Successful direct mail for smaller charities

publication date: Dec 21, 2012
author/source: Tom Ahern

Over the years, I’d heard more than one executive director of a local nonprofit dismiss direct mail categorically. “We tried that. It didn’t work for us.”Tom Ahern photo

It got me wondering: Is direct mail intrinsically unsuited to smaller nonprofits, to groups with prospect lists in the hundreds or low thousands?

Was it plain wrong-headed to think you could scale down a medium that performed best in mass mailings, where an “adequate minimum” test required risking 50,000 pieces?

Could a small nonprofit reasonably enter this brutal world, where an acquisition appeal returning one-half of one percent counted as a success — where for every 200 letters you mailed, you received just one gift in return?

And yet ... and yet, in North America, direct mail remains the chief way charities raise money for annual operations. So, really, the question became: How can smaller nonprofits not do direct mail? There had to be a way to make it work for them.

Back to brain basics

“We tried direct mail. It didn’t work for us.” That conclusion bugged me.

It suggested the nonprofit had sent out a capably-written letter to a well-selected target audience ... and, lo, the darn thing just failed to perform. So blame direct mail as a medium.

But I’ve analyzed scores of direct mail appeals that were written in-house. And much of this stuff was built to fail. Unintentionally, of course. Unwittingly. But still: you have to know some basics, to have any chance of succeeding.

For a start, what’s the real purpose of direct mail?

Direct mail is simply a way to get inside a person’s home so you can try to carry on a brief “conversation in print,” hoping it will earn your cause a positive response. In other words, your letter is a guest. And a good guest is thoughtful and charming. So, how do you charm?

You bring news. Our brains are hard-wired to enjoy that. News produces dopamine.

You bring to like-minded people an opportunity for them to express themselves – to demonstrate their values and beliefs – by supporting your cause.

Most important, you show your prospects appreciation for their consideration. You show your donors love for their participation. And you flatter them all, copiously and without stint.

Flattery works – all the time

We live in a most revealing time, as far as persuasion’s concerned. Thanks to recent research, we now know that the human brain craves flattery, sincere or not. The Neuromarketing blog reported, “Even when people perceive that flattery is insincere, that flattery can still leave a lasting and positive impression of the flatterer.”

So often, charities are so bad at this aspect of direct mail. One basic mistake I see over and over is “the brochure disguised as a letter.” The theory is, “If we tell you enough about how great we are, and pile up a bunch of statistics to back that up, you’ll swoon with admiration and just have to make a gift.”

Reasonable enough to the untrained practitioner. But it happens to be dead wrong.

When I make a gift to a charity, it’s not all that much about the charity. It’s really more about me. It’s about me feeling like a good person, a contributor to a better world.

So, in my firm opinion, the number one job of fundraising appeals is to tell donors how great they are. That’s what so-called “donor-centered” communications are, at their core.

Big results for small charities

Very few charities do “donor-centered” well. But if you become one of the few that do, extremely profitable things can happen.

One small library that attended this workshop subsequently raised US$56,000 from its year-end mailing to a town of 4,000 households, while a small arts group raised more than US$50,000 from a first-ever mailing to an untested list of a couple of thousand names.

If you’d like to learn about direct mail from a true master, visit There you’ll find a free 86-part (they’re all short) direct mail tutorial by Jerry Huntsinger.

Tom Ahern has spent three years developing a workshop called Successful Direct Mail for Smaller NGOs. He presented it at the AFP Toronto 2012 Congress. This article summarizes some key principles from that presentation.

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