Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Stop The Madness!

Over the past six months, I have been keeping a box of the direct mail solicitations that come to me here in Charlotte. After 6 months of diligence, I have some startling results to report to you. I began with a shoebox and ended up with a postal service tub of mail. My hope is that you share this article with everyone you know in the hopes that behaviors will change.

It seems that direct mail is alive at some organizations, although the ROI on direct mail continues to fall. Remember it is 7 times more expensive to obtain a new donor than it is to keep the one you already have- adjust 10% of your acquisition budget into donor relations to boost retention and you won’t regret the decision!

In those 6 months, I received 81 direct mail solicitations. 19 of those appeals were from organizations that I had never supported before, meaning they bought my name from a list clearinghouse or another organization. This frustrates me beyond repair, especially since it is in such direct violation of the Donor Bill of Rights.

I received 53 solicitations in the dreaded and boring #10 envelope, 18 solicitations were in non-standard sized envelopes. 45 of my solicitations came in window envelopes. 4 had errors in spelling of my name or address. 6 of the appeals claimed to have “emergency or urgent” appeals enclosed. 

I was sent 26 solicitations with free gifts enclosed, from notepads to Christ medals to calendars to 15 pages of address labels in all shapes and sizes. SIGH. 

26 were sent with live stamps and 55 used non-profit postage bulk mail. 

Let’s look at the contents:

23 letters addressed me as “friend” or didn’t use my name even though it was on the outer envelope- do they just not care?
27 used my formal name of Ms. Wester
18 of them used my first name of Lynne
And 11 used the weird combo of first and last name- which read, Dear Lynne Wester,

The letters varied in length-
17 one page letters
47 two page letters
15 four or more page letters with the longest being 8 pages. WOW.
67 of their appeals asked for a specific amount, 16 did not.

On the reply devices, only 6 offered me a monthly giving option.
Let’s look at the most egregious of problems beyond the address labels and other obvious things:



This organization had the most random amounts- what will $3.65 really do? It’s not a monthly gift, just a one time contribution. This makes me worried for them as an organization. They were also one of the ones that purchased my name and address.
I made a gift to St. Jude, by FAR the worst offender in address labels and in order to thank me, they RE SOLICITED ME- Check out the appalling note here- and also on the thank you note, they referred to me as “friend” I won’t be giving to them again.


Then finally I received two “certificates” of generosity. Both BEFORE I made my gifts. Uhm, yeah, not  so much. These don’t inspire me to make a gift nor feel obligated to the organization. Here they are:

So what have we learned from all of this? It’s that the status quo is in full effect at organizations. 81 pieces of mail later and I wasn’t truly inspired by any of them. How are we going to cause change to happen in our organizations when we accept this as the norm? I ask you to help me stop the madness! Send in your pieces, let me know what you’re seeing and who is doing a great job, they deserve to be rewarded. We CAN do better and we MUST do better!

I look forward to a healthy debate.


  1. I agree that the madness should stop! But would love to hear how Social Media is taking the place of direct mail for non profits. We are slowly merging in to a networked world, but treading lightly.. Need more examples of how organizations are using social media and what venue has been the most successful.

    1. Is social media being used at all? I would think at a minimum brand awareness could be created.

  2. I totally get you Lynne, but you are not the typical direct mail donor target (unless you're secretly 70+ and look really good). I absolutely HATE the look of direct mail and all of its gimmicks (and if you saw me at Bed Bath & Beyond, you'd know I normally am such a sucker for gimmicks), BUT they somehow work with that demographic. That being said, you, nor I, are the demographic and because nonprofits (mine included) rent other orgs' files (we do not sell or exchange, making this all the more expensive--but we do not have a built in constituency like a college or hospital), and yet orgs' are wasting money by purchasing yours and my name. Silly for sure. I wish we could do an age overlay over purchased files, but alas we can't. (Also, I learned from our direct mail company, you and I both receive Dear Friend, because our names are gender neutral--apparently Dear Friend on an appeal performs just as well, and an acknowledgement can be personalized).

