The 5W’s of Direct Mail Series: Who to Mail?

Once you have decided to move forward with direct mail, the first step is deciding who should receive the outstanding letter you will write. If you’re not convinced yet, go read the first post in this series Why Mail?, and meet us back here.

Mail everyone who has a connection with your organization. If you are new to fundraising, you may not have a huge donor base yet. That’s okay! What other constituencies have shown an interest in your mission? Families who utilize your services? Alumni to your program? Volunteers? Former and current board members? People you met at an event?

Mail all of these people. They aren’t strangers; they are familiar with your organization and your mission, and they will help you build your donor list. An important thing to note here is that mailing these groups assumes you have kept contact information for all of these people. If you haven’t, let’s start there. Download the donor database freebie to use as a basic template for keeping contact information and notes about your groups.

In fundraising, there are two types of lists: the housefile and the prospect list. Current donors are part of the housefile. Everyone else is on the prospect list. According to Data Targeting Solutions, the response rate for a mailing to a housefile is 9%, and the prospect list return was 4.9%. These statistics are the highest rates since 2003. If you are new to direct mail, those numbers may seem like a lot of work for such a low return rate, but direct mail still has the highest return rate of any other medium—five to nine times higher than email and social media alone.

Since you will likely be mailing more prospects than current donors, the ROI will be much lower for the prospect list. This is normal. The goal here is to break even on the prospect mailing. You are telling your story, building awareness of your mission, and communicating the need. Prospects need to hear a consistent message several times before taking action.

The prospects who give in response to your mailing are now on your donor list, growing the housefile. It can cost up to 10 times more to acquire a new donor than to keep an existing one, so once they convert to donors, let’s work hard to keep them coming back to your organization.

Preventing donor attrition is easier said than done. Donor retention rates across the non-profit sector are consistently below 50%. In 2017, the donor retention rate was 45.5%, meaning only 45.5% donors made a repeat gift to an organization. As you mail your lists, keep an eye on who is returning and who isn’t making a repeat gift.

We will talk more about what to mail donors and prospects and how to improve retention rates in the next post.

Need some extra help? Schedule a free 20 minute coaching call to assess your organization’s needs for direct mail.

Further Reading:

Donor Retention vs. New Donors: Donor Retention Always Wins
2018 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report

5W’s of Direct Mail Series: Why Mail?



If your organization is new to fundraising, direct mail may sound overwhelming. There are so many steps to doing it effectively, not to mention the cost of printing and mailing. This blog series will break down the large topic of direct mail over five posts and give you the information you need to make a case for direct mail within your organization as well as the action steps for a successful appeal.

Why spend the money on direct mail in an increasingly digital age?

Direct mail is a tangible way to connect with donors and share the work and need of your organization. Emails, social media ads, and unanswered text messages get lost in the bombardment of messages we receive every day. Marketing firm Yankelovich, Inc. estimates that the average person sees 5,000 messages a day. While digital marketing should be part of an overall strategy, it is easier to scroll mindlessly past messages than ignore mail you physically touch, at least the distance from the mailbox to the trash can. Even these people spend four times longer with your content than scrolling past a post.

You may be wondering how it is more effective to design a campaign, write a fundraising letter, create the mailing list, pay for postage, and send an ask to people’s mailboxes than schedule a free post on social media. In a 2018 study, We Are Social found that organic reach on Facebook is 6.4% of page likes. Meaning, for every 1,000 people who like your page, only 64 see that free post.

One way to increase your engagement and extend the reach of that organic post is through paid Facebook ads. These are a helpful part of a cohesive, multi-channel fundraising campaign. Studies show that the average cost per click (CPC) on Facebook ads is $1.72, and users spend about 2.5 seconds on what you created. The paid ads will increase your viewers, but how does $1.72 compare to direct mail?

The cost for the printing and postage of a four piece mailing—letter, insert card, remit envelope and outer envelope, all in full color is $0.84. Even the people who spend ten seconds walking your beautifully designed appeal directly from the mailbox to the trash can engage with your piece enough to get an impression of your organization. Most people will spend about 30 seconds looking at your appeal, especially taking in the photos, captions, bold print and quotes.

Minimum four to twelve times more engagement for less than half the price? Sounds like a no brainer to me.

Studies show that the average return on investment (ROI) of a direct mail solicitation is between 29-37% and can be increased to up to 67% if combined with multiple channels, including email and social media. Remember the statistic that people see about 5,000 messages a day? One side effect of this deluge of messaging is that donors need to hear the same message between 7 and 21 times before taking action. Spreading the ask over multiple channels where you are already engaging with donors will significantly increase the success of your campaign.

The short answer for the why here is it takes money to make money. Investing in a direct mail campaign will increase the return on your campaign more than a stand-alone organic or paid social media ad.

Fundraising, especially direct mail, is a science. Make sure to follow best practices for fundraising strategy to get the best bang for your buck. Remember, just because there is a science to this does not mean it’s impersonal. You are sharing your story and the need with people who care about your organization. Sharing it effectively with the best chance for a high ROI means you are stewarding the donor’s dollar and your time the best way you can. Donors like that. A high ROI means more time and money spent on the actual mission and less on overhead. Donors LOVE that.

Now that we have built a case for why you need direct mail, stay tuned for the rest of the series to learn how to launch a successful direct mail campaign.

Need some extra help? Schedule a free 20 minute coaching call to assess your organization’s needs for direct mail.

Subscribe to Cabin 9 Consulting to receive tools to take the anxiety out of fundraising and get you focused on your mission.

Read more on direct mail:

Social Media Statistics
Internet Growth Accelerates But Facebook Ad Engagement Tumbles
The Fundraising Authority
Online Giving Statistics
How Often Should You Mail Nonprofit Donors?
Fundraising Letter Audiences