Think of this article as a Primer on direct mail in the non-profit world. As much as experts like to say that a non-profit is like a business, it’s really not. I like to call it a business with a heart.

Every non-profit organization that relies on individual donors practices some form of Direct Mail fundraising. After all, there is a limit to how much information you can convey to your donors face-to-face, by phone, or over the internet. You can’t have an intimate lunch with every single donor….that’s why direct mail comes in handy.

Fundraising letters are by far the single biggest means used by non-profits to recruit non-donors. Time and again, surveys reveal that letters proved the means for most donors to make that first gift or become a member of a non-profit organization.

Direct Mail in the non-profit world is complicated, costly and requires incredible attention to detail. It’s hard to create the perfect fundraising piece, it’s hard to justify to your board and volunteers that direct mail fundraising is a process not an event.

Mailing List

By far, the most important aspect of any direct mail fundraising campaign is the list of people you mail to. Mailing an effective package to one list can easily raise ten or twenty times as much money as mailing the same package to another list.

There are hundreds of lists to choose from, ranging from  general contributor lists to more complex lists where you can select the type and number of donations made.

A note of caution – make sure you are dealing with a reputable company so you actually receive what you think you are asking for.

The list industry is very sophisticated. There are ways to take your existing donor file and expand it by modeling your donors and taking households with similar characteristics.

Make sure your list is up-to-date. There are many list hygiene processes that can verify and standardize addresses, locate households who have moved, append telephone #s or e-mail addresses, as well as provide you with additional information about the households on your list so you can change how you’re appealing to them.

The Offer

There are many types of mailings – annual fund drives, membership renewals, special appeals, membership or donor acquisition. Each of these types of offers requires a different kind of offer. Some organizations use address labels or gifts to encourage contributions – others feel that gifts discourage giving. Each organization will need to test this.


Segmentation is the key to cost-effective direct mail appeals. Previous donors get treated differently than prospects; big givers get treated differently than little donors. In direct mail, larger donors might get first class mail with a higher level of personalization and fancier stationary, blue signatures.

Annual Giving

The majority of successful Direct Mail fundraising is built on the foundation of annual giving or a membership campaign. It’s like a magazine subscription renewal process – the renewal series is the basic element – using a series of 3, 5 or more successive contacts with each member to persuade the largest number to renew each year. Again, testing is key and you can quantify how many pieces you need to mail to get the results you need.


This is the toughest part of the campaign – how do you represent your agency, what do you tell prospective donors about your agency that’s supposed to make them love you and want to donate? How much $ do you ask for? Do you promise something in return for the gift? Long letter, short letter? Color photos vs. black + white? Should you match that photo on the envelope? So many options – how do you decide what to do? This is where you might want to turn to a professional for assistance.


Need to test alternative lists, offers, and packages through the life of your Direct Mail program. Coding is important. You can work with either your list provider or fulfillment house to help you code each record so you can analyze your results after each mailing.


The wonderful thing about Direct Mail in the non-profit world is the ability to measure response. We talk about that all the time. All the advantages of good Direct Mail are lost if you can’t keep track of what you’re doing. This requires an investment of time, efficient computer system – the forethought of key-coding the different segments on the response card.

Production Management

Non-profits need to create their team to get the job done.

Whether you work with an Agency or do it yourself with a List House and Mail Shop, you need to be knowledgeable about the process. Make them your partners. If you have a new creative piece, run it past the mail house to make sure it conforms to the most up-to-date postal guidelines.

Let’s face it, a book can be written about each one of these points. This brief synopsis is meant to give you a starting off point, so you can knowledgeable about the many factors that go into a successful Direct Mail campaign in the non-profit world.

One last thing to leave you with – to be successful, you need to commit to an on-going program. Always remember – Direct Mail is a process – it’s not an event.