There was a time when fundraising was accomplished in one of three ways: face to face, on the phone, or through the mail. Then someone invented the internet and everything changed. All of a sudden you could communicate with as many people as you wanted to—or whom you could get to pay attention—just for the price of production. It takes the same amount of time and costs the same amount of money to put up a web page or send an email to 100,000 people as it does to send it to 100, 10, or 1.
Now as the internet and all of the digital aspects related to it have come of age, the temptation is powerful to leave direct mail behind and move all our fundraising online. The immediacy, the cost-effectiveness, the personalization—for a host of reasons, it seems we should think seriously about relegating print mail to the same quaint museum where one can view buggy whips and stone hammers.
We beg to differ. When radio arrived, newspapers were expected to die. They didn’t. They morphed and got better. When television arrived, radio’s death was supposed to die. It didn’t. It morphed and got better. So too, now that digital communication streams have come of age, many have believed direct mail will pass away. It won’t. It hasn’t. It isn’t. It’s morphing and will get better.
Direct mail will never stand alone (truly, it never has), but will continue to play a role as long as paper materials have any place in our culture, which will be for many years to come, perhaps forever.
With this said, we offer the following 12 point checklist on how to maximize the effectiveness of direct mail in your organization’s fundraising efforts. And not surprisingly, some of them even have application to other aspects of fundraising. Here we go.
Dress for Success – Make it Attractive.
Every effort your organization puts forth in communication should put your best foot forward. Sure there are budget constraints and skill constraints, but no nonprofit leader should be satisfied with average-looking materials. There are too many good designers available for this to be the case. We want to urge you to make your direct mail pieces look good. Now it’s true that what “looks good” for a donor letter as over against a newsletter is different, but today, with digital printing and sophisticated graphic design capabilities, there’s almost no excuse for any aspect of your communication stream looking bad. “Dress for success” applies to organizations as much as it does to individuals.
Make it Look Like You – Branding.
Closely related to the “attractiveness” mandate is the brand. And in this case we’re talking about what your communication tools look like. Hopefully you have a logo that communicates relevance, and that is reasonably contemporary (if it’s not, maybe you should consider a makeover). In addition to a successful mark that identifies your organization, you should have a color palette that you use and stick to with an appropriate level of benevolent ruthlessness. Make sure that everything you do looks like it “works” together. Don’t wear black socks with blue pants.
Avoid the Same Old Same Old – Variety is Critical.
While everything you produce should look like it goes together, there’s nothing wrong with variety. It takes a bit of advanced planning, but mixing up the size and style of your direct mail pieces will favorably affect open rate and readership. If the only thing you ever send is a one page letter in a normal number 10 envelope then you can expect people to grow tired of what you present. The result? More mail thrown away unopened and hence not read. You don’t need to hire a consultant to tell you this won’t enhance your fundraising! Letters, cards, newsletters, annual reports, photo walls. There’s a host of creative approaches to direct mail that will help you tell your story in fresh, innovative ways. You need more than jeans and t-shirts in your drawer.
Today, targeting your approach to direct mail is critically important. Personalization means many different things. At the very least it means mailing your letters to “Dear Fred” as opposed to “Dear Friend.” But it can mean much more. If you run a homeless shelter, some donors might resonate more with caring for women and children, while others have an interest in job training. Why not develop a newsletter that has, at least on one page, content that varies depending upon the interests of the donor. Sure this is more sophisticated than the average mailing piece, but the point is, with careful and thoughtful planning and data management, such personalization can be achieved. For more on introducing variable elements in your donor communications ask for our helpful booklet, Effective Personalization in Fundraising Communications.
Wasting money is always foolish. And wasting money donated by loyal supporters of your organization’s cause will irritate them. It also reduces your effectiveness in fulfilling your mission. Efficiency in direct mail can help you avoid costly mistakes which are all too common in organizations of every size. Advanced planning will ensure proper “cleaning” of your mailing list so that bad addresses are eliminated. Pay attention to your data pull from your system, and mail to the right people. Not everyone should get every piece of mail. Following up on lapsing donors is important—sometimes people just forget to give. But once someone demonstrates they don’t intend to support you any more, don’t take it personally, just drop them.
Use Every Tool in the Box – Integrate.
If you’re paying attention to what we’re saying, you‘ve already picked up on the fact that lots of the advice we are giving doesn’t just apply to direct mail, but to your fundraising efforts as a whole. And while we believe that direct mail is a critical component of your fundraising program, it isn’t everything. Your direct mail efforts must be integrated and synchronized with parallel efforts online, through email, in social media, and so on. In addition, well-structured resource development efforts also include telephone calls, personal meetings, events, along with radio, television and print media.
Get it Right – Be Accurate.
This might seem to be a small thing, but be sure your communications are accurate. If you plan to use a person’s first name, that’s great. But do your best (you’ll never get it perfect) not to call a person Charles when they go by Chuck, or Elizabeth when they go by Betty. Insist on accuracy in data from those responsible for it in your organization. It’s best done right when it is entered, but if it’s wrong, fix it.
On Time Arrival is Important.
Direct mail communications don’t happen overnight. There’s the process of writing and editing, design, printing, merging, mailing. Lots of steps. Sometimes direct mail programs struggle because they don’t get completed on time. Planning will help this process. Just be sure to work ahead and give yourself ample time to get your pieces ready and out the door.
Hug Your Donors.
All of fundraising is really about relationships. Everything you do should shout to your supporters, “We appreciate you and your partnership with us.” This is why when we evaluate direct mail pieces, we always track the number of times phrases that connect with the reader appear. These are phrases like, “because of your partnership with us we have been able to” or “your consistent support has made achieving this goal a reality.” Consistently speaking in words and phrases of partnership significantly enhances the success of direct mail. If you acknowledge your gratitude for donor support, they will stay with you and support you again and again.
Bright Sunshine is Better than Fog. – Make it Clear.
We can’t stress enough how important it is that any piece you put out, whether digital or in print, be written well. The descriptions of your work, the captions under pictures, your calls to action—every single word must be evaluated for strength. There are many factors in play when it comes to success in nonprofit communication in general, and direct mail in particular, but a key factor is actually how well you word your message. Writing should be crisp, clean, and to the point. It should be vivid, painting a stirring picture in the reader’s mind. And if you don’t write well, and no one on your staff does, find someone to help you on a part time basis. You’ll be glad you did.
Get People Moving – Make it Motivational.
It isn’t enough to tell your story successfully in a direct mail program. After all, no matter how good your pieces, they will fail if they aren’t written to move recipients to action. As you evaluate the contents of your communications designed to get donors to respond, ask yourself how motivated you would be to respond if you received the piece. Better still, give a copy of what you plan to send to an objective individual outside your organization and ask them for honest feedback on whether or not the piece makes them want to step forward and get involved. Does the piece communicate a compelling need that can be met by the donor if they respond? It needs to.
Ready, Fire, Aim – Miss!
Too many direct mail campaigns fall short of their potential because of poor planning. Excellent mailing efforts require forethought. Knowing what you will send and when, in plenty of time, will ensure that you have time to research, write, edit, design, print, and mail your pieces. Every strong fundraising program will have time built into the schedule to look ahead and plan next steps. We recommend a quarterly planning meeting designed to look out about six month. In February or March hold a meeting to lay your plans for July to September. In the May/June timeframe, plan for October through December, and so on. A range of steps support this planning process. Contact us and get a copy of our booklet, Successful Fundraising Planning to learn more.
Your direct mail will be high impact and get results if you pay attention to the details!