10 Tips for Direct Mail Fundraising Success in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond

by Tatiana Morand

Considering the atmosphere of uncertainty we’re all living in these days, you might be wondering: 

Should your organization press pause on direct mail campaigns during COVID-19? 

And our answer? 

No way! 

In fact, now is a great time to let donors know you need them by sending a good old-fashioned letter — still one of the most effective tools for generating revenue, even in our fast-paced digital world. 

And it’s even more important to explore new tactics if you can, considering how many nonprofits are at risk during the pandemic. In a recent survey, 73% of U.S. nonprofits reported a drop in revenue, while nearly half have experienced staffing disruptions. 

On the other hand, people are looking for ways to help

And with so many of us stuck at home these days, sending an engaging, heartfelt letter right to someone’s doorstep asking for help may just be the ticket to driving increased donations during COVID-19. 

Could direct mail be experiencing a moment? 

Ronen Tal, Director, Integrated Marketing and Fundraising at Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), thinks it just might be. “People are home, they want to learn how they can support their favourite charities and they want to get away from their computers,” he says. 

Tal has witnessed the success of direct mail in the time of COVID-19 first-hand. In early March, NCC was just about to send its latest direct mail letter when the pandemic struck. The organization took a brief pause, rewrote the letter to focus on the impacts of COVID-19 and sent it off. 

The result? “We saw a spike in responses compared to last year,” says Tal. 

So although some may be lamenting the death of the mailed letter, in the fundraising world it’s still alive and well — even in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Here, with a little help from Tal, we share our top tips for executing a successful direct mail campaign in the time of COVID-19 and beyond. 

Planning on running a virtual event to go along with it? Find a checklist to help you here.

1. First Things First: Adjust Your Messaging 

COVID-19 has changed everything for everyone. For nonprofit fundraising and marketing staff, that means completely rethinking how and when you’re communicating with donors — including through direct mail.

Tal says it helps to establish a set of guiding principles for communicating with donors in the time of COVID-19, which can be applied to any type of communication. 

The most important principle? Be authentic. 

“Donor communications should always be authentic, but COVID-19 has made authenticity even more of an imperative,” he says. “People are facing unprecedented challenges and they’re aware the pandemic is impacting nonprofits in unique ways. Be honest and real about what those impacts are and how donors can help.” 

Rather than pretending everything is peaches and cream, your direct mail letters should acknowledge the pandemic and be specific about how COVID-19 may be directly or indirectly impacting your cause. 

For example: “NCC is not solving COVID-19 by any means, but we’re recognizing the vast impacts of the pandemic and reminding donors that nature is still there — and that many of us are relying on nature for our well-being now more than ever,” says Tal. 

2. Know Your Audience 

This is key. Understanding your audience to the best of your ability and then customizing your direct mail strategy to meet their needs and expectations will work wonders for your results. 

Knowing your audience means figuring out what makes them tick. For example, ask yourself: 

  • How old are your donors and where do they live? 
  • What are their interests in your cause? 
  • What motivates them to donate? 
  • How do they prefer to communicate? 
  • What topics or program areas resonate most deeply with them? 

Most importantly of all: are they existing donors or new prospects who have never given before? 

“If you’re sending the same letter to new and existing donors, your direct mail campaign will fall flat,” says Tal. “Creating different versions of your letter that speak directly to your different audiences is absolutely crucial.” 

If you’re unsure where to begin to learn more about your donors, Tal’s recommendation is to start with your organization’s donor services team. If your shop is too small for a donor services team, try asking the staff member who has the most direct communication with donors on a regular basis — like your receptionist or office coordinator. 

“Donor services teams are a vastly underutilized resource in most organizations,” says Tal. “They talk to donors every day and have a unique sense of what they like and don’t like when it comes to your communications.” 

3. Share Stories, Not Statistics

Stories drive donations. 

Why? 

