Get Out of Your Direct-Mail Comfort Zone

Find out what your target audience really thinks

A few times a year, I teach an introduction to fundraising class for an adult education program. It’s a lot of fun for me (Wow! People are actually paying to hear me reminisce about direct mail in the 1980s!), and it gives me a lifelong learning experience.

Things I take for granted get viewed with fresh eyes, and students freely share their likes and dislikes. While it’s easy to brush aside their comments as “uninformed,” the truth is, they are thinking more like donors than I may be after more than three decades of fundraising experience.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in the classroom over the last few months.

Lots of people really like freemiums

Let’s face it, we get jaded. Address labels? For the senior set. Calendars? Who really uses them? But before you dismiss them totally, show them to some people who aren’t employees of your nonprofit and, in fact, may not know anything about you. Would they use whatever the premium is? Does it seem incongruous with your mission? Would they feel good about receiving it from you? Is it tacky, sending the wrong message? Would it make them send in a donation?

I’m not advocating freemiums for everyone. But before you dismiss them (or include them in every other mailing), talk to people outside your organization and get their opinions.

Poor targeting isn’t just wasting your money — it’s irritating
One of the biggest complaints I hear is when students get a mailing that is totally wrong for their demographic. It doesn’t matter if it’s targeted to a different age group, a different faith group or a different gender — it makes people mad.

We all know how hard it is to target accurately 100 percent of the time. Somehow someone’s name ended up on a list that isn’t his or her demographic at all. While we can’t completely eliminate this problem, we can train donor-services staff to be genuinely apologetic when someone calls in to complain. You may not gain a donor, but you might lose a detractor.

A lot of people aren’t getting fundraising appeals
I get direct-mail appeals daily plus e-appeals, so I am always surprised when someone tells me that he or she hasn’t received a single appeal in the mail since I announced six weeks earlier to watch for them. Sure, some of these students are young adults, probably struggling with student loans and the lousy hiring environment. But it makes me wonder.

Are we being creative in finding potential donors outside of the rented mailing lists? For many nonprofits, the answer is yes. But some are still not thinking outside the (mail)box when it comes to donor acquisition. We need to keep making small investments into alternate options, refining and learning to see where else we can acquire donors. For example, I don’t know a magic formula for acquiring donors through social media, but I want to keep trying. Are there targeted newspapers or magazines that sell low-cost ad space?

I’m not advocating jeopardizing your nonprofit’s solvency. Cautiously invest in some nonstandard options and see if you can find where another potential donor segment is hanging out.

Our donors get bored

A student brought in a mailing from a local organization. She had been a member for a while but had never given above her membership dues because the mail it sent her wasn’t appealing. Then the organization sent a colorful package that actually looked fun and interesting. The student decided to send in a gift because she was drawn into the mailing with great graphics and then stuck around because of compelling copy and a strong offer.

Yes, we save money with white No. 10 envelopes and two-color printing. But are we lulling our donors into ignoring us? Get creative on your year-end mailing, for example, and see if you can generate more support.

Once in a while, get out of the office. Don’t go visit your family or fellow laborers in the fundraising profession. Talk to people who could be donors to your organization and who don’t know their way around a direct-mail package. Find out what they are reading and doing. They may just give you a hint about a new place to look for donors.


Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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