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

Before Receiving your First Donation

If fundraising falls under “other duties as assigned” in your job description, and you are overwhelmed at the prospect of getting started, here are some things to think about before receiving your first gift.

Receiving Gifts

You are on the brink of learning how to create a successful fundraising program, and when you do, the gifts will be rolling in! Are you ready to receive them?

Snail Mail Gifts

Even in the digital age, direct mail is still a great way to gain donor support. Sending an ask through the mail results in getting gifts back the same way. When they come in, who opens the mail? Who gets the mail that has checks included? When and how are checks deposited and into which account? These are important questions to ask yourself in order to be prepared for gifts. At least two people need to be involved in this process for accountability and transparency.

Industry standard is to deposit checks within 24 hours. Some of you may have read that and panicked. Don’t worry. If 24 hours is not possible for your organization, just make sure you are depositing checks at least once or twice a week. DO NOT wait until you have a stack of checks to make one convenient trip to the bank. Everything an organization does sends a message to the donor. Waiting to deposit a check tells the donor your organization is inefficient or lazy or worse, that you don’t really need their money.

If getting to the bank frequently is out of the question, you may want to consider a remote deposit solution. Remote deposit uses a scanned copy of the check to deposit the gift into your account. No more trips to the bank!

Maybe you have provided a way for a donor to send back credit card information on a reply device from a mailing. If so, make sure you run their credit card information within 24 hours of receiving it and immediately black out the number. Since you should be able to do this from the office, it is very important to stick to that 24-hour window.

Online Gifts

While direct mail is still important, online gifts are increasing year after year. In 2017, 54% of Americans preferred donating online, and nearly half of millennials, gen x’ers and baby boomers are enrolled in monthly giving programs, according to Nonprofit Source.

Visit your website through the lens of a prospective donor. Is the donate button easy to find? Does the donation form look professional and clear? Can you easily make a gift? Do you have the capability of making a monthly gift? Make a test gift to see the whole process through the donors’ eyes. If the answer to any of these questions is no, talk to your website developer or edit your contribution page to create the most user-friendly experience you can with the tools you have.

Make sure your website is set up to redirect to a thank you or confirmation page after making a gift. Donors should see immediate clarification that the transaction processed and that you are grateful to receive it.

Donor Database

Great fundraising programs are created by building relationships with your constituents. An important part of building that relationship is remembering everything they tell you and storing that information somewhere. If you have many constituents, you may need to look at purchasing donor database software. There are tons to choose from, varying widely in cost and features. Take some time to do the research and choose the right program for you both now and where you hope to be in five years. It is extremely time-consuming and cumbersome to switch systems. If you are a small organization or just getting started, a simple spreadsheet might do the trick. I have made a template for you.

Download the free donor database spreadsheet.

When I say remember everything they tell you, I mean everything. Make sure to record their names spelled properly, titles, middle initials, their address and phone number on the check, even the sweet note they included with their gift. All of that information will help build a deeper and more personal relationship with your donors and will come in handy if you ever get gifts from two people with the same name. It happens more often than you’d think!

It is impossible to remember all the specifics about so many individuals. Recording the information will serve as tricks to help you remember what they have already told you.


Snail Mail Gifts

Now that you have received the gift, deposited the check and entered the information into a donor database, it is vital to thank the donor in a timely manner. Before an ask is made and the first check comes in, write a thank you letter, so it is ready to be personalized as soon as the check comes in.

Personalization is key here! Make sure you are thanking the donor by name for the correct amount they gave and acknowledge the specifics of the gift. Was it an honorarium? Does the money go into a specific fund? Handwriting on a thank you letter goes a long way. Hand sign and include a personal note when possible.

Industry standard is to send acknowledgement letters within 48 hours of receiving the gift. Donors notice how long it takes for the thank you to arrive. Quick replies let them know that you received the gift and that your organization runs efficiently enough to make processing gifts a regular priority.

You may want to include language at the bottom of the thank you that may serve as a tax receipt if the gift is tax deductible.

Online Gifts

Chances are, your payment processor has the ability to send an automatic thank you email. Take a few minutes to customize the language and include a branded header in the email template. It won’t take long to set up but will go a long way in the professional look you will present.

If you are unable to set this up automatically, the same 48-hour rule applies here. Create an online gift thank you letter email template, and send it out as you would a regular acknowledgement.

