Direct Mail-less

When I first started in the fundraising racket, direct mail was not just de rigueur in order to reach out to large audiences; it was probably the most effective and efficient way to raise unrestricted, annual funds. I started direct mail programs at a number of the organizations where I worked, and to this day, I am convinced that those programs were the key to ultimately building a successful major gift program. So I was as surprised as anyone to discover in the past two or three years that I no longer have a strong faith in direct mail. In fact, if an organization doesn’t already have a strong direct mail presence, I think it is a mistake for them to begin one.

The most obvious, provable reason is the high cost of mail—direct, nonprofit, or otherwise. Where we used to say that direct mail costs between fifty cents and a dollar to raise a dollar (more if it is an acquisition mailing), those numbers have gone way, way up. You’d have to do a lot better than the average 4% response rate for a good (read regular donors) list to make this a worthwhile way to raise funds.

Less provable, more anecdotal is what people do with mail nowadays. Now, I am old enough to remember when the mailman was a pretty special person, and waiting for his (or, less often, her) arrival made up much of my time when I was a freelance writer. Today, I take the mail out of the mailbox, look for the odd bill I don’t pay online, pull out the few magazines we get, and the rest gets tossed. In the past, I would at least open direct mail appeals from a professional curiosity. I no longer even do that.

From what my friends and colleagues tell me, I am not atypical. That suggests to me that unless you have a core audience who cares enough about your organization that they will open up anything that comes with your logo, you are wasting precious resources with direct mail.

So what’s an organization to do? E-solicitations? Well, it’s more cost effective, but unless you have (a) a good list and (b) a real understanding of what will make someone not just open your email but click through to donate, the cost to raise a dollar may be low but so will the amount of dollars raised.

Before we talk about solutions, however, let’s step back a bit and talk about purposes. Not the purpose why someone would support you, but the purpose of a particular fund raising technique. Yes, yes, to raise money. But there is always something else.

That something else for direct mail was to help bring an awareness of your organization to those who might not otherwise know about you. From the large pool of annual givers often came the smaller pool of major donors. More importantly, most planned gifts tended to come from annual not major donors.

These are all important and worthy purposes. Technology has increased methods of awareness building, and I would argue that your money would be better spent on a great website (knowing who your audience for that site is), interesting blogs, and, if necessary, paper newsletters (that can certainly have a reply envelop inserted).

Building a pool of donors is another story, and requires, I believe, some new definitions. We used to talk about annual, special and major gifts, generally using a dollar amount to differentiate. I would argue that today we have to focus on personal solicitations, and that the issue each organization has to resolve is what is the baseline that makes an individual visit worthwhile.

Janet Levine is a fundraising consultant. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at