising: launch a [insert trendy idea of the month] and the funds will raise themselves!

Not exactly. The reality is that any successful fundraising effort requires careful planning, execution, stewardship of donors, and follow-up. And while the tried-and-true approaches may seem old school, not innovative enough, or just plain boring, the truth is: they work.

Want to know the silver bullet of fundraising?

Direct mail.

Yes. Letters, sent with a stamp, through the U.S. Postal Service.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting you close down your organization’s social media accounts, cease your email appeals, scratch “crowdfunding campaign” off your development plan, and go back to the dark ages. Far from it. All of those tools are important for you to take advantage of and incorporate into your fundraising strategy. What I am recommending is that you view your direct mail appeals as the foundation for your fundraising efforts, and that you use your direct mail content as the basis for fundraising through other channels.

Why is direct mail effective? Direct mail response rates stand at 10 to 30 times that of email according to a white paper from Pursuant. Moreover, major donors cultivated consistently through direct mail give several gifts over a lifetime, whereas major donors who come in through other channels tend to give single gifts.

Simply sending letters asking for money isn’t going to help you reach your fundraising goals, however. In order to be effective, your direct mail approach has to have the following key ingredients:

  • Up-to-date mailing addresses for your donors and prospects
  • Customized content, such as references to the donor’s past giving
  • Compelling, inspiring content
  • An executable follow-up plan to thank those who contribute

Here’s how to set yourself up for success:

Mailing addresses. You can’t get your appeal letter in front of people if you don’t have correct mailing addresses, so maintain your donor data by utilizing the NCOA (National Change of Address) Service every twelve months to ensure you have up-to-date contact information in your database. Prioritize data maintenance – we have suggestions for how you can improve the health of your database in one hour!

And always make an effort to collect mailing addresses for your donors and constituents, even from those who interact with your organization online. Be aware that some crowdfunding and peer-to-peer fundraising platforms only release the email addresses of donors, unless your organization specifically requests access to mailing addresses before the launch of your campaign. Do your research and select a platform that will provide you with your supporters’ mailing addresses.

Customized content. Do you have the ability to personalize your appeal letters so that past giving can be referenced? If so, think about how you can use that ability to thank donors for past gifts and include an ask amount that is relevant to each donor’s giving history. You don’t want to ask for a $25 gift if the donor sent your organization a check for $2,500 last December. If you don’t have a way to personalize your letters, it may be time to consider a new donor management system.

Compelling, inspiring content. Your appeal letter should tell a story about your organization’s work. Present the problem you’re addressing, and be clear how that the donor’s support will lead to that problem’s solution. Be specific. Consider a land trust’s appeal letter that is asking for support so they can preserve open spaces and beautiful views for generations to come. Nothing wrong about that goal, but does it compel you to whip out your checkbook? Now consider an appeal letter from the same organization that needs your support in order to place a conservation easement on 100 acres of land that is at risk of being developed into big box stores.

Remember to make your letter donor-centric. Rather than explaining how the donor’s support will help your organization achieve its mission, take your organization out of the equation and connect the donor directly to the impact of their donation.  

This leads us to the next key ingredient…

Great follow-up with donors. Thank you letters might feel like a chore, but meaningful follow-up with your donors will lead to donor retention. As you craft your appeal letter, take time to plan your follow-up strategy too. How will you thank your donors? How many times? Will staff or board members write handwritten notes on the acknowledgment letters? As with your appeal letter, it’s important that your acknowledgment letters are donor-centric. Check out our 3 quick tips for writing donor-centered thank you letters.

This may seem like a lot of work, but here’s the good news: you can leverage your direct mail content and repurpose it for use in your other fundraising channels, which will reinforce and bolster your efforts. The content of your direct mail letter can be tweaked and used in an email appeal. Check out the 8 commandments for converting direct mail fundraising appeals to email from Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog. Shorter, more concise versions of your direct mail ask can be used to develop social media posts. With a strong direct mail campaign in place, you’ll be well positioned to fundraise effectively through all your organization’s channels so you can bring in the funds needed to achieve your organization’s mission.

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