Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, we knew our mail carrier by name. As properly raised children, we called him “Mr. Ed.” During our summer vacation from school, he often let my sister and me push the mail cart down the street for him. And when we went on vacation, Ed gave our mail to John, who was my grandparent’s mail carrier, and held it for us until we returned home. (Yes, I know that sounds like something out of a Bobbsey Twins book, or for my younger readers, like a baby boomer’s imagination gone amok. Or even a lawsuit in the offing. But things were different back in the old days …)
Fast-forward 15 or so years and I was working in my first “real” job, managing a direct-mail program for a nonprofit. Our nonprofit rate was something like 4 cents, and we mailed aggressively to acquire new names. Even as a fairly small organization, we could afford to test multiple concepts, lists and offers. Our response rate was pretty decent, and our ROI was nothing to be overly ashamed of.
But we all know the reality of the 21st century. Nonprofit postage rates are up (again). Saturday delivery may (or may not) go away. Mail carriers (at least from my survey of the few who work my neighborhood) are unhappy. Delivery has gotten careless (returning home from one three-day trip, I had mail accumulating in my box for every house on my block). Email is replacing “snail mail.” Or is it Facebook messaging, Twittermessages (if you can’t say it in 140 characters, why bother?) or texting?
Which leads to the big question: Why bother using the mail at all for fundraising? In memory of Mr. Ed (my mail carrier, not the horse), here’s my response:
People who have the capacity to give significantly are often ‘of an age’ that appreciates — even anticipates — their daily mail delivery
It’s been a while since I said this in my column, so here goes: You are NOT your target audience.
If no one really cared about mail delivery, there wouldn’t have been more than 200 comments to a Washington Post online article in early 2014 about the latest threat to end Saturday delivery. Google wouldn’t have served up 128 million responses to my enquiry, “cancel Saturday mail delivery.” It would barely make a blip on the radar of the American public.
There may not be much in the mailbox worth retrieving, but for many, it’s that moment of anticipation. Maybe today will be “the” day — and I’ll get that check, letter from a friend, unexpected windfall, even a catalog that will remind me that spring will be here … eventually.
Mail has the potential to surprise
When you mail a fundraising appeal, a newsletter or a thank-you letter to your donor or prospect, you have an opportunity to add sizzle to an otherwise bland day. From the moment recipients hold the envelope in their hands to when they open it and read (or scan) the contents, you can make each one feel like the only person in the world that you care about right then. The reader can learn, laugh, be challenged or just feel good.
The right stories and photos in a newsletter can make a reader cry, get angry, take action or give thanks. He or she may learn something or have a long-held belief challenged. Or the reader may just feel appreciated and know that no matter what else happens today, he or she made a choice to give and that is having a positive impact in the world.
How much surprise your donor mail transmits is up to you, but you owe it to your donors to never treat any letter like it’s “just” an obligation. Instead, use it to deepen a relationship and communicate the utter joy of being part of your mission.
Mail can do more than its intended purpose
When is a newsletter more than a newsletter? When it gives the donor a reason and a means to respond with a gift. Or it invites donors to consider estate plans or honoring the memory of a loved one with a gift to your organization.
While a direct-mail letter needs to stay focused on the intent of the letter (to raise money), it can also reassure the donor that past giving has been well-invested, tell a former donor that he or she is missed, or invite a prospect to share in the wonderful successes you and your partners are making possible.
The humble thank-you receipt can introduce new programs, invite donors to go online for some specific benefits, share more success stories and give a donor confidence that supporting your organization was a good decision. And yes, it can fulfill that IRS requirement, too. But being legal doesn’t mean it has to be cold and impersonal.
When it comes to mail, if you’re stuck for ideas, look at the mail that you are getting and ask, “What piece most makes me want to engage with it?” Check out Who’s Mailing What! for examples of mailings that have stood the test of time and continue to deliver surprise and deepen relationships.
We are fortunate to have many ways to communicate with our donors, and this old dog by no means is suggesting that you use mail exclusively; instead, mix it up. Give your donors and friends multiple ways to hear from you. Some will gravitate to one method or another, and may tell you their preferences. But a wise fundraiser makes sure he or she is “in the room” when the donor has time to strike up a conversation, be that “room” the inbox, website, mobile device or mailbox.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.