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Nonprofit direct mail fundraising: What it is and why it still works

Sending donation appeals via snail mail might sound like a tactic of the past, but it can still deliver impressive results. Discover how it works, why it’s so effective, and how to successfully integrate nonprofit direct mail into your fundraising strategy.

Nicola Scoon
December 14, 2023
July 28, 2023
Nerd Mr Butter

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There’s no shortage of noise in the digital world. Often, it can feel like a struggle to get your audience to stop, take notice, and engage with your message. Sometimes a tangible connection between your nonprofit and your donors is the ideal antidote.

That’s where direct mail fundraising comes in.

While it may feel dated, nonprofit direct mail is a powerful way to engage with your donors away from the distractions of their devices. In this guide, we’ll cover best practices for engaging with your donors through the mail. We'll also share insider tips to make your appeals the most compelling out there.

What is direct mail fundraising?

Direct mail fundraising is the process of planning, writing, printing, and sending letters to your target audience through the postal service. Instead of your donor opening up an email, they receive a tangible envelope in their mailbox.

The goal of direct mail fundraising, also known as direct mail solicitation, is to engage your audience. You want them to read your letter, understand your message, and, most importantly, take action.

Nonprofit direct mail tends to fall into two categories: 

  • House file campaigns 🏠 Sending fresh appeals, updates, and thank you letters to your list of existing and recent supporters helps maintain relationships and aids donor retention.
  • Prospect campaigns ⛏️ Mailing engaging materials and donation request letters to potential donors can raise awareness and attract new donors to your community.

Why is direct mail for nonprofits still relevant?

Many nonprofits have dropped direct mail solicitation campaigns entirely, in favor of relying on email marketing and social media advertising. For some nonprofit organizations, this is a smart move. For others, it’s a missed opportunity.

While there are more ways to reach your donor base than ever before, direct mail can still be a valuable part of your fundraising strategy. 

Here’s why:

  • It’s tangible 🤲 We can all tune out an email or digital ad, but a personally-addressed mailer is harder to miss. Direct mail campaigns quite literally get into the hands of your donor base, giving them an easy way to engage with your fundraising message.
  • Higher response rate than email  📊 While email open rates for nonprofits can average in the double digits, actual click rates tend to come in below 2%. But direct mail fundraising statistics show an average response rate for snail mail appeals that hovers between 5–9%.
  • Receiving mail has that feel-good quality 💌 We get hundreds of emails every day, but it’s not often that you receive a personalized mailer from your favorite nonprofit. It may not spark joy for everyone, but opening up that letter creates a feel-good moment for plenty of people.

Of course, every type of marketing campaign has its drawbacks.

Direct mail campaigns can be expensive—especially if you don’t get the messaging, graphics, or targeting right. Some people consider any non-important mail as junk mail and will toss your letter in the trash. 

But with the right audience, message, and timing, your direct mail fundraising campaign can make a big impact.

Is direct mail fundraising right for your donor base?

We’ve established that direct mail fundraising is alive and effective. But how do you decide whether it’s right for your audience?

Direct mail fundraising is ideal for audiences that…  

✅ Consider direct mail as their go-to giving channel. Some audience groups have historically given via direct mail, like baby boomers. Continue to market to these groups in the way they know and love.

✅ Are part of the millennial generation. If your go-to audience is millennials, direct mail is a great option. Research shows that 90% of millennials trust direct mail—and 24% of them are likely to share these mailers with others. Not only are you engaging with your target audience, but you’re helping to spread your message even further.

✅ Are easily distracted. With direct mail, you have your donor’s full attention. Use this to your advantage by using powerful storytelling and evidence to support your fundraising message, away from the busy digital world.

Not every audience, however, is ideal for direct mail fundraising. Be wary of investing too much time, energy, or money into a direct response campaign if your audience is… 

❌ Spending most of their time online. If your target audience is primarily online or prefers online communication, it’s best to meet them where they hang out. Swap direct mail campaigns for social media campaigns or content marketing campaigns instead, and promote online fundraising opportunities.

Traveling or living away. Direct mail campaigns can only reach your audience if they’re home. If your would-be donors are away at college or live a digital nomad lifestyle, you could be wasting precious dollars trying to reach them when they’re not there.

❌ Environmentally conscious. For sustainability-minded audiences, receiving direct mail can be off-putting. Consider whether sending a direct campaign matches your nonprofit’s values and missions—if it doesn’t, try a digital campaign instead.

Like any type of nonprofit marketing campaign, it’s all about finding the right medium for your audience, message, and goals. 

How to write a direct mail fundraising letter that converts

You’ve decided to add direct mail to your marketing strategy, but what’s the next step? Here’s how to craft an engaging direct mail campaign from start to finish.

Step 1: Research 🤓

Before you can create an impactful campaign, you first need to decide what it’s going to look like. In the research stage, think about what your goal is and how you can get your donors excited about making it happen. 

Reflect on past campaigns to see what has worked and what hasn’t. Consider which stories and messages resonate with your audience, and what motivates them to take action. 

