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Direct mail fundraising: 6 strategies for every nonprofit

April 09, 2021
This nonprofit supporter is reading a letter that she got in the mail at her desk.

With the popularity of digital marketing, many nonprofit organizations are unsure if they should invest in direct mail fundraising as well. 

According to Nonprofit Source, marketing campaigns using a combination of direct mail and digital mail have a 28% higher conversion rate than campaigns using either method alone. The question isn’t whether nonprofits should invest in direct mail fundraising or digital fundraising, but how they can create a strategy where both communication methods work together. Plus, the best fundraising software will come with tools that support both digital and direct mail campaigns.

To help launch your nonprofit’s first direct mail campaign or give your current approach a boost, we’ll review the essentials of a successful direct mail fundraising campaign before diving into six strategies to consider implementing.

Direct mail fundraising basics

To ensure your nonprofit begins your campaign fully informed about direct mail fundraisers, let’s explore a few common questions nonprofits often have about these fundraisers.

How does direct mail fundraising work?

Direct mail fundraising is essentially a fundraising appeal sent through the mail. Traditionally, nonprofits would compose a fundraising letter, add it and other necessary materials such as a return envelope or formal donation form into one envelope, then mail their appeals out to supporters. 

However, modern technology has allowed nonprofits to improve their approach. For example, many nonprofits use data from their nonprofit CRM to create personalized fundraising letters that address supporters by name and reference unique details about their past engagement, like a previous donation amount. 

Do nonprofits still use direct mail fundraising?

While digital marketing is the preferred fundraising method for many organizations, direct mail is still an important communication channel that provides consistent results.

Fundraising professionals know that it takes multiple interactions with a supporter before they donate. Each interaction, or touchpoint, helps build the relationship between the nonprofit and the potential donor. They also know that supporters have a preference when it comes to communication channels. Adding direct mail to your existing communication methods can add variety to your appeals and increase the likelihood that a supporter will respond favorably.

Is direct mail fundraising effective?

There are several factors that will determine the effectiveness of your direct mail fundraising campaigns, such as the level of personalization and targeted storytelling. Ultimately, the success of any campaign depends on how you frame your message and how well that message connects with your donors.

6 direct mail fundraising strategies for nonprofits

Here are six strategies you can employ to better connect with your audience and increase the effectiveness of your direct mail fundraising campaign.

1. Carefully choose your direct mail fundraising audience

There are two distinct types of direct mail fundraising depending on the audience you're reaching out to: housefile and prospecting.

Housefile mail is sent to donors who have already given to your organization and who you are trying to nudge to give again. Prospecting mail, on the other hand, is cold outreach sent to prospective new donors or lapsed donors who haven’t given in a long time.

Because housefile mail tends to have a better ROI, we recommend that all nonprofits have a housefile mail strategy incorporated into their overarching fundraising strategy. If you have an effective fundraising CRM, you should be able to quickly segment your donors into housefile and prospecting lists.

2. Tell a story in your direct mail fundraising letters

A key part of a direct mail fundraising letter is the story that the letter tells donors. When people read through their mail, you want to make sure you catch their attention right away. To do this, pull them in with a story.

There are several types of stories you can use to motivate donors to give through direct mail: 

  • Your organization’s story
  • Stories of individual beneficiaries
  • Impact stories

Your organization’s story

Your nonprofit has a unique story. Telling people about the struggles and triumphs of your organization will show that you're a credible organization and trustworthy with their contribution. This method is especially useful if your organization has a unique origin story.

Stories of individual beneficiaries

Employing the stories of individuals is a method of inspiring donors that is effective for both direct mail fundraising and digital fundraising.

Impact stories

Impact stories evoke your supporters’ emotions while grounding your accomplishments with facts and statistics. These stories emphasize why your nonprofit matters in multiple ways, creating a more comprehensive experience for supporters. The key elements of an impact story are:

  • The story has a defined structure. Your story should have a main character who struggles with a conflict, overcomes it, and has a happy ending. 
  • The story is engaging. Make sure to keep your stories short and to the point with only necessary details. 
  • The story is educational. After reading your story, supporters should know more about your nonprofit’s work. 
  • The story is memorable. Your story should be easy to follow but also convey a universal experience that your readers can relate to. Plus, adding humor, inspiring details, and other elements can make supporters want to share your story with their family and friends.

When crafting your beneficiaries’ stories into a fundraising appeal, you may need to adjust some details. However, make sure you’re still conveying their words and experiences accurately to stay truthful and authentic. 

3. Use "you-attitude" while drafting fundraising letters

The general philosophy behind "you-attitude" is that people tend to be more interested in their own actions or needs than the writer's. Supporters are more likely to contribute to a nonprofit when they feel they share a common purpose. Therefore, the most important word to include in your writing is "you."

Rather than framing your sentences around the needs of your organization, frame them around the actions of the donor. Instead of writing an appeal with the words: "We implore you to make a donation for..." try using this donor-focused appeal instead: "Your donation will help us to..." Show donors how important they really are through language.

4. Make sure direct mail letters are skimmable

It should only take a matter of minutes from the time that your supporter opens your letter until the time they are finished reading. Simple, shorter sentences get the point across for donors skimming your content. Compound and complex sentences require readers (no matter their reading level) to slow down in order to understand. 

Make sure your supporter knows that you are asking for a donation and how much you are asking for by the time they finish skimming your letter. Direct language will help clarify your reason for writing to the supporter and ensure they know what the next step is for the donation process. Don’t assume the donor will know you’re asking for money. Make your ask explicit. For example, a food bank might write, “Your donation of $100 provides a week’s meals for a family of four. Please make your donation this month before cold weather comes to our area.”

Making multiple appeals in a single direct mail fundraising campaign can actually reduce the frequency and amount of donations. Therefore, it is essential that you include a single appeal in any donation solicitations to maximize impact.

5. Use direct mail fundraising keywords

In most fundraising efforts, you'll find that there are particular keywords or phrases that effectively grab supporters’ attention, such as the donor’s name, “make an impact,” “tax deductible,” “give,” and the aforementioned “you.” These words are the ones that will establish credibility for your organization and signal potential benefits for the donors themselves.

Put yourself in your supporter’s shoes and think about what interests them. Consider the words that would motivate you to give. Then, make a list of these words and use them in your letter template.

6. Outsource your direct mail fundraising efforts

If your staff lacks experience with direct mail fundraising, the good news is that there are many firms that specialize in helping nonprofits plan and perform direct mail fundraising campaigns. Outsourcing your campaign to a direct mail firm can help free up your staff for other important tasks, while still accomplishing your goal of adding this effective fundraising tool to your overall development strategy.

The best way to find a great direct mail firm is to talk with other nonprofits in your industry already using these consultants. Try to understand their process, how long a campaign takes to plan and implement, and any costs that might be associated with the campaign. Whenever you deal with mail, make sure you take postal timelines into account. The lead time for sending and receiving mail, and then receiving donations back, should be accounted for when planning your overall campaign timelines.

Use your fundraising software solution to track the success of your direct mail campaign and see how well it plays into your revenue goals through a donation performance dashboard or comprehensive reporting. 

Final direct mail tips

Direct mail still has a place in nonprofit fundraising, and your nonprofit can tap into it by building out your direct mail campaign strategy with these tips. Consider your nonprofit’s audience, create targeted appeals, and invest in the tools you need to send out professional-looking direct mail fundraising letters.

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