Direct Mail Campaigns

Direct mail fundraising activities are conducted by nearly every nonprofit organization and political campaign where there is a diversified need for financial support. Such programs have been proven to be effective.

Direct mail is a great way to solicit donations, and it is effective in introducing a large number of people to your organization — potentially garnering their financial support in the future. Through direct mail, organizations can secure new contributors and boost their base of ongoing contributors. It's a strategy that enables both small groups and large organizations to quickly and simultaneously ask hundreds or even thousands of individuals for their financial support. A typical direct mail response is 2 percent of the total number of pieces sent. Three percent is considered a good response, and upward of 5 percent is terrific. Therefore, if you mail out 1,000 pieces and get donations from fifty of them, you are doing great.


Direct mail does have its drawbacks. For starters, recipients often do not think twice about discarding direct mail pieces. People often would sooner toss a letter than turn down a friend who personally asks for a donation. There is no guarantee that the recipient will even open the envelope, let alone read the letter and take action by writing a check. Furthermore, you may know your good buddy is in a position to make a substantial contribution — and would do so simply because you ask. However, when responding to a general direct mail letter, that same person may make only a nominal contribution, assuming they actually save the letter. The lesson here? Asking personally for a contribution still garners the best results when you are dealing with people you know well.

Another drawback of direct mail is the competition. Even in this age of high-tech communications, people receive a wealth of direct mail, and yours is likely one of many.

Plan of Action

You will need a strategy if you want your direct mail campaign to succeed. To achieve that good response of 3 percent, you must first address the following:

  • Who is to receive the mailing

  • How often you will send letters

  • The contents of the mailing

  • A plan for testing your solicitation materials

  • A P.O. box or address where people can reply and someone in your organization can pick up the mail regularly

  • Too often, people mistakenly think that once the pieces are in the mail, the job is finished. In reality, it has only just begun. With any luck, you will begin getting responses within a few days of your mailing, and you will need to be prepared for such a response — which hopefully will be a good one.

    Community organizations seeking to reach every household or business in a specific ZIP code can inexpensively purchase a list of addresses — ask for referrals from other trusted professionals or search on the web to find companies that sell mailing lists. You can find lists that simply indicate “Occupant” as the recipient. These lists are typically purchased for one-time use only.

    If you are a grassroots organization and you know who your compatriots and supporters are, then you are in a position to create a mailing list in-house. The obvious advantage, along with the ability to personalize your mailing, is that you and your organization already have an existing relationship with the people you are asking for a contribution. Some organizations exchange their lists with other nonprofits — a strategy that some say results in further donations. Others, however, feel that exchanging lists can compromise the relationship they have worked so hard to develop with donors. See Chapter 8 for further discussion on this practice.

    The contents of a typical direct mail solicitation include a letter, sometimes a brochure, and always a reply card and reply envelope. The letter will usually be one page or two sides of one sheet of paper if a brochure is included. When there is no brochure, you may elect to write a longer letter — up to four sides.

    Bulk Mail: Pros and Cons

    Another key element of direct mail is using bulk mail. Organizations pay a one-time permit imprint fee of $175, and an annual Standard Mail mailing fee of $175. There is a minimum of 200 pieces or fifty pounds of mail presorted by ZIP code required for a bulk mailing. Bulk mail has its benefits: It is less expensive, and the indicia, a code that appears in place of stamps on your carrier envelopes, can save your volunteers the time of sticking stamps onto envelopes.

    The major drawback is that bulk mail can be very slow. Depending on the size of the town or city you are mailing from, as well as the time of year and the number of states and ZIP codes your mailing is going out to, it might be two to four weeks before all of your fundraising letters are received. Therefore, you must consider your time frame carefully and allow for those extra weeks until the bulk mail is delivered. Plan direct mailings with enough time to prepare your own mailing list, write effective copy, and have your mailing materials edited and proofread. Also, allow enough time for the printer to do the job and for you to proofread the materials in order to catch and correct any errors before sending. Finally, take time to select a good mailing house. Ask for references and find out if the mailing house is reliable at getting the mail out in a timely manner.

    If your entire mailing is within one ZIP code and you can deliver your letters to the post office that serves that ZIP code, you may do better than a mailing house would. Experience shows that bulk mailings sent from suburban or small town post offices to a single ZIP code might be delivered the next day if not within the week.

    One community organization in Pennsylvania led a successful direct mail campaign — increasing its membership by nearly 20 percent while it promoted its cause. It sent its first mailing to 300 households in its 2,000-member mailing list. When it received a positive response, it fine-tuned the letter and sent it to the rest of the list. It ultimately had a 5 percent response rate.

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