Effective Direct Mail Strategies for Nonprofits

6 min read

Nonprofits are constantly plagued with the question of how to evolve their marketing and development strategies during this time of changing giving patterns and donor preferences. In our increasingly digital world, is there still a place for more “traditional” fundraising tactics like direct mail? While some say no, the U.S. Postal Service has found that 87 percent of millennials like receiving direct mailings, and they spend an average of nine minutes per day scanning their mail.

Despite the growing popularity of digital fundraising strategies and tactics like social media, email and search advertising, direct mail isn’t dead. In fact, direct mail for nonprofit fundraising can often have a stronger return on investment (ROI) than those digital tactics. According to a report from the Data & Marketing Association, the median ROI for direct mail is 29 percent. 

While it is true that nonprofits aren’t sending out as many direct mailings as they used to, that doesn’t mean you should stop sending them entirely. Instead, be more strategic about how you make your direct mail asks. Techniques like thoughtfully segmenting mailing audiences, using the most important keywords in key positions and aligning direct mail with digital tactics can help your organization up its direct mail game.

Separate “housefile” and “prospecting” audiences

Your list of recent donors is your “housefile” list, and the list of those who have never donated to you (or maybe haven’t in a while) is your “prospecting” list.

While these two direct mail lists are important, they’re not the only ones you should be using. If you have t expanded your direct mail program beyond them, chances are, your direct mail strategy isn’t as effective as it could be. If possible, segment your housefile list even further beyond these two lists, separating groups like:

  • Major donors vs. mid-range vs. small gift donors
  • First-time donors vs. recurring donors
  • Event donors vs. direct donors

The messages you include in your mailings should be different for each of these groups, so it’s important to understand the types of messages that resonate best with them. Those who have never donated before may require more information on what your organization does, and those who have already donated will likely want to hear about what their donations to date have helped your organization achieve.

We recommend sending at least one direct mail message to your housefile/current donor list every year, and only sending to your prospecting list for special campaigns. Because people who already have a giving relationship with your organization are most likely to respond to mailings — and direct mail can be an expensive communication channel — your organization should be particularly thoughtful about the messages you send to prospecting lists. A good rule of thumb is to only send messages to prospects if you’re confident you can convert enough to cover the cost of the mailing. Once those contacts are on the housefile list, communications with them will begin to have a greater ROI.

Ensure your mailer is skimmable and important keywords stand out

While your team will likely spend hours upon hours poring over each individual word in your direct mail pieces, your recipients will likely only spend a few seconds reading it. That’s why it’s so important to include the most important information in key places — and multiple times — to ensure your reader understands what makes your cause important and what they can do to help.

The most important keywords that every organization should use, and use, and use in their direct mail asks are:

  • The recipient’s name
  • “Tax-deductible”
  • “Give” or “donate” (NOT “support” because it’s too vague. Be bold and direct about what you want your reader to do.)
  • “You” (Make it clear how they’re a big part of your organization achieve your mission.)
  • “Match” if donations are being matched during a specific campaign, and the rate at which gifts are being matched

Other key words and phrases will be specific to your organization based on your own unique brand benefits and key messages. Make it clear what your organization does that no others do and why it’s so important for the community you serve. And like those general keywords, including “you,” “give” and “tax-deductible,” include your unique key messages multiple times throughout the mailer so readers will immediately understand who you are and feel compelled to give, even with a quick skim.

Align direct mails with digital tactics

Your direct mail shouldn’t be a standalone piece. It should directly align with complementary email and social media tactics to help amplify the effectiveness of each message. As you build your organization’s marketing plan, consider how each of these tactics work together and complement one another.

For example, on the same day a mailer is scheduled to arrive at recipients’ homes, schedule a paired email message that reiterates the importance of your organization’s work and builds upon the mailer’s message, ensuring the reader sees and fully understands your mission and goals in one or both places.

You can also share continuations of your participants’ or communities’ stories on social media and encourage direct mail recipients to follow along to learn more about a person or campaign they’ve been introduced to in your mailer.

Additionally, on each individual direct mail piece, try some creative ways to engage with your audience digitally by connecting the physical mail piece with a landing page that provides more information and makes it easy to donate. A simple URL like “yournonprofit.org/mail” can take readers to an interactive landing page that makes it easy to donate and learn more about the community you serve and the impact a donation can make.

We know one of the biggest challenges of direct mail can be convincing recipients to open the envelope before throwing it into their recycling bins. Attention-grabbing colors, unique shapes or textures and messages on the outside of the envelope like “see what your support has done” can all pique your readers’ curiosities.

But most importantly, measure and optimize each mailing based on what you learned about the last. Did you recognize a spike in donations with a mailer that used a chart that illustrates your impact compared to one that was more text-based? Use that chart, or another one, again on the next mailer. Are mailers that use personal stories more impactful for your donors than those with statistics, or vice versa? Do certain stories resonate better with some lists compared to others? These observations are critical for ensuring your direct mail ROI for future campaigns.

If you’re interested in building more strategic direct mail practices into your organization’s marketing plan, consider using our Essential Nonprofit Marketing Plan Template to help you get started.

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