Because generosity is motivated by emotions, not logic

And what better way to trigger emotions than through the power of storytelling? 

Think about it: statistics may provide context, but they can make it difficult for readers to connect with your cause on an emotional level. 

“There’s a place for statistics — on your website, in your newsletters — but don’t come to a direct mail fundraising ask armed with numbers,” says Tal. “You’ll quickly lose your readers’ interest.” 

Ironically, this advice is backed up by… numbers. 

report by Network for Good and The Storytelling Nonprofit found that 55% of nonprofits saw an increase in their fundraising results with the use of stories in their communications.

Here are a few tips for incorporating storytelling into your direct mail campaigns: 

  • First, Learn How to Find Great Stories. Who are the people delivering your nonprofit’s programs and services? They’re the ones with access to the best stories. Ask if they’d be willing to share any anecdotes or connect you directly with someone who has a powerful personal story they may be willing to share. Always make sure the individual whose story you’re sharing is comfortable being featured, has signed a consent form and has indicated whether or not they prefer to remain anonymous. 
  • Who’s Writing Your Letter? Direct mail letters don’t need to come from the leader of your organization. Try writing your letter from the perspective of an individual whose life has been changed by your services or from a frontline service provider. This creates a central character whose experiences are driving the narrative of your letter.
  • Use an Informal, Conversational Tone. Direct mail isn’t the place for organizational speak. Drop the jargon and terminology and write as though you’re chatting with an old friend.
  • Don’t Shy Away From the Details. Humanity lies in the details. Sharing difficult or poignant details — such as the moment your storyteller was told they had cancer, or the toy a child brought with them when they were taken into foster care — helps deepen readers’ emotional connection to your cause.
  • Use Pictures or Handwritten Notes. Bring your story to life by supporting your narrative with a photo or a special handwritten note from your signatory.

Looking for more advice on the use of storytelling in your fundraising communications? Here’s a great resource providing great tips and more on the science behind stories, and here’s a blog post highlighting common storytelling mistakes. 

4. Place the Donor at the Centre of the Action 

Effective donor communications can really be summed up in one word: you. 

“You” is an incredibly powerful word in fundraising: it makes donors feel acknowledged, it draws a direct connection between the donor and the difference they’re making and it lets them know you need them

Speaking directly to donors also takes the focus off your organization (see our next point below!) and onto your cause, which is being driven forward by your supporters. 

Leaning heavily on the word “you” is critical in direct mail. How about some examples?

Instead of, “Finance for Youth relies on the generosity of our donors to deliver our workshop series,” try, “Your generosity will equip young people with the financial skills they need to succeed by supporting the delivery of our workshop series.” 

Or instead of, “Books for Kids provides free books to children in underserved communities with the help of our donors,” try, “Your gift today will break down barriers to literacy by helping children living in underserved communities access the joy and possibilities of reading.” 

This shift to cause-focused language brings us right to…

5. Check Your Ego at the Door (Or the Mailbox)

This can be a tough one for those of us who think our organizations are the bee’s knees: it’s not about you or your organization. It’s about your donors and how they connect with your cause. 

“We think about it this way,” says Tal. “Our donors are interested in driving change in conservation efforts, and Nature Conservancy of Canada is just the vehicle through which they’re able to create that change.” 

So keep your ego out of your direct mail letters. Content should focus on your cause and the stories that bring it to life, not all the reasons your organization is better than all the other organizations (cue thumb on nose). 

“Your organization should really only get one mention so your reader knows it’s from you,” says Tal. “After that, use the space to connect your donor to something they care about. Get to the heart of the ‘why’ — why do they or should they care about the cause you represent?” 

Here’s another way of looking at it: donors don’t give to United Way, the organization. They give to everything United Way represents: helping those in need, creating community connections, building resilience. 

Similarly, donors don’t give to SickKids Hospital, the organization; they give to help sick children heal. 

Still not sure? This blog post contains six examples of great direct mail letters that focus on the cause, not the organization. 

