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direct mail and nonprofit appeals – a perfect union! (part 1)

Direct mail marketing is a vital component to any nonprofit organization’s marketing strategy. While email and social media are essential to the mix, donations made as a result of receiving direct mail marketing – yes, we mean postal mail! – still far surpasses donations made as a result from appealing through other channels.  Why you ask?  Here’s some insight:

  • direct mail provides the prospect with something tangible. According to a survey conducted by Millward Brown, “physical media”, or media that an individual can “touch and feel ignites more emotion than those of the digital variety and leaves a deeper footprint on the brain”.  Most interestingly, this phenomenon spans across all age groups.
  • direct mail provides highly targeted data for prospects, allowing you to deliver your appeal straight into the hands of your target audience.
  • direct mail is viewed as more trustworthy. For a nonprofit to qualify for special postal rates they must meet rigorous standards and be verified with the USPS, unlike standards for many digital campaigns.

We could provide more reasons why direct mail works for nonprofit appeals, but here’s an antidote that really brings the point home.  The American Cancer Society decided in January of a fiscal year to stop doing direct mail appeals.  In the first year, their new donors dropped by 11% along with an accompanying revenue number of $11.3 million.  ACS relaunched their direct mail appeal program in June of the following year.

Now that we’ve verified what many of us who work in the nonprofit sector already know, let’s get down to how to develop a direct mail campaign that will maximize your result while keeping your budget lean.  It takes some planning and expertise, so to help you here is part one of a two-part series providing some essential tips. We have broken it down to six key components that we identify as making up the process, all of which can be tailored specifically to your mission and audience in order to create a maximum-impact direct mail campaign. We could get kitschy and call these components “MMGMFC” for short, but that sounds terrible. So here they are in an “acronym-less” form.

mailing list

Direct mail can be targeted much more narrowly and directly while still allowing broad coverage, so you want to exploit this to the fullest:

  • profile your donor base periodically to determine both any changes that have taken place and what your new prospects should look like.
  • target your new prospects based upon the attributes that make up your donor profile like location, presence of children, income, giving pattern, or giving preferences.
  • segment your list into active donors, lapsed donors and prospects. Each of these segments require a different approach.
  • break your major segments down again into smaller similar groups by, for example, age and special interests.

Your mailing list is your audience, and knowing your audience allows you to be extremely customized and develop a more emotional connection with donors and prospects – which is at the heart of giving.  With variable digital four-color process becoming so accessible, it is easy to tailor your message and graphics to each subsegment to get their attention, stimulate engagement and inspire a donation.  More on how to do this in the next two sections!


The message creates your make-or-break moment with your donors and prospects. Even if all other steps are done perfectly, bad content will never inspire giving. Here are key components to consider when crafting your message:

  • who you are speaking to
  1. here’s where those subsegments are key! For example, a donor vs. a prospect or lapsed donor, or a single millennial vs. a retired veteran all require a different message.  You get the picture!
  2. avoid technical language that those outside of your organization wouldn’t understand.
  3. remember, it is about the donor! The word “you” cannot be overused, because the point of your message is how important your donor or prospect is to your mission, and what an impact they can have.
  • how your audience reads – with the amount of information coming at us every day, most people skim mail and ads rather than read them. Keep your appeal skim easy by keeping it concise, using bullets instead of paragraphs and underlining key points.
  • what story is important – a success story of how a donation can impact lives in your community is key – it is what brings your mission home to your audience. Tell your story in a conversational tone, and with each segment consider the attributes that makes it different and select a story that would most appeal to them.
  • why they give – because you ask! Seems simple, but bottom line – you can’t ask too many times.  Also detail how to make a donation and provide alternate methods (check, credit card, by mail, on line, etc.) so it is easy to move forward and give.

Come back next week for more tips on successful nonprofit fundraising using direct mail campaigns!

Happy Fundraising!

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