question about direct mailThe first step in having a successful direct mail fundraising campaign is having an understanding of the fundamentals — what direct mail is, what it is not and what to expect with a direct mail campaign.  These are three typical questions that many nonprofits who have not done a fundraising letter campaign before may ask.  The answers are important to any direct mail effort.

1. What is direct mail?

Direct mail is the fundraising technique of sending a letter with a focused message to a targeted list of people, with the express purpose of eliciting a response in the form of a financial donation. It’s commonly used by hundreds of thousands of nonprofits around the world to generate funds for general operations, for specific projects or campaigns.

Fundraising letters can be sent to a large number of people or a select few. Results can vary greatly, depending on whom the letter is sent to, when it is sent, and what is asked for.

A direct mail fundraising letter provides:

  • A cost-effective way to introduce your cause to new people.
  • A way to communicate with current donors.
  • An opportunity for supporters to make a financial gift.
  • The chance to renew relationships with donors who haven’t given in awhile.

While informing your supporters, introducing new prospects to your organization, and publicizing your efforts are useful, at the end of the day, you must ask people for a donation. Direct mail offers you a great vehicle with which to do just that.

You want to send a letter that:

  1. Gets into the hands of the right people.
  2. Grabs the recipient’s attention and gets the envelope opened.
  3. Compels the person to respond by sending a gift.

People are busy. They will decide in a matter of seconds whether or not to open the envelope and in a few more seconds, they will decide whether or not to give. You need to provide solid information in the letter and present it in a remarkable way. If you’ve created interest, a prospect may go online to learn more about your organization. The end goal is for the prospect to send a check through the mail or make an online donation.

Direct mail should never be your only strategy for fundraising. It is one piece of a complete fundraising program. In other words, don’t rely on direct mail to generate all the dollars you need to fund your mission. Instead, use it as a tool with which to bring new donors into your
organization, upgrade existing donors, and identify potential major donors.

2. How many donations can we expect?

It’s important to have a realistic understanding of expected response rates before you get started planning a letter campaign. It will help you know whether or not mailing right now is appropriate for your group and if so will help you plan the most successful campaign possible.

First, let’s explore the two kinds of mailings: house and acquisition.

House (or renewal) mailings are sent to your current donors and typically result in significant gifts. After you have mailed to your donors a few times, you will get a good feel for your organization’s response rate. Some organizations have response rates in the 5 – 10% range while others have 25% or more. There is no way to predict how your donors will respond, except by
looking at response rates from previous mailings.

Acquisition mailings are intended to acquire new donors. Typically, letters are sent to names from a rented or borrowed “cold” list with the hope that individual recipients will make a donation. Response rates on acquisition mailings tend to be very low, usually less than 1%. Because of this low response rate, you will need to calculate the number of letters that need to be sent in order to reach your goals. In the next step we provide a calculation tool to help you find this number. Despite the low response rate, acquisition mailings are often an effective way to bring new donors into your organization.

3. Is direct mail right for our group?

After having a good understanding of what direct mail is and what kind of results can be expected, then consider how a direct mail campaign will fit with your other fundraising efforts. You also need to be prepared to spend time planning, writing, and working with outsource agents (such as printers).

  1. You have money to spend on paper and postage
  2. You or a volunteer have the skills to write a good letter (or can you pay a writer or copy editor)
  3. You have the manpower to fold and stuff letters (or can you pay someone else to)
  4. You can create a production schedule and stick to it

If your group is prepared to invest time, effort and some money upfront to then a direct mail campaign might be right for your organization.

This article includes content from the first chapter of 7 Essential Steps to Raising Money by Mail.

Posted on 24 February 2009

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