What is direct mail marketing for fundraising?

Direct mail marketing refers to all efforts to communicate with donors or potential donors through the mail with the goal of raising money for your nonprofit. It is a is a very effective way to raise money for your nonprofit and build a stronger relationship with donors. 

Many people are surprised to learn that mail is still so effective. While email and social media are important for your nonprofit, direct mail continues to be the true workhorse of fundraising. 

Why is that? Direct mail is personal, grabs and maintains the donor’s attention, and provides the space to be able to tell your nonprofit’s story in a compelling way. Direct mail is cost-efficient. Plus, donors trust the information they receive in the mailbox! 

Need help getting started with direct mail?

The team at GivingMail would be happy to work with your nonprofit. GivingMail is has over 70 years of experience in nonprofit direct mail fundraising. We’ve worked with hundreds of the world’s largest charities, raising millions of dollars! We can help you create effective fundraising direct mail letters in just a few easy steps and be in the mail in days. 

Here are some tips for getting started:

Who are you mailing to?

First things first, you need to think about who you are going to send direct mail to. Believe it or not, this might be the most important question to ask in direct mail fundraising. Audience matters. Direct mail only works if people respond so you need to make sure you are sending your direct mail packages to the right people.

There are two main groups that you will want to target: housefile donors and prospective donors. 

Housefile Donors

Housefile donors are those people who have already made a donation to your nonprofit. They have already demonstrated an interest and commitment to your organization, and are therefore the most likely to donate again! When you send housefile direct mail letters, you can expect to make money. 

Even if you only have 12 donors, mail them a direct mail solicitation letter! Direct mail to your housefile is almost always profitable, and is a great way to stay in touch with your donors. Focus on these donors first and then when you have the resources to invest in direct mail turn to prospecting…

Prospective Donors

Prospecting mail is sent to a list you rent for a fee. The people on these lists have never given to your organization, and likely are not familiar with the great work you do. Your goal is to inspire them to make their first donation to your nonprofit.

The best list to rent are donor lists from organizations that are the most similar to you. You want to target an audience that looks as close to your housefile as possible. Be weary of lists that aren’t made up of donors.

You will likely lose money when you send out a prospecting direct mail letter. That can be frightening for nonprofits, but prospecting is essential to your organization’s growth and its survival. Your housefile donors will stop giving at some point for one reason or another, and you will need to have new donors to replace those you lose.

Keep in mind that even though you may lose money in this initial prospecting campaign, once these donors make their first donation, then you should make money in future campaigns you send to them. So think about prospecting as an investment, with a bigger payoff down the road

What are you sending?

Now they you know who you are mailing to, what exactly are you send to them? For direct mail fundraising, the best format is a letter, a reply form and a return envelope mailed in an envelope. Let’s dive into each.

Outer Envelope

The outer envelope refers to the envelope that will hold the letter, reply and return envelope. Your goal with this is to create something that donors will want to open. If it doesn’t get opened, then you definitely are not getting a donation!

Outer envelopes can be as simple as a standard sized white envelope you use to pay bills. But since the goal is to inspire donors to open it, you may want to try out different sized envelopes or different colors or designs to help your piece stand out in the mailbox. 

You should also consider adding a teaser to the envelope. A teaser is a sentence or two that piques the donor’s interest. “Special gift inside” is an example of a teaser.

Return Envelope

Don’t forget to include a return envelope! Why? You want to make it as easy as possible for the donor to send in a donation. You don’t want the donor looking around for an envelope or for stamps…if they are doing this, there is a greater chance they will distracted and forget to send in their donation. 

So be sure to include a return envelope, with stamps already on it. Larger organizations will want to use a BRE (business return envelope) that does not require postage. The post office can help you set up a BRE account.

Reply Form

You reply form is simply the mechanism donors will use to mark how much money they want to donate, and fill out credit card information, if they are donating that way. Response rates are generally higher when the reply form is separate from the letter. Since the donor will be sending this piece back with their contribution, be sure to include the donor’s name and address on this piece, along with any tracking codes that might be helpful for you to analyze the results of the mailing. 


