Direct Mail Fundraising is Junk Mail

I went on a rant on Charity Channel this morning. I tried to refrain, really I did – and I lasted almost a whole day. But eventually the devil on my shoulder made me cave. (For those who may have caught that rant, feel free to jump in here and tell me if I’m wrong. I may be opinionated, but I am also quite willing to learn – and to even change that opinion!)

The question being posed had to do with acquisition rates and return on investment. Seems innocuous enough, no? Unfortunately, what these folks were acquiring were people. Donors, to be specific.

The question was about a dip in acquisition rates for new donors from direct mail fundraising.

Can you just see me, staring at the monitor like a recently reformed smoker facing down a fresh, unopened pack – knowing my keyboard would not relinquish its hold until I had smoked every last one – um, I mean, responded to that post? Resistance was clearly futile. (BTW – GREAT comic to illustrate that very point, at my new favorite comic stop – Speaking of addicted, I cannot wait for their feeds to hit my mailbox!)

So, here is what my fingers made me say in response to the question of “donor acquisition rates” and Direct Mail fundraising:

I hate direct mail. First, I hate getting it. I hate dumping it unopened, together with the rest of the junk mail, into the recycling bin on my way from the mailbox to the house.

I hate feeling guilty that I have no idea – nor do I care – who sent me the accumulated 27 sets of very lovely miniature Tibetan prayer flags, that are laying alongside the mile-high pile of mailing labels so numerous that no mere human could send that much mail in a lifetime.

This is charity junk mail. I don’t know who these people are, yet there they are – all these requests for money from complete strangers who found me on some list somewhere – heading straight to the recycling without being opened, along with the Penny Saver and the ValPak and the quote I never requested for cheaper insurance on my house and/or car.

I hate words like “donor acquisition.” Clearly, to the folks sending me this garbage (sorry – if it goes straight into the trash, it’s trash), I am a number, a statistic, the not-so-acquired side of their diminishing ROI.

And we wonder why our organizations are not sustainable? We wonder why we battle to sustain the incredible work we are all doing?

We are chasing money in any way we can find it, rather than engaging our communities (wherever they are – worldwide or a single block) in real relationships, involving them deeply in our missions with their hearts and their souls and their passion – and only THEN perhaps their dollars. And we wonder why the world sees our organizations as always having our hands out!

Have our organizations ever spent as much time trying to engage the people who come through our doors as we spend trying to “acquire new donors”? Have we spent time to ask those who already know us – ask for their wisdom, their advice about the work we are doing? How often do we ask the people who are already our clients, our patrons, our program participants – if they would like to help make our mission stronger?

And how often do we instead simply try to engage their wallets?

I am a season ticket holder at my local professional theater – have been forever. In all that time, they have never asked me for my thoughts, my expertise, my time, my help. They have never once, in all those years, showed me how I can get involved in making theater in my community stronger. They just send me renewals.

Both my dog and my cat came from my community’s Humane Society. My dog and I also did our training there. That was 10 years ago. Since then, I have never once been asked for anything but my money. How’s the dog? How’s the cat? What could we be doing differently, better? And why haven’t you been back in 10 years? And would you like to help us muck out the stalls one day?

Do they know if I would or would not? Have they asked me for anything but my cash?

Eldercare facilities, where many of our parents are now living. The community clinics and hospitals where we take our kids when they have skateboarded their way to a broken limb. We all encounter community benefit organizations in our lives all the time. When was the last time any of them engaged us beyond the service they provide and the donation envelope we then get in the mail?

I am seen as a consumer. I am seen as a potential source of money. And if this were the business world, I would feel perfectly ok about that.

But it’s not. This is the sector that is supposed to be changing the world.

And we cannot accomplish that if we do not see that every single person in our communities is an asset – not for their dollars, but for their ability to further our missions in every way possible!

I am often told, “But engaging the community like that would take time. We can’t afford to do that!” Translated: We can’t afford to do what works. So instead we will do something far less effective – with the added bonus that most people hate it!

When we cold-solicit for money, we are no different than ValPak. When we engage people in their hearts and their souls and yes, with their hands – their physical help, even when they are at long distances – we have a donor for life because we have a friend for life.

This is not airy-fairy rambling. There are HIGHLY practical ways to engage real friends (not the euphemism of “friend = donor,” but friends – you know, like we all have in real life? People who care and will help in every single way…). Those real friends will provide everything a friend would provide – volunteering and advocating and yes, giving dollars.