And take a look at the nonprofit direct mail examples you receive in your own mailbox—what appeals to you? What can you learn from them, and what can you do better?

Step 2: Outline your campaign 📝

After you’ve reviewed your data, start building your campaign. Decide on your campaign goal, theme, key messages, and visuals. Think about what success looks like, and which metrics you’re going to use to measure this.

Start outlining your fundraising letter in Givebutter with your campaign name and a description. Use this internally to help you organize, plan, and collaborate with team members.

Step 3: Segment your audience 🎯

The best campaigns are those that are tailored to your audience’s unique preferences, habits, and history. The next step is to split your target audience into segments so you can create the most impactful message for each group. 

If you’re a Givebutter user, this step takes no time at all. Our search and filtering options make it easy to create donor segments from your built-in nonprofit CRM. Find donors, group them by your chosen criteria, and create saved segments to streamline the process.

Step 4: Write your direct mail letter ✍️

Once you’ve narrowed down your audience you can start writing an engaging outreach letter. This step takes time, but it’s worth it.

Craft a direct mail piece with compelling copy, and use storytelling elements to build a connection with your loyal or prospective donor. Add a clear call to action (CTA) to buy tickets, donate, or sign up—and make this step easy with a simple URL or a QR code.

Use Givebutter’s built-in Canva integration and dynamic merge fields to add a personal touch to the experience. Pull in the donor’s name, and add their donation amount to talk about how grateful you are and what impact this has had on your mission.

Step 5: Send out your mailer 📫

Now it’s time to turn those digital letters into a physical, tangible mailer for your donor base. Take a final look through your letters to check for errors. After that, the next step is easy: download your letter PDFs and export your segment contact list to prepare your mailer.

When you create your fundraising letters through Givebutter, you can also generate envelopes and labels set at the right print dimensions and pre-populated with donors’ addresses, so you don’t have to worry about the hassle of handwriting everything yourself!

If you’ve got a busy marketing team or prefer to avoid the DIY route, you may want to consider using a direct mail service for nonprofits. While they're an added cost, nonprofit direct mail companies can help you save time and give you access to extra features like upgraded envelopes, making them a worthwhile investment.

Step 6: Measure your results ✨

After your fundraising appeal, review the impact of your direct mail campaign. Look for not only what went well, but areas that you can improve on for next time.

Review your data to see how many prospective donors converted into first-time donors. See how many people visited your online donation page using a mailer-specific link, or how the number or value of donations from this campaign compares to your digital fundraising efforts.

How to make your direct mail fundraising campaign more effective

Knowing the basics will help you get your mailer out the door, but there’s more you can do to make your direct mail fundraising strategies a resounding success. 

Stick to these direct mail fundraising best practices for your next campaign:

  • Use the best data 🧠 Clean your database and keep it regularly updated with custom tags, donor activity, and other important notes, so you’re always using the most relevant donor data.
  • Know your audience 👥 Segment your audience based on behaviors, interests, and data for tailored direct mail campaigns.
  • Use storytelling 📖 Captivate and inspire your would-be donors with real stories of your impact that make them want to join in being part of the solution.
  • Add compelling visuals ✨ Words can have a big impact, but so can imagery. Use photographs, illustrations, and animated images to tell your story and get attention.
  • Keep it simple 💌 Whether you add imagery or not, keep your direct mail campaign simple. Make every word, graphic, and message count.
  • Give your donors an easy way to engage 📬 Make it possible for your donor base to reply, share, or donate in as few steps as possible. Add a QR code, a simple URL, or a return envelope so donors can take action in the way that’s easiest for them.
  • Show that you care 💛 Talk about your fundraising campaign, but make it clear you care about more than just your donors’ wallets. Take the time to personalize your campaigns, highlight how they’ve helped you make a difference so far, and make them feel like part of your giving community.
  • Make it one part of your overall strategy 📍 Direct mail fundraising efforts should only form part of your nonprofit marketing strategy. In fact, combining direct mail with digital efforts is shown to raise your direct response rate to 28%. Add in email appeals, digital marketing, fundraisers, and livestreams to cover more touch points and improve the success of your direct campaigns.

Start a direct mail fundraising campaign for free with Givebutter

There are multiple channels you can take advantage of in your nonprofit fundraising strategy, and direct mail remains a strong option. Consider whether it’s right for your donor base, then follow the steps above to run, improve on, and repeat your direct mail fundraising campaigns.

Givebutter can simplify the process and make running direct mail campaigns a breeze with a modern PDF letter editor built right into the all-in-one fundraising solution. You can prepare your donation appeals and create and save segmented contact lists for your mailings all in one place, all completely free.

Create modern, branded fundraising letters for free

You’ll also enjoy other top-rated fundraising features, engage donors more effectively, and access a complete nonprofit CRM when you sign up for a Givebutter. Sign up for free today to kickstart your next direct mail fundraising campaign using the most-loved nonprofit fundraising platform.

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