Pulse: Raising Money by Mail
Despite our use of the Internet for everything from doing research to ordering pizza, direct mail is still the most effective way for nonprofits to raise funds. In their new book, "7 Essential Steps to Raising Money by Mail," Sandra Sims, founder and president of nonprofit resource firm Step by Step Fundraising, and Sandy Rees, a nonprofit fundraising coach, author, speaker and trainer, map out seven steps to effective direct-mail strategies.
Broken into three parts, this 119-page guide begins with the seven essential steps, followed by 321 sentence starters to get the creative juices flowing and 29 sample fundraising letters that real organizations have actually raised funds with.
Recently, FundRaising Success spoke with Rees and Sims about the importance of a strong direct-mail program for acquiring and retaining donors.
FundRaising Success: What made you tackle this topic now?
Sandra Sims: We've both heard from so many nonprofit leaders that are discouraged because they've experienced a dip in donations. If they have never done a direct-mail appeal before, or had less than impressive results, this could hurt the organization's bottom line and discourage them further. We want to make sure nonprofits have the practical resources they need to make a donation request by mail. Often it's the little things that can make a big impact in the responses received — personalized addressing, a strong ask statement and a P.S., for example.
Sandy Rees: Direct mail has always been my absolute favorite technique for fundraising. From the work that I've done with a lot of small nonprofits, I find that they really want very simple, "step one: do this, step two: do that" kind of information.
SS: Now is the perfect time to plan a well-thought-out direct-mail appeal. The community still needs to hear about the great work that nonprofits are doing. Stories of changed lives because of the work nonprofits are doing are so heartwarming. Even further, sharing tales about the dedication of volunteers and the contributions of donors is a way to honor them as an integral part of the work. Communicating via the mail — including newsletters, personal notes and donation requests — gives nonprofits that chance to tell the stories that can inspire people.
FS: How have paper and postage hikes, along with the emerging relevance of Internet/ e-mail appeals, affected mail campaigns?
SS: The rising costs related to printing and postage make it even more important to plan ahead. Then the group can compare service providers and get the best printing for the best prices. The Internet and e-mail appeals are a great way to reinforce the messages sent in direct-mail appeals. However, electronic communications don't completely replace regular mail.
SR: I don't know that now is any better or any worse of a time [to mail]. The thing that I keep saying to people is don't give up on it; don't be afraid to go ahead and spend some money to do direct mail, because we know it works. Nonprofits are scaling back on acquisitions, or they might reduce their number of donor renewals from four a year to three or from three to two. But I'm absolutely telling nonprofits don't completely give up on it because direct mail still works very, very well.
Yes, there's a lot of excitement around social media and a lot of nonprofits that are trying to figure out how to leverage Facebook and Twitter to raise a lot of money and take the place of things like direct mail, but it's just not happening. There are all kinds of reasons why that is, but I think a lot of nonprofits are still looking at direct mail as a tried-and-true technique for raising money.
FS: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see in mail solicitations?
SS: One of the biggest mistakes with smaller organizations is not customizing the letter enough. Some are still using "Dear Friend" instead of using the donor's name, often because they don't realize how easy computers make this personalization process.
SR: Mistakes are not a bad thing. I know some people that are so careful to not make mistakes that they hardly move forward. If you aren't making mistakes at least occasionally, you aren't pushing the envelope hard enough — and you are not raising as much money as you could be.
FS: How can organizations create a strategy that integrates mail with online communications, e-mail, face-to-face meetings, and events, etc.?
SS: Planning out your strategies on a one-year timetable will help you decide which [ones] deserve your attention and which are less effective and should be dropped. Keep the lines of communication open between the development office, executive director, other fundraising planners and those in charge of communications so everyone's on the same page. Regular e-mail updates sent from a designated person or a restricted e-mail group are practical and time-saving ways to keep people informed between in-person meetings.
SR: Having a strategic plan is very important, even if it's a very simple strategic plan. It's important to know what direction you're heading in … and to be developing diverse revenue streams. I run across organizations all the time that put all their eggs in one basket. And then when the basket falls, all the eggs break.
For example, an organization that I've been working with [had] relied on one grant for about 60 percent of its budget, and when the state cut revenue and that grant started to dry up, the organization was in trouble. I like to see organizations have … money coming from a lot of different sources. Direct mail is a good source because if you're working with a lot of individual donors, then the more you have on your mailing list, the more donors you're mailing to, and the more different little pots of money there essentially are. So if one donor goes away, it's OK; you can handle that. Not like if you have all your hopes pinned to one grant, and the one grant goes away; then you've got a big mess to deal with. So I'm a strong advocate of having multiple revenue streams and trying to get those balanced out so that when the bad times come, the organizations can weather it a little bit better.
FS: What's the most important thing to remember when launching a fundraising mail campaign?
SS: Who you are mailing to, and matching the message to that audience, is just as important [as the letter]. Grouping donors into a few categories such as nondonors, lapsed donors, major donors and event attendees can help you target recipients more effectively … help you reduce your postage and printing costs and increase your response rates. Once you have a list of just donors who you want to mail to, separate them based on their last gift size.
SR: I see too many organizations that say, "Well everybody else is doing direct mail; we need to do direct mail, too." And they don't really think through why they want to do it or what outcome they want, and so they don't really have a good way to measure success. If you're very clear why you want to send out an appeal, and you know who you're going to send it to, and you craft a good message that's going to appeal to the people you're sending to, then you're setting yourself up for success. If you get into knee-jerk fundraising … you're going to be disappointed.
Joe Boland is copy editor and staff writer for the Target Marketing Group at FS’ parent company, NAPCO. Reach him at email@example.com