6. Ask for Donations — and Be Specific 

All of this advice is for naught if you forget to actually ask for donations in your direct mail letter. 

All too often, nonprofits either shy away from asking donors to give or aren’t specific enough in their requests for donations. 

But the thing is, if you don’t ask, you won’t receive. It’s as simple as that. 

So ask away — and be specific. 

Let your readers know you need to raise $10,000 to purchase a new piece of equipment and you’re hoping they’ll contribute $20, $50, $100 or another amount of their choosing. Ask them to donate $5 to provide a meal to a family in need, or $10 to help buy food for rescued animals. 

Whatever the amount and whatever the need, make sure they know what you need from them.

See More: The Perfect Donation Letter Template and Example

7. Keep It… Long? 

It may hurt you to read this, but for many organizations long letters perform better than short letters when it comes to direct mail fundraising. Four, six, eight pages: if that’s how long it takes to tell a great story, then go for it. Take that, digital age!

So use the luxury of space to tell a powerful story, but make sure your lengthy narrative is easy to skim. If you love bolding and underlining, this is your time to shine! 

Indent your paragraphs, incorporate white space, bold and underline key points and always include a P.S. that reiterates your donor’s impact and your specific ask. 

This article explores some of the reasons long letters perform so well and includes more tips for connecting with your readers over the course of your novel… er, your letter. 

8. Don’t Forget About Your Outer Envelope

You may have written the Greatest Fundraising Letter of All Time, but how can you make sure your recipients will actually read it? Two words: outer envelope, also known as OE. 

There’s no magic bullet when it comes to creating the perfect OE, but there are some best practices to keep in mind. And just like most things related to direct mail, what you think makes the most sense will probably backfire. 

For example: while you may think a full colour image on the front of the OE will differentiate your mailing, all too often recipients mistake these letters for junkmail. A plain, number 10 envelope tends to work best. 

Check out this blog post for specific tips on creating a winning OE. 

But remember, what works for one organization may not work for another. That’s why it’s so important to…

9. Test, Test, Test and Test Again

We’ve talked about best practices in messaging, storytelling, length, OEs and more, but the truth is that what works for one organization may not work for another. Sigh. 

That’s where testing comes in. When it comes to fundraising communications, there’s no such thing as too much testing.

As Tal says, “Testing is how you learn how to get your envelope opened.” Testing involves sending two or more recipient groups different packages and seeing how each package performs. But there’s a catch: you can only choose one variable to test at a time. 

“Your variable could be a slightly different letter or it could be different outer envelopes, but it can’t be both,” says Tal. “You can’t test two things at the same time or you’ll never know what actually influenced an increase or decrease in donations.” 

For more advice on testing direct mail campaigns, check out this blog post

10. Create an Integrated Experience

If you want to elevate your direct mail game even further, think about how you could create an integrated campaign across multiple channels. 

Sound confusing? It’s not — it just requires a little coordination. 

Integration essentially means your reader is seeing the same story no matter how they’re interacting with your organization. The story in your direct mail letter should also be featured in some way on your webpage, your social media channels and your e-blasts.

“Consistency in your story throughout as many of your marketing channels as possible builds consistency in the narrative experience,” says Tal. “This gives greater focus to the need you’re communicating and helps the donor understand how their support will help.” 

And integration doesn’t require a big budget: “You don’t need to make big investments to deliver an integrated campaign,” says Tal. “Just think about what channels are available to your organization at any given time and how they could work together in concert.” 

Direct Mail for the Win

Now is not the time to pump the brakes on your fundraising efforts, particularly when it comes to direct mail. 

If you can focus on finding great stories, getting creative and helping your donors realize the true impact of their generosity, you’ll have a winning formula every time — even in the time of COVID-19. 

(But you should keep testing anyway. Always test. And test again.) 

Have any additional tips for direct mail campaigns? Let us know in the comments! 

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