Check-Up Clinic: Donor Communications

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Charities Adjust Mailings to Address Pandemic Response

By Emily Haynes

When the YWCA Clark County, in Vancouver, Wash., moved its preschool to online learning and waived the monthly tuition fee, leaders decided to cancel a scheduled April appeal for preschool scholarship donations. Instead, the charity rushed to send a late March letter seeking donations to support its domestic-violence prevention programs, which have been in higher demand since social-distancing measures forced more people to stay home with their abusers, says Brittini Lasseigne, director of philanthropy at the nonprofit.

“We are in desperate times, and our giving is down,” read the appeal, dated March 24 and signed by Lasseigne. The letter suggested a donation of $100 and included a story about a local woman who, stuck at home with her abusive husband, contacted the charity for help moving to a safer place.

“Our budget was not prepared for the impact Covid-19 would have,” the letter read in closing. “Even from a distance, you can do something now!”

The YWCA Clark County sent supporters the same message twice in one week, in an email followed by a letter in the mail. Supporters then received a different appeal via email the next week. Lasseigne calculated that the letter inspired $2,000 in mailed donations and $2,050 in online donations. The total revenue raised by the campaign of four emails and one letter was more than $16,770, as of Tuesday morning. If the first letter brings in a total of $6,000 in mailed donations, Lasseigne will send a second mailed appeal.

As nonprofits assess how the spread of Covid-19 is affecting their mission and their finances, many are facing a difficult decision: to mail or not to mail.

Some fundraisers worry that the pandemic could disrupt the paper supply chain and slow mail production and delivery. Others fear their constituents won’t open appeals out of misplaced concern that the virus could spread through the mail.

What’s more, the crisis is evolving so quickly that some fundraisers also worry that a mailed message could strike the wrong chord by the time it reaches a supporter’s mailbox. But others say that shouldn’t stop nonprofits from sending mail to their constituents.

“What is happening with the virus seems to change day to day, but the need that your organization is experiencing isn’t necessarily changing day to day,” says Lasseigne.

Inserts in Direct Mail

Direct mail has remained a mainstay in nonprofit fundraising, although digital appeals have outraised direct mail appeals by some measures. One recent survey of 235 nonprofits found that 39 percent of donors gave in response to digital appeals compared with 29 percent of donors who gave in response to direct-mail appeals. But many charities solicit donations by mail in conjunction with online and email appeals. Communicating with donors in multiple ways — including email, social media, and direct mail — can boost retention rates, according to a 2019 study by Network for Good.

While it’s easier to communicate urgent messages through digital appeals like emails and social-media ads, some fundraisers say the moment is ripe to send direct mail to existing and new supporters.

No Kid Hungry, a campaign to end childhood hunger in the United States, received online donations from 33,000 new supporters over three weeks in March. The charity plans to use direct mail to keep in touch with these new donors and solicit continued support. The bleak economic outlook makes these new donors especially valuable right now, says Diane Clifford, managing director of constituency development at the nonprofit.

“We do expect our existing donors to continue to support us, but perhaps at a slightly lower level,” Clifford says. “Because our mission and the need is front and center during this crisis, we’re increasing acquisition to meet the needs of the donors that want to help solve this problem.”

In March, the charity shelved a direct-mail appeal just before its planned mail date and instead sent an urgent appeal for donations to current supporters. In the months ahead, No Kid Hungry will be adding more direct-mail campaigns to those scheduled so that it can reach new donors.

“It’s been a bit of a scramble to make sure that we can insert relevant messaging in the mailings that we already had planned,” Clifford says.

Fundraisers at the charity write short inserts that can be added to planned mailings at a later date to acknowledge how Covid-19 is affecting their work. Unlike a typical direct-mail appeal — which has to be prepared four to six weeks ahead of time — these inserts can be developed as quickly as one day ahead of the mail date.

Greenpeace is also using inserts to keep its mailings timely. Last month, the environmental charity mailed a planned appeal to its current supporters and included a hastily crafted insert that asked for donations to stop a government bailout of the fossil-fuel industry as Congress scrambles to prop up a sputtering economy.

Unlike No Kid Hungry, Greenpeace is not benefiting from a glut of new donors so the group decided to scrap its planned mailings to people who have not supported the charity in the past. It does plan, however, to appeal to lapsed donors through direct-mail campaigns.

“The core messaging is just that our mission is still critical. There’s still important work to do and, in some ways, now more than ever,” says Tricia Hart, chief development officer at Greenpeace.

Mail Delivery

Among nonprofits that are continuing to communicate with their supporters through direct mail, there is concern that Covid-19 could disrupt the paper supply chain and mailing production or interfere with the Postal Service’s delivery.

For now, mail delivery seems to be happening on schedule. Major production disruptions aren’t yet happening, either, because mail production is considered essential. But the pandemic could affect charities’ timelines as production plants shift schedules to protect staff by putting fewer employees on the production line or if employees at the plants get sick.

“We are advising our clients about these new protocols to manage their expectations because there could be delays,” says Polly Papsadore, director of marketing and business development at PMG, a direct-marketing production firm.

Some fundraisers also worry that their constituents are afraid to open their mail because of fears that the virus can spread through mailed material.

For its part, the U.S. Postal Service has quelled concerns about coronavirus transmission by mail, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention findings that it is “a very low risk.”

As nonprofits wrestle with whether and how to mail appeals to their supporters, the public-health crisis shows no signs of slowing down. Lasseigne at the YWCA Clark County expects giving in response to Covid-19 to continue longer than the few weeks donors typically give in response to a natural disaster. But beyond that, she’s concerned about what’s to come.

“Once we hit that peak, it’s going to drop, and it is going to drop drastically,” she says. “People need to get out their message now and really try and get as much revenue as they can right now before they’re going to have a huge dip in revenue. … I think that giving is going to be down for a long time.”


  • Tell donors clearly how the pandemic is affecting your charity’s mission and finances and what they can do to help.
  • The pandemic’s impact on your charity’s mission and operations is likely holding constant even if the spread of the virus is moving quickly.
  • If your charity is seeing a spike in new donors online, consider launching a direct-mail campaign to keep those donors involved.
  • Mail production and delivery are not experiencing major disruptions so far, but there could be delays in the future.
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