Direct Mail Fundraising Best Practices for Nonprofits to Maximize Engagement and ROI

Jaycen Thorgeirson
Founder & Chief Storyteller

You spent time carefully drafting the copy for your brochure. It’s glossy, colorful, and you plunked down thousands to ship it to everyone within a hundred mile radius. You sit back and wait for success to roll in. 

But when your prospect gets the letter, they walk straight into the kitchen, and… dump it in the trash. Or the recycling bin, if they’re feeling eco-conscious. Either way, you’re toast.

This is a horror story that happens with thousands of direct mail fundraising campaigns. But you can avoid the harrowing fate of “getting binned” by following a few simple tips.

Last week, we talked about how direct mail fundraising works (turns out, it works very well). Now that you know direct mail fundraising is effective, we’re going to give you three of the most essential best practices.

Implement these three points in your direct mail fundraising campaign for a more effective campaign with higher return.

3 essential direct mail fundraising best practices

The best practices for an effective direct mail fundraising campaign are simple, and yet, if you didn’t know them, you might spend a lot of your organization’s money on an inefficient campaign.

Maximize both your ROI and your connection to real humans with these best practices and their component parts.

Photo by Green Chameleon

1) Personalize

What’s the difference between trash and a letter you actually read? 

This question isn’t rhetorical. If you want to send great direct mail with big ROI, consider the question carefully. In your own life, what makes you open mail, and what makes you throw it away? 

Likely, you consider this: “Is this letter actually for me, or is it spam?”

Your prospects are humans. They think the same way as you do. If a letter or package is for us, we open it. If it’s another offer “FOR CURRENT RESIDENT,” we usually throw it away.

Personalization is key to a successful direct mail fundraising campaign. Here’s how you do it: focus on your best targets, do your research, and start practicing your handwriting. 

Focus on your best targets

Your resources are not infinite. To do the best for your organization, you need to focus your efforts.

So if you’re considering a massive mail blast out to 10,000 people, take a step back. Figure out your best 1,000, or even 100 (if you’re looking for large donations), and then put your effort into a really effective, high-quality direct mail campaign.

Who are your best prospects? They are…

  • People who have given to your organization before, or given to organizations similar to yours
  • People who match your previous donors demographically

Narrow your field down, put more effort into a high-quality campaign, and you’ll see a benefit for your organization.

Do your research

Now that you’ve narrowed your targets down to a manageable level, it’s time to put the work in. The more you research your prospects, the more customization you can provide.

This doesn’t have to be huge. For instance, when we sent PB&J themed mailers to our perfect prospective partners, we drew a little something on the bag for the recipient. So if the target business was in server management, we drew a quick doodle of a computer server. 

It took next to no time to figure this out about our prospects, but that small addition adds a personal touch that made people smile (and got them to open the bag). 

You can read the rest of the PB&J case study here.

Practice your handwriting

It’s the little things. We’ve noticed that prospects respond especially well to handwritten notes or elements in the packaging that have been handwritten. 

Writing someone’s name goes a long way to making a connection. It means so much more than an autofill on an email. 

So, if you can, take some time to add a handwritten note to your direct mail. If that’s not possible, even just writing someone’s name on the package can make a big difference.


Learn more about personalization here.

Photo by UviaUs

2) Up the perceived value

Personalization will go a long way to a successful direct mail fundraising campaign, but it might just get your prospect to open your mail. The real mission is to not get tossed in the trash. 

You want to stay on someone’s desk or kitchen counter, and stay on their mind. If you get your mailer opened, people are unlikely to take action immediately.

Stay out of the trash can by upping the perceived value of your direct mail. This doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money. It means getting creative with what you send.

Start with attractive packaging, then combine physical and digital elements, and if you can, include a thoughtful gift. 

Select attractive or interesting packaging

Packages are less likely to get tossed out than envelopes, simply because they are bulkier and seem more valuable purely from size. But you can take advantage of the added mystery of a package by going beyond the cardboard box.

I say attractive “or” interesting because you can focus on either. You can go the attractive route and send a wooden box with the prospect’s name laser engraved on the top (like we did with our partner, One Inc.). 

Or you can go the interesting route, and send a mystery box that requires a code or puzzle to be solved before it can be opened (such as this box we put together for BillingTree). 

Either way, make your packaging remarkable for better results. 

Combine physical and digital elements

We love this one. It’s probably our favorite tip in the whole list, because it’s where we get to combine impressive technology with memorable physicality.

It’s easy to throw away a brochure. It’s harder to chuck out a video player. Adding an autoplay video to your physical mailer nearly ensures you stay out of the bin. 

In fact, our video players are easily recycled. Like a flash drive, the video player can be reloaded with other content by simply plugging it into a PC. 

Read more about our e-waste efforts here.

Include a thoughtful gift

Notice we said “thoughtful,” and not expensive. You can buy somebody a Rolex watch, but unless the watch is very relevant to your prospect and your cause, it won’t keep you top of mind.

Use the research you did for step one and include something meaningful. A drawing from a child your organization helps costs only one piece of paper, but it will have much more impact than any fancy thermos with your logo.

Learn more about perceived value here.

Photo by Jamie Templeton

3) Make it easy to take the next step

People are busy. It’s not that we have to “dumb things down.” If you’re asking for time or money, you are asking for something extremely valuable. 

Respect people’s time. Make it absolutely clear what you want them to do, and make it as easy as possible for them to take the action you want. 

Add easy CTAs with clear instructions

CTAs (calls to action) aren’t just another business-y acronym. Notice the wording: call to action. You want your prospects to do something, not just read your letter, feel empathy, and throw out your mailer without doing anything.

Whether that’s visiting your website, signing up as a volunteer, or donating, ask directly, and tell them how to do it.

Here are some examples of CTAs that work well with mailers.

  • QR codes that go to a mobile optimized landing page.
  • Return envelopes with prepaid postage.
  • Phone numbers to call that either have automation or a real person waiting at all times 

A note about providing phone numbers: this works better on older demographics. Millennials don’t want to have to call you, just give them a QR code. However, Gen X and up often prefer a phone call, if you don’t leave them on hold and the process on the phone is simple.

Millennials are generally considered between 25 and 40, while Gen X starts at 41, to give you a general idea of what might work best for your audience. 

Tell a clear story

Your nonprofit exists for a very good reason. That’s why you’re putting in the effort to raise money or gather more volunteers. 

To get the best return on your direct mail fundraising, you need to tell the story of your cause. But don’t stop there. 

Tell your prospects how they can become the hero of the story. 

To give an example that always works on my grandmother, don’t just tell them how the wolves are dying out… show your prospects they can save them with a $10 donation every month.

Turn your prospects into the hero, with you as their guide, and they’ll be ready to help your cause, with full hearts and resolute minds (and open pocketbooks).

Learn more about storytelling here.

Don't miss our next blog:

Direct mail fundraising case studies

To learn more about what works best for direct mail, check out these articles:

Next week, we’ll share the best direct mail fundraising case studies, so you can be inspired by what’s worked for other organizations like yours.

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