There are practical tools in our library at Help 4 NonProfits. Practical tools in the workbooks – not theory books but WORKbooks – I have written on the subject. Practical tools in every blog post I have done about this subject, right here.

To me, the bottom line is simple:

The way we raise money in this sector is not working.

If it WAS working – building honestly sustainable organizations – none of the readers of Charity Channel’s “Development Office” listserv (where this rant was originally posted) would have been reading this. They would instead have all the resources they needed, and would have no need for that listserv, nor the myriad workshops we all attend over and over, looking for the one kernel of truth that will finally, please dear God, make our money worries go away.

It’s not working.

And a big part of why it’s not working is that we have made it all about the money. I know we say it’s not, that it’s all about the mission. But when you are talking about acquisition rates and ROI on an anonymous mailing that is no different than ValPak, then I’m sorry – it’s about the money. And that’s why we all look for the next cool thing to make money – the next hot trend, the next guaranteed home run.

A system that separates truly engaged friends from a cause they would love to help is set up to fail.

In our real lives, those of us with a gaggle of friends we can count on are whole; those of us who are constantly chasing dollars are not. And in our organizations, it is no different. (And no, I’m not talking about “Making friends first, so we can ask them for money later.” That’s not friendship – that’s the plot line for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.)

So take your direct mail and toss it where it belongs, and start figuring out how to engage the people who already care about you and depend on you. They are right there, waiting for you to pick up the phone and involve them, engage them more deeply. It is a squandered resource, and one that will, if treated well, help you “acquire” all the new friends you could want. Those friends will help in every way imaginable.

And oh yes, by the way, they will also give you money.

6 thoughts on “Direct Mail Fundraising is Junk Mail”

  1. I love your column.

    After reading this column we decided to do just that. Do you have any samples or can you point me to some? I’m really anxious to see how this is received, our CEO is “trusting my judgement” on this………’s a new direction for us!

    We are in the aging business, the majority of our donors are our residents and their families, people who know us well. As we prepare for the tidal wave of Baby Boomers coming our way, I believe it is essential to establish stronger donor relationships and listen to their wants and desires.

    Keep writing, I’m reading…….and applying.

    Thank you!

  2. HIldy poses an interesting question when she writes:

    “Have our organizations ever spent as much time trying to engage the people who come through our doors as we spend trying to “acquire new donors”? Have we spent time to ask those who already know us – ask for their wisdom, their advice about the work we are doing? How often do we ask the people who are already our clients, our patrons, our program participants – if they would like to help make our mission stronger?”

    I served for six years – 4 as Board President – of a nonprofit mental health counseling organization where we DIDN’T do that for 24 of its 25 years.

    What we did was trust in the US Mail. Once every year – and twice every year beginning in 2001 or so – we would dutifully send out a letter to “the list” and then hope that what we needed in the way of support would arrive. And, for awhile, it did. The proceeds were usually somewhere around $15,000 or so. When that amount began to decline, we added the second mailing. And once again, the total amount of support “bumped” a bit – to $27,000 at one point as I recall.

    But, it always declined and soon, we were back down to that $15,000 level.

    Why? For starters, we were only going to people – people who we believed cared about the organization – when we needed something. To ask for an annual gift. To ask them to attend a lecture (and pay to attend it). To ask them to give “a little more.”

    These were people known to the organization. They were current and former Board members, current and former employees, therapy colleagues, people in the community who had an affinity for the faith-based counseling/mental health mission. And, many of these people had the means to give. In fact, many had the means to give lots more than they were giving. Why weren’t they?

    Simply put, they weren’t giving because we hadn’t taken the time to engage them. We were so focused on financial need that we forgot about the needs of the very people we called “our friends”. We weren’t treating them like friends at all – unless you’re in the habit of always greeting your friends with your hand out.

    That’s when I made the decision as Board president to introduce the entire Board (which loathed raising money, by the way) to Hildy’s Community Engagement book – Friend Raising. In fact, I purchased and gave a copy to all 15 members of the Board and the Executive Directo.

    I suggested that we were going about this all wrong, by making money the focus of what we needed, when what was actually more valuable was making new friends and renewing friendships that had devolved into bi-annual “asks”.

    We needed to stop thinking of ourselves as solicitors of cash and begin soliciting those we considered friends of the organization their advice. We needed to bring people into closer contact with the organization who had been away from it too long.

    I challenged the Board: instead of asking them to give names of 5 people who they thought they could ask for money I asked them to think of 5 people who they would like to talk to about the Center and its purpose. Don’t ask for anything other than advice. Answer questions. Provide feedback. Tell stories that illustrate what the Center does and its impact on the community.

