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Change Your Thinking About Direct Mail

Posted: 4/1/2021

Click here to read on NonProfitPRO.

By Pamela Barden

Here we are, more than 12 months later, still impacted by the global pandemic. The current supply of fundraising tools available to us may vary by what region we are in, but one thing is true for every reader of this column: We can't do fundraising exactly like we did just over a year ago. We may return to the glory days of one-on-one meetings without masks at large galas, golf tournaments and small group gatherings, but predicting when that will happen for everyone is not my superpower.

What I can tell you is that the direct mail appeal has been making a bit of a comeback (though for some, it never stopped being effective). Though the printed fundraising appeal made its debut in 1235 when a Buddhist sage was looking for funds to build a monastery, in recent years, it has been supplanted by eAppeals, social media appeals and numerous other lower cost options that supported event fundraising.

And then came the pandemic… fundraising life as we knew it ground to a halt. People stayed home. They were bored. Some were out of work or had their hours cut — but many others kept on working or were on a retirement income that did not change (or actually increased as the stock market climbed to new heights). Getting the daily mail became a big event. Putting on a mask and shoes and going for a walk to the mailbox — priceless!

The result? In recent months, many nonprofits reported their best mail campaign results ever. So maybe it's worth revisiting.

If you are looking to test a mailing yourself, do it right. Don't set yourself up for failure by ignoring these cardinal rules of direct mail fundraising:

1. You are writing to the reader of the letter — not to your board members or staff. That means you have to speak at a level they understand. Stop expecting them to somehow catch up in their knowledge of your program. Some call this "dumbing it down." I call it being respectful enough of readers that you attempt to communicate in their language.

2. Stories are gold. Statistics and acronyms are hard to visualize. Instead, tell a story that lets me see the need and picture you stepping in to save the day. Let me fill in the details in my mind, but tell me enough to actually feel a connection with the sheet of paper I'm holding.

3. You have to ask. Don't leave it up to the donor to figure out that he or she is the solution to the need you have described in your story. Tell the reader what to do. Say please. Say thank you in advance. And ask more than once.

4. Don't ignore your outer envelope. If a person is too disinterested to open it, it makes no difference what's inside. Put the same thought into your envelope as you develop your letter. What will it say, and what will it look like? Does it ask "Won't you please open me?" or does it say "Boring! Just toss me out!"?

5. Give them options to give. Yes, include a reply card and envelope. But make it clear how to respond online. Donors may give online, but something has to drive them there. Don't rely on a supernatural nudge. Bring them to the point of giving online by inviting them to do just that in your letter, then tell them how. (This does not have to be embedded in the letter text; you can add it in bold on the reply form.)

6. Don't forget about donor acquisition. Acquisition in the mail is working. In fact, smart mailings are breaking even or actually making money. "Smart" means careful targeting of your mail list and letter copy that addresses a need the recipient can relate to.

7. Don't be ashamed. Asking for money in a letter is not assault or battery. They'll throw away your letter if they are not interested. They can be asked another time. They can read it and respond right away. As long as your language in the letter is not demeaning or demanding, you should proudly ask for money. People know you need money to do your work, and some of them have the means and the desire to help.

Direct mail's resurgence may not last forever, but while it is flourishing, don't ignore it because it seems so 20th century. Instead, change your thinking and embrace all forms of fundraising that have the potential to work. Follow the best practices, and see if a fresh use of an old tool can improve your fundraising — even if the gala and poker night are verboten for now.

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