  3. Direct mail solicitations are a perennial battle in my office. Though we pay great attention to our salutations and address labels, we always wonder whether or not we should continue to send DM solicitations; we never include gimmes or gimmick certificates. So, solicitations can be awful, no doubt. But how do you feel about direct mail pieces that are retention only? DM donor bulletins that thank them for their gift? We send out a DM bulletin to all donors in addition to a monthly e-newsletter. What do you think of that idea? PS - thanks for regularly dishing out super advice!

    1. I'm a big fan of thank you only pieces, and you'll find many examples on the site!

  4. You are so right about how awful this stuff is. Someone might say, "but look how successful St. Jude is," - but maybe the comment should be "Imagine how much more successful they would be if they did it right."

  5. Our organization (in Charlotte) has what I'll call a healthy direct mail program. We haven't purchased a list in a couple of years now and are focusing our attention on retaining and upgrading those in our file who do give. I am curious to know, Lynne, how many of the organizations you received mail from were actual local to Charlotte and how many were national organizations/

  6. I agree Lynne, but it doesn't appear that DM is going to go away. You have shown us the bad and the ugly, I would be very interested to see who is doing this well.

  7. Happy to! I can show you some great examples soon!

  8. I'm excited to see your examples! I've been told by the powers that be that we have to do acquisition and that ugly sells when it comes to direct mail pieces. Based on some of the numbers I am seeing this year, I'm not so sure.

  9. I laughed when I saw St. Jude's with one part of the letter mail merged with your name and the bottom half not; it takes such a small effort. I understand that the "target demo" may be older than you are, Lynne, but the fact is that effort in attention to detail/ congeniality/ mail merge techniques goes very far to build relationships. One finds that the "thank you process" is labeled as the "worst" job (the merging, the checking) and is often handed to a staff person with one of the lowest salaries in the nonprofit. The person promoting gratitude should in fact be someone well-paid, well-engaged, and well-suited.

    As long as there is a "churn" mentality and "ATM" mentality, there will continue to be poor letters, sloppy thanks and loss of donors.

  10. I'm going to make the case for the "weird" combination of first name and last name. If the organizations were Quaker, it makes particular sense. Quakers do not use titles, and instead use both first and last name in addressing people. I think there is something to it. The organization that addresses me as "Mrs. Senecal" or worse "Mrs. Stokes" (I'm married but kept my name) has screwed up and isn't getting anything from me. Much better not to guess.

  11. Would you oppose just the first name as opposed to them both? Which is better?

  12. I really want to send you the production schedule for direct mail at my organization (which I recognized in your screen caps above), but you would probably gather protesters to stand in front of our offices. Like someone else said, it works really well for the over 70 demographic. I hate everything about it, though!

  13. We find direct mail very effective at my organization, so we continue to use it about twice a year. We do not purchase lists - instead we use internal contacts only. We keep it pretty simple - it's just a simple letter in a business envelope, but we try to use fun imagery (as befits our "brand") throughout to get some attention. Our constituents seem to appreciate the letters as we use them as an informational touch-point of "What's New at the Zoo", as much as an ask. We mail merge and check our mailing list obsessively - but of course, we miss a few, but so far, we have been able to avoid the dreaded "Dear Friend" and hopefully not too many mangled names.

  14. You know most of these orgs do tons of extensive testing to see what works, right? I bet that weird ask string was tested multiple times by that organization. Yes, there are major issues with retention, but blaming on direct mail techniques is not going to fix it. I work at a large national healthcare org that mails millions of pieces. Our retention rates are much higher than industry standard because we focus a lot on the renewal experience and stewardship to show how gifts are being used. However, if you got our mailings I'm certain you would post a picture. The certificates and the membership cards are winners every year. And, yes, they win in acquisition with people who haven't yet made a gift. In our renewal we try to test shorter letters, but the 5 page research bulletin wins every time even when considering cost. Believe me, I'd love to go shorter, but that's not what our audience wants.