    Once we stopped worrying about who would literally show us the money, things began to change. Instead of a litany of excuses why Board member X could not possibly ask for money, I began to hear ideas about how new people and old friends could come together at a breakfast to honor community “Good Samaritans” (a play on the name of the counseling center). That brought a new way to talk about the center’s mission and vision.

    Those breakfasts now occur annually and they are well-attended affairs. It isn’t a fund raiser, though the ED never leaves the breakfast without spontaneous gifts being thrust into her hands. People who come to the breakfast ask questions, offer advice and some even ask how they can help the center.

    There’s more the center needs and wants to do. They must overcome their reticence about serving as a resource to local media when there are questions that are appropriate for mental health professionals to answer or comment upon. They need to find additional opportunities to engage people who want to be actively involved and volunteer at a level other than a Board position.

    And, they must “practice what they preach” and find a way to allow those who have received the benefit of counseling services decide on their own how and whether they wish to remain connected to the center, rather than assuming that someone who has been a client or who is the family member of a client wouldn’t want to participate in or help someone else. This is about being treated like “normal” people right? So let’s not assume that someone who receives psychological counseling wouldn’t wish to be treated like anyone else.

    The point is, once the Board and ED of the center stopped fixating on donors, acquisition, LYBUNTS, SYBUNTS and non-responders on a mail list and began viewing folks as real, live, breathing people who want to learn, listen and find ways to truly be of service, the money problems ceased to be a problem anymore. Gifts began to come in more consistently. The gifts slowly ceased to be token responses to an annual mailing. It was easier to write those appeals, because they were now writing to people who they knew not as mailing list labels, but as caring, compassionate friends.

    So, the point isn’t necessarily to stop mailing to people. It’s to get your priorities clear about the PEOPLE who receive those letters and to be sure that before you mail, you are making meaningful contact and developing thoughtful relationships.

    People who are our personal friends know us and care about us. Often, when we need help, we don’t even have to ask – they know. It can be like that for those who are friends to our organizations, too.


    Susan D. Smith
    Consultant in Philanthropy
    Barneveld, NY 13304

  3. Wow, Sue – your response to JM is amazing! And your experience just makes me smile. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it!

  4. Hi

    Liking the site, and while I agree that we need to look after our donors properly, and engage them, I wonder if you’d giove me some pointers, you see, we don’t really *have* any donors. Oh sure, we have a couple of hundred people that have given us a donation in the past 6 years. Some of them through sponsoring people to run and so on, and some have come along to events, but miost were before I was here, and I have no idea how much or when they gave. Or why. So I’m having toruble engaging them.

    But even if every one of them gave me mney every month, we’d be struggling. I DO NEED new donors. Where do I get them?

  5. The most cost effective way of originating new donors is “still” direct mail.

    I have a close relationship with an international fundraising non-profit that funds projects in Africa and elsewhere.

    The current cost of acquiring a new donor is less than $40.

    The regular donor communication process (+/- 13 times per year) is +/- $250 per donor per year.

    Where do you locate new donors: From those who have “done something” (responded to a survey, donated to another charity, subscribed to a publication that has subject matter the “correlates” to the project or concern that your charity/ministry/cause represents.

    You send a letter and provide this “targeted” person the opportunity to “do something” about their interest, passion, concern …and then tell them what their money did.

    You provide a service to the donor.

    – James E. Johnson (

  6. Dear Hildy, your observations are all valid, and I am not here to defend a system that in very round numbers consumes about 80% of what it raises. As Jim Johnson suggests, it takes volunteer time, money or both to run an NGO. Most of us are working in the Matrix like world where both partners have paying jobs just so our employers can compete globally on a cost effective basis (and we’re losing that battle, too). As a result, volunteer time and involvement are a diminishing resource. This is not to say there shouldn’t be more volunteering going on, but faced with little time to themselves, some/many Americans use money as a surrogate. Communicating the reasons for either volunteering or donating to a charity are in the hands of in-house leaders and, when they choose to do so, the communication consultants they hire. I believe that online giving and its associated mailing costs will make it a decreasingly efficient way to reach the masses, but there are still a good many AKs (check your yiddish dictionary for a definition) who are not computer savvy and have the funds to make contributions. To some extent, the problem you identify is one that should shrink as alternative, cheaper communication sources develop. Perhaps the real question is whether cheap spam should be accepted as the Methadone for your cravings. Peace, Markelangelo


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