Now for the fun part…the letter! Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing the direct mail letter. 

Make it Personal

Direct mail works best when it feels personal. Even though you may be sending the same letter to hundreds or thousands of people, you want it to read like a letter one person wrote to another. 

How can you accomplish this? First, be sure to use a warm and friendly tone. It should read like a conversation. 

You also want to use personalization whenever possible. Use the donor’s name throughout the letter, and reference the donor’s previous giving and any other information you know about them. 

Use Stories

You will likely want to use a story. Stories are incredibly powerful. Humans are naturally wired to respond to stories. They connect with us in a way that no other communication method can. The right story has the ability to connect emotionally with donors, vividly describe the need for support, and add a sense of urgency to contribute today. Plus, stories are memorable.

Your stories should lay out what the problem is as well as the solution. Through her donation, the donor should become the hero is the story.

Have a Clear Call to Action

You want to make sure your call to action is clear and specific. Make sure donors know exactly what you are asking them to do and why. Include suggested giving amounts to make it personal and even easier for donors to say yes.

Make the Letter Very Easy to Read

Donors are intelligent, but they are also very busy! So you want to make your letter as easy to read as possible. Your letter should read like a conversation not an essay. 

Short words work better than long words, and short, punchy sentences are more effective than long sentences. Wherever you find a long word, switch it out for a shorter one that anyone would know. And cut your long sentences into two, maybe three shorter sentences. 

Don’t use internal jargon or acronyms. 

Send Mail without an Ask

The best nonprofits send donors more than just solicitations. They also send cultivation mail, that is mail that thanks the donor and/or updates the donor on the ways she is making a difference through the nonprofit. There should be no direct ask for a donation in these pieces. 

Why is this important?

Donors believe strongly in your causse, but they want to feel like your partner and not like a walking ATM machine! When you send donors direct mail that updates and thanks them, you are building the relationship with the donor. They become more informed, more loyal, and more enthusiastic about the great work they can make possible. That will result in more income in the future.

So what do these mailings look like?

Thank your Donors

It may sound too basic, but a key part of any direct mail program is thanking donors. You want donors to understand how much their gift is appreciated and how much they matter. 

Thank you letters should be sent out soon after you receive the gift. They should be personalized with the donor’s name, gift amount, and gift date. All donors should receive a thank you letter, regardless of the amount of the gift or which channel they gave through. 

Thank you letters do not need to be more than a few paragraphs long. Keep it simple, and don’t try to do too much within the letter. Explain to the donor how her gift is making a difference and how much her support is appreciated. Be sure to use a warm, friendly tone! 

Share organizational updates

You also want to share information and stories with the donor about how she is making a difference. Share information about progress made and even new challenges your nonprofit is facing. If a donor gives to a specific campaign or program, provide updates about these programs. These updates might come in the form of a newsletter or a direct mail letter. Be creative and authentic! 

Measure Results – Direct Mail Marketing

One of the many advantages of direct mail is the ability to measure results, and to then use those findings to strengthen future mailings. Don’t send direct mail unless you are prepared to measure the results! 

You will want to be able to calculate the response rate and average gift of donations that come in from each direct mail letter you send. You will also want to know the cost per piece mailed and the total net income from the package. Nonprofits often look at additional metrics such as Return on Investment (ROI)  and net cost/donor acquired for prospecting packages. 

Keep track of the performance of all of your direct mail letters, and pay attention to what works and doesn’t work. Lessons can be learned with each direct mail letter you send that will serve to strengthen the performance of future pieces.

Direct mail fundraising is effective and cost-efficient. Best of all, donors appreciate receiving direct mail! 

The team at GivingMail are experts at creating direct mail that will inform and inspire donors. We have decades of experience working with all types of nonprofits, and bring the wealth of our experience to the table. Let us help build even stronger relationships with donors and raise even more money for your mission! 

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