Is your nonprofit thinking about starting (or significantly expanding) a direct mail program in 2011?

Russ Reid’s Heart of the Donor study (August, 2010) found that a majority of donors still give by mail (61% of donors who made a gift in the last 12 months reported doing so by mail), which makes direct mail a smart place for many nonprofits to invest.

But starting a direct mail program from scratch is a big investment.  It can be a scary thing to take on.

Here’s a series of questions I get all the time.  Maybe you’ve asked them a time or two yourself . . .

I’m not sure if direct mail fundraising is right for us.  It’s expensive.  It’s complicated.  Takes a lot of time and effort to build a successful program.  If we invest in direct mail, how do we know it will work for our organization?

These are good questions, and it’s important that you ask things like this before you jump into something as complicated as a direct mail fundraising program.

If you’re considering starting a direct mail fundraising program, you want to make sure your organization answers these three questions first.

Question #1: Do the masses care about your work?

Direct mail fundraising is a volume game.  In order to acquire large numbers of donors through the mail, you have to mail to a large audience.  That’s why you need a clear understanding of how widely supported your cause is.

Is what you do important to millions of people (or even hundreds of thousands)?  Are you working to cure childhood cancer?  Feeding the hungry?  Saving abused animals?  If so, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find a large enough pool of potential donors to make direct mail a viable acquisition channel for your organization.

But if what you do has a limited base of potential supporters (maybe you’re a small, locally-focused nonprofit, or what you do only resonates with a small segment of the overall population), you’ll have trouble finding a large enough audience to make an investment in direct mail acquisition pay off.

It’s also important to note that there are some causes that, for one reason or another, just don’t work all that well in the mail.  The issues may be too complex or too controversial to be successful in the mail.  Or maybe there’s another reason that we just haven’t nailed down yet.

Examples of these kinds of causes are:

  • Domestic violence prevention
  • Transitional housing for the working poor
  • Gambling addiction recovery
  • Sexual abuse / violence prevention
  • Hospice care

If you’re not sure where your cause falls on this spectrum, seek out expert counsel.  Fundraising agencies and consultants that specialize in direct response fundraising can pretty quickly assess whether or not your cause and your organization have the mass appeal necessary to be successful in direct mail (especially in donor acquisition).

Question #2: Does your name clearly and simply explain what you do?

Ask any direct mail fundraiser and they’ll tell you one of the greatest challenges in direct mail acquisition is getting the envelope opened. 

That’s why your name is so important.  If the person holding your envelope isn’t already a supporter, one of the critical aspects to getting that package opened is whether or not they can easily understand who you are and what you do. 

If your name clearly and simply conveys what your organization does, you have a much better chance of getting that envelope opened. 

So what are some easily recognizable / understandable names?

Notice that only a few of these are major national organizations.  Those envelopes will get opened simply because of the national brand recognition that ARC and Salvation Army have. 

The other three organizations aren’t as well known, but just looking at their name you can easily understand what they do, and the value they provide to the community.  Rescue missions, food banks, humane societies – the majority of people in any market in the U.S. or Canada will know what these types of organizations do simply by reading their names.

If your organization’s name is that clear and simple to understand, you stand a good chance at successfully getting your envelopes opened.

But what if that’s not the case?  Here are some examples of organizations that aren’t as easily recognizable or understandable. 

The challenge with these organizations isn’t that they don’t do good work.  In fact, I’m sure these organizations are all doing vital work in their communities.  Unfortunately, their names aren’t descriptive of that work, which will make it much easier for a non-donor to bypass their direct mail appeal for one that is more recognizable. 

Question #3: Are you solving an urgent problem?

In direct mail (or any direct response channel) fundraising, you must quickly compel someone to make a buying decision (a gift to your nonprofit).  It’s not unlike commercial direct mail marketing, in that respect. 

Unlike major gifts or planned giving, you aren’t afforded multiple personal visits and significant time to convince a prospect. 

You have maybe 15 seconds to influence a decision in your favor.  And if, in those 15 seconds, you can’t convince me that I need to give right now, you probably won’t get my gift. 

If what your organization does doesn’t solve an urgent problem, direct mail probably isn’t right for you.  Direct mail fundraising needs urgency in order to be effective.

Could a child die if I don’t send a gift today?  Will my neighbor’s family go to bed hungry tonight if you don’t get my check?  Can my $200 today provide clean water for a child in Africa tomorrow (these are all online examples, but the urgency translates to their mail programs as well)?

Those are compelling, urgent issues that need to be solved immediately.  And I can understand that my inaction (not sending a gift) will have dire consequences for the people served by these organizations.

To be clear, these organizations do many other things in addition to those highlighted above.  But they don’t focus on them in their fundraising efforts.  Why not?  That’s simple – the more urgent offers work better.

If your organization provides multiple services, there’s nothing wrong with using your most compelling service as the primary offer for your fundraising.  In fact, if you don’t, chances are your direct mail fundraising program won’t work as well (or at all).

So what if you don’t provide an urgent service like those I’ve outlined above?  Well, mail just might not be right for you then.  All programs and offers are not created equal.  Some just aren’t right for direct response fundraising.  While it might be frustrating to hear that, it’s better that you hear it now and that it becomes part of your decision-making process early, rather than finding it out only after you sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into a program that doesn’t work.

Bonus Question: How’s your web presence?

Recent studies confirm that your website is critical to your fundraising success (offline and online).  In fact, Russ Reid’s Heart of the Donor study found that more than 60% of donors who gave a gift in the last year went to the nonprofit’s website prior to making a decision to contribute.

Similarly, a recent study by research firm Campbell Rinker found that as much as 30% of an organization’s revenue from a given direct mail campaign may come via online responses.  This is especially true if you have a younger than average donor base.

Before you jump into a direct mail program you might want to make sure your website is up to the challenge.

Now what?

If your nonprofit can answer all of these questions in the affirmative, and you don’t yet have a direct mail fundraising program, then I’ve got to ask . . . what’s holding you back?  It’s clearly an opportunity to generate significant additional funding in the coming years.  Go for it!