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Six things about direct mail that nobody talks about
Mal Warwick

August, 2006

RELAX. Seat yourself in a comfortable chair, and take a couple of deep breaths. Empty your mind of all preconceptions. Take another deep breath. Then answer the following six questions.

1. Are you really telling the truth in your direct mail appeals? Really?

Don't get defensive now. Re-read that copy carefully. Make sure you're not telling prospects and donors that "94 cents out of every dollar you send will go directly to feeding the children" when, in reality, it took a lot of artful (and possibly even questionable) accounting to come up with that number.
Even worse, are you still mailing that old control package even though the story it tells is painfully out of date? Be careful. Be very careful!

Ultimately, the primary asset we possess in the nonprofit sector is our credibility. Make sure you're not squandering it with indefensible claims.

2. Are you turning off your donors by over-mailing them?

Yes, I know perfectly well that direct mail works best when we maintain constant contact with our donors. After all, I've been saying this for more than two decades. But is every single one of your mailings a solicitation for funds? Are you permitting your donors the opportunity to specify less frequent appeals and honoring those requests? And are you in touch with your donors often enough through other means to know whether they're content with the volume of mail you're sending them?

Not long ago my colleagues and I worked with a major national nonprofit organization with an award-winning direct mail program that was raising millions annually. In focus groups, almost every one of the organization's donors expressed anger and exasperation about its direct mail program. Now, I don't mean the sort of mild annoyance we all hear when we confess at a party that we're in the direct mail business and people tell us they hate direct mail I mean genuine anger. My firm's job was to help the organization promote legacy giving. As you might imagine, however, we found few takers.
Years earlier, I consulted with another major national nonprofit organization well known to its members for its frequent fund appeals. I suggested to the organization's staff that long-term results would improve if they reduced the quantity mailed in their appeals, dropping those people who rarely if ever responded to appeals. However, they argued that previous experience had shown them that every segment they mailed was profitable, even if only very modestly so and thus they continued the practice. They wouldn't concede that their low renewal rates had anything to do with this approach. But I strongly suspect the "churn-and-burn" nature of that direct mail program was largely due to the overemphasis on short-term revenue and the neglect of relationship-building.

3. Is the data on your donorfile accurate and up-to-date? Really?

Naturally, every nonprofit organization and every caging service crows about the quality of its data entry. How is it, then, that so many donor lists available on the market through rental or exchange are so inaccurate? Don't believe me? Just try sending a donor acquisition mailing with first-class postage sometime, and watch the nixies pile up! Having actually done this, I can attest to the fact that, if your donor list is truly accurate and up-to-date, you're exceptional. Print out your list sometime, and subject it to the eyeball test: Chances are, you'll find missing ZIP codes, missing cities or states, and atrociously misspelled names or addresses, as well as lots of duplicates.

Unfortunately, caging, cashiering, and data entry get short shrift in most direct mail fundraising programs. They're the "back end" of the process, and most nonprofit managers seek to keep these costs as low as humanly possible. In reality, though, these steps constitute the "front end" as far as your donors are concerned. If you're misspelling names or getting their addresses wrong, it's a virtual certainty your fundraising program will suffer. A little extra investment in keeping your donorfile accurate and up-to-date could pay off in the long run.

Remember: Despite all our craft and all our artifice, the elements on the outer envelope that almost always first draw a reader's eyes are her name and address. Many donors have taken to automatically discarding mail that is inaccurately addressed.

4. Do you mail gift acknowledgments within a week of receiving gifts?

Now, please don't tell me you don't send thank-yous at all or you send them only to donors of $1,000 or more. Your chief executive or your trustees may think that donor acknowledgments are optional but your donors don't. If you're not mailing thank-yous for every gift (unless a donor specifically requests otherwise), you're making a big mistake. And simply mailing acknowledgments isn't enough. If your thank-you isn't in the mail the same week the gift is received, the value of sending it is dramatically diminished. In fact, if you could get those letters out within a day of receiving the gifts, all the better.

In focus groups, direct mail donors complain bitterly about getting thanked long after the fact or, worse, not getting thanked at all. Why? Because the ugly fact is that few U.S. nonprofits do a good job thanking their donors. For a number of years, this newsletter's Phantom Donor has annually sent $20 or $25 checks to each of 20 or 30 major national charities and tracked their responses: It's rare to receive even one thank-you letter within a week. Most take one or two months to respond. Some don't respond at all except with subsequent appeals. If you run a responsive donor-acknowledgment program, you'll gain a competitive advantage that will pay off in higher renewal rates and greater loyalty.

5. Do your direct mail packages look like everyone else's?

Granted, the direct mail medium has its limits. For example, we all have to use envelopes, because repeated testing has shown that self-mailers (double postcards, folders, brochures, what-have-you) don't work. But does this mean that every single direct mail appeal you send out has to feature a teaser? And does it mean that every appeal needs to be mailed in a white #10 window envelope?

I won't dwell on the envelope question. Other sizes, especially the larger ones, are more costly and may not be cost-effective for smaller mailers. It's the matter of teasers that really riles me. The only reason I can uncover why teasers are almost universally used in direct mail fundraising is ... well, it's always been that way. Everybody uses teasers right? But why? Theoretically, of course, a teaser helps to "get the envelope opened" and thus boosts response. But is that theory correct?

On many occasions, my colleagues and I have tested a teaser against no teaser. I've seen results from only a single mailing where the teaser increased response. In every other case, the mailing performed just as well without the teaser or even better. (See my recent book, Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3, for detailed illustrations.)

6. Are you training your donors to expect "free gifts" from you?

It's no wonder that front-end premiums especially name-stickers are one of the staples of direct mail donor acquisition programs. Such "free gifts" boost response. Some nonprofits have found that donors acquired in this fashion are less responsive and less loyal and give smaller gifts than donors acquired through a straight charitable appeal. But many other organizations insist their testing shows the opposite: Premium-acquired donors are just as responsive, they say.

In some organizations, heavy use of premiums isn't limited to acquisition. Premiums tote bags, plush animals, calendars, greeting cards, and the like are staples in resolicitation as well, and for the same reason they're featured in prospecting: They boost response.

What do these practices teach donors? What about their long-term donor attitudes feelings of the sort that bear on the decision about whether to remember your organization in their wills? By using premiums to induce response, are we training donors to become involved in a transactional rather than a philanthropic relationship? Keep in mind that research reveals legacy giving stems from donors' passion about an organization's mission. If your donors expect something tangible from you every time you mail them, what are they learning about your mission?

Now, since you're an observant and thoughtful reader, you probably noticed a pattern in these six questions: They reflect my conviction that fundraising in general and direct mail fundraising in particular delivers its best only when it's based on the donor's point of view. Yes, short term costs notwithstanding, I believe you'll raise more money in the long run if you operate your direct mail program with a view toward building strong relationships with the people who pay your bills. And that's possible only when you take great pains to communicate honestly, accurately, and in as responsive a manner as possible with your donors.

This article was reprinted with permission from Mal Warwick. Consultant, author, and public speaker Mal Warwick has been involved in the not-for-profit sector for more than 40 years. He has written or edited seventeen books of interest to nonprofit managers. He has taught fundraising on six continents to nonprofit executives from more than 100 countries. Copyright (c) 2005 by Mal Warwick. All rights reserved.


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