Stand Proud and Don’t Let the Direct-Mail Naysayers Get You Down

If there’s one thing that gets a bad rap in the nonprofit world, it’s direct mail. Recipients (clearly unenlightened!) call it “junk mail.” Some nonprofit leaders claim it’s dead and we should just play taps and get on with it. Others figure it’s worth using as long as we can keep it “dirt cheap.”

As someone who has worked with direct mail for my entire career, I cringe when I hear “junk mail,” roll my eyes when I hear the claim that rigor mortis has set in, and continue to urge anyone who will listen to invest in direct mail — but do it right.

Why?

Simply put, because direct mail works. Randy Brewer ofBrewer Direct recently said, “Let’s not trade dollars for dimes,” reflecting the reality that direct mail is still outraising newer forms of fundraising. Bottom line: It should never be “either/or” — smart fundraisers know they need to be digital-savvy, but they also need to be direct-mail-savvy.

So if you’re managing the direct-mail program, here are tips to help silence the naysayers, or at least give them something to think about.

1. Stand proud
Unfortunately, after cutting their teeth on direct mail, many fundraisers are promoted to major gifts, planned giving or other “sexier” forms of fundraising. But the truth is, direct mail is often the foundation that those programs are built on. Major donors are cultivated — sometimes for years — through direct mail. Many planned-giving prospects were first acquired through direct mail.

I’ve done it all in fundraising — worked with a portfolio of major donors, planned events, promoted planned giving, managed telephone campaigns, wrote website copy, planned online campaigns and even wrote billboard copy. But direct mail is still my favorite. It’s challenging. It’s ever-changing. It’s rewarding. Don’t be ashamed if you, too, are a direct-mail champion. We stand in good company.

2. Know your target audience
Who is reading and responding to your direct mail? I don’t mean responding by complaining; I mean giving donations as a result (even if they choose to give online after being prompted by direct mail). Chances are your colleagues, board members and volunteers who hate direct mail aren’t your audience. So practice listening, nodding and then continuing to do what you know works.

3. Remember that another way to improve net income is to raise more money — not just spend less
It’s easy to penny-pinch on direct mail, and that’s why a lot of mail truly is a waste. Poorly written copy that is all about the organization instead of the donor is a bad investment, even if the only cost is staff time. Design that doesn’t take into consideration proven techniques for improving response is simply destined to end up in a landfill. Failure to invest in finding the stories and photos that make a compelling case is the path to poverty.

I still see some nonprofit mail that looks a lot like what I sent out in the 1980s. It’s tough to break through the mailbox clutter; it can be nearly impossible when your mailing arrives in a No. 10 white window envelope. Look at what others are mailing. Check out Who’s Mailing What. Give to other nonprofits so you get their mail. Then make sure your direct mail is truly outstanding in a stack of mail.

Direct mail will perform better for you if you invest in it. You may end up spending a little more, but if you can raise a lot more, isn’t it worth it?

4. Mail smart
“More” is not necessarily better when it comes to selecting who receives your letter. Yes, the cost per mail piece is lower, but you are potentially wasting money on people who are not likely to respond. On the other hand, not mailing to other donors because they are “special” is a bad idea unless you have a great system in place to give them superior treatment outside the direct-mail program.

Use modeling if you can, but always take the time to think about who should receive the mailing; don’t just rely on “the way we’ve always done it.”

5. Take advantage of technology
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jones” is not personalized copy. Variable text lets you speak more directly to your donor. In a few paragraphs, you can go from mass communication to a personal letter. Remember, direct mail is a conversation in print.

Truly, some direct mail deserves to die. But for all of you who are struggling to produce direct mail that gets results and reflects well on your organization, take it from this old dog — stand proud. I’m right there beside you.

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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