 For those under a Parent Organization

If your organization answers up to a larger one, they might be the ones receiving and processing the gifts and giving you the money later. Have the conversation with leadership on the front end about how intake, processing, accounting, reporting and the transfer of funds will go. If they receive the gifts, they may also be acknowledging them. Ask for organization or project specific language to be included in the acknowledgement. Also make sure to create a process for receiving donor information. It is important for you to know who your donors are, so you can thank them in person when they come to visit or know who is most engaged when you are looking for volunteers.

Be sure to find out how and when the money will be transferred for your use. There is nothing worse than planning an ask for a specific, time-sensitive project, only to discover the funds may not be available in time.

Foster open communication and transparency with your parent organization before starting a fundraising program and aim for the smoothest process possible.

Train Your Team

A little preparation on the front end will go a long way to making your life easier when you receive your first gift. Make sure your team is aware of the preparations that have been made and the processes that you have put in place. Give everyone the opportunity to ask questions or make suggestions. They know their roles better than anyone and probably have tips on making the process more efficient.

Here we go!

Once everyone knows his or her role, you are officially ready to start receiving gifts! Congratulations! Let the fun part begin!

Integrating Communications and Development Strategies

Hello everyone! I am blogging from Waters of Grace, the National Camp Gathering in Palestine, TX. This week has been full of amazing workshops and presentations led by camp people from all over the country. Today, I got to join this esteemed group and lead a workshop of my own called Integrating Communications and Development Strategies.

In a nutshell, I discussed how important it is to include fundraising messages into your story-telling communications. You have an amazing story to tell, one that should inspire and relate to your readers. It is important to include a way to respond to the work of your mission when inspiration strikes, so be sure to include a development message in order to do that.

This concept is sometimes multi-channel marketing. The idea is that your donors are consuming all kinds of media from several different platforms, so you should be present there too. Creating a cohesive look and design to your communications and development message across several platforms can lead to much better results. It keeps your message front of mind, so donors and friends don’t forget it, and if you missed them in one place, you may find them in another. A general rule of thumb is that a donor has to hear a message seven times before acting. Seven. Times. If you mail one letter a year, it may be hard to convert that friend to a donor.

Check out these resources and articles I read in creating Lakeshore Camp and Retreat Center’s fall campaign, as well as this presentation.

Channeling Real Human Beings in Multi-channel Marketing

A report from the Chronicle of Philanthropy: “Fundraising in a Multichannel World.”

The Beginner’s Guide to Digital Fundraising

Interested in seeing how I was able to design an integrated communications and development strategy for Lakeshore that resulted in a campaign total four times last year’s total? Email me for a copy of my powerpoint slides for this presentation.

If you would like to work together on a plan for your organization, let’s chat.

Cabin 9 Consulting: The Origin Story

Cabin 9 is the girls’ activity staff cabin at Lakeshore Camp and Retreat Center–the camp where I grew up, worked on summer staff and now serve as Director of Communications and Development. I worked on activity staff during the summer of 2008 and lived in that cabin.

During those three months, this place had quite an impact on my life. Up until that point, I experienced God almost exclusively through nature and being in the wonder of creation. I remember feeling disconnected during the summer of 2008, even though I spent most of my time on the ropes course in the woods. It was on the porch of Cabin 9 that I realized that God was communicating with me through people that summer, that my work at camp was ministry and that my life should follow that path. I realized that my gifts and talents were best used behind the scenes, ensuring that campers and other staff had a great experience through the work I was able to help prepare. This discovery proved to be extremely important. Back at school that fall, I changed my focus to Youth and Non-profit Leadership, and was particularly drawn to fundraising. This was it. This was how I could use planning and preparation behind the scenes to make sure that other people and organizations were able to carry out their missions. My ministry would be raising the money to allow programming to facilitate life-changing experiences and moments to happen.

For the past seven years, I have learned all I can about development work through a plethora of different experiences at very different types and sizes of organizations. Now, I am back home, at Lakeshore Camp and Retreat Center, applying my development knowledge to the place I love most. And when I’m there, I live in Cabin 9 where it all started. This journey has allowed me to develop my personal mission to help other organizations bring their missions to fruition, and Cabin 9 Consulting is the tangible expression of that goal.

If you have a mission you need help catapulting into reality, I look forward to working together to make those dreams come true.