How to get started in Direct Mail for small organizations

mailboxVicki Quatmann, a fundraising consultant in Lake City, Tennessee, reports that she works with small organizations, those with budgets ranging from $50,000 to $300,000. She asks “How do you help these small organizations take the first simple steps — rather than get overwhelmed with sophisticated strategies?” Almost every nonprofit organization should be involved in what is called “direct mail” because of two central realities: (a) A significant number of individuals want to provide financial support for activities and causes they believe in. (b) Many of these donors (perhaps two to five million, if not more) find that sending a check in response to a mailing to be convenient, cost-effective, and personally satisfying. But the dilemma for so many organizations is that it takes immense capital, organizational discipline, and time to put in place the technology, expertise, and staff needed to take advantage of these philanthropic impulses. So what can we do to help smaller organizations for which a highly technical and complex direct mail fundraising program would be impossible? One of the most cost-effective ways to get started in direct mail is to offer a readable, attractive newsletter which is published four to six times a year. By enclosing a return envelope with each newsletter, you can give readers an opportunity to send contributions. Donors can also be recognized in the newsletter, and articles can be published from time to time about how individuals may remember the organization in their wills. The circulation of this newsletter will grow if you include the names of those who participate in your programs, attend events sponsored by you, or who have been recommended by those already involved in your organization. The next simple step to take is to make sure that thank you letters or notes are sent in response to contributions (in many cases, individuals will simply send money without even being asked). A reply or return envelope should be included in this thank you letter — without mentioning it. A small but significant percentage of individuals will send an additional contribution, some even every month. A third component of small-scale direct mail programs is to send out a year-end thank you letter to all donors, board members, and volunteers. If staff or board are really nervous, you can avoid any mention of sending a contribution. But at least a low-key request for funds would be appreciated by donors. A fourth step is now almost an inevitable necessity because of the IRS requirements that individuals have proof that contributions of $250 or more were indeed charitable. You can send a January mailing to your donors reporting on their contributions for the year — along with the statement that they received no goods or services in return for their gifts. Many individuals receiving this report, which should repeat your organization’s thanks and appreciation, will send yet another gift. My view is that an organization should master these first four steps before approaching other organizations to exchange or trade lists for acquisition mailings. If you can put these first four components into place, then you will have a membership or donor list worth exchanging. And I bet that in the process you’ll have gotten some signals from your donors about which organizations would be the best to approach for exchanges. In fact, you may want to send out a survey or questionnaire to your members to ask them which other organizations they belong to. That information will also help you when you contact those organizations to arrange an exchange. To be sure, these four — or five — efforts will consume valuable staff time and require some financial investment. But, even if all components are done within the same year, they are easily achievable by every viable, continuing nonprofit entity. Some organizations may want these small steps to lead to a direct mail fundraising program which will provide significant, ongoing income stream. Perhaps those organizations could set aside all income from these modest first four steps to launch a more systematic direct mail program. Better yet, the board could agree to match dollar for dollar every gift received from these first, preliminary steps.
Stephen Hitchcock is a former President of Mal Warwick Associates.