My Fraught Relationship with Direct Mail
As you might imagine, I receive a large number of direct mail solicitations from charitable organizations (NPOs). Many of them get tossed in the trash before I open them, but occasionally something about them makes me take a “closer look”. You probably know that I spend a lot of time helping fundraisers understand how a (major) donor feels about their fundraising methods, so today’s newsletter is about how a donor (this donor) feels about direct mail specifically.
I keep hearing about direct mail being an effective piece of the charitable fundraising arsenal — that the open rate is far higher than email, the response rate is far higher than email, and that people really enjoy seeing direct mail solicitations in their mailbox. Personally, that seems strange to me, but as many fundraising professionals have told me, “you’re not the target audience for this”. Okay, but I still keep getting direct mail over and over and over again — so someone out there thinks that I’m the target audience for their solicitations. Or — more likely — the sending organization doesn’t care that I get something that I’ll likely just toss, since I’m not their target audience anyway. Maybe worse of all, faced with the seemingly daunting task of segmenting their mailing list, just throws up their hands and sends their mailing out to their entire database.
I know that many of you spend lots of time making sure that targeted donors are receiving the solicitation appropriate for them, but especially with larger nonprofits, I don’t see it.
Recently I received a number of direct mail solicitations that I find annoying. How annoying? Annoying enough that I will likely never forget the solicitation, and my annoyance will be forever attached to that nonprofit.
I received a solicitation about a year ago from a large organization that I actually hosted a major fundraising event for in the past. I only agreed to host the event because I believed in the organization — their senior staff, their mission, and their history of success. Now I hear the name of that NPO and I can’t help but cringe, because just hearing their name reminds me that they send me a snail mail solicitation telling me that my “payment” was “past due”. Was that printed like an old-fashioned “past due” stamp — in red ink and on an angle on the envelope? Yes, it was.
Was I curious about what was inside — and compelled to open the envelope? Yes. Was I furious when I saw that they had asked me to give them a larger donation this year, with strange numbers showing on the enclosed “remittance form” — in little boxes that I was asked to check? Affirmative. Note that other than the event at my home, I had never sent a donation to this organization. Not once.
Some direct mail marketers say that one of the many benefits of direct mail is that it’s memorable. Yup — this was memorable, but not in the way that I think they wanted.
That was a long time ago, but just in the last 24 hours, I received two different direct mail pieces — each from a very large, very respected institution — that I found very irritating (I’m being nice with that word.) I put them both on my desk so that I could look at them hours later to see if maybe they wouldn’t be so upsetting at a subsequent reading.
That didn’t happen. In fact, I can feel my heart rate increasing again just looking at them while I’m writing this.
Both mailers shared something in common. They both thanked me for my “ongoing support” of their nonprofit. That’s lovely, but I didn’t make any contribution to these organizations last year. Or the year before. Or ever. Yes, it was my name and address on the mailer.
To give me that “personal feeling”, I suppose, these direct mail letters thanked me for my “courage” and wrote that I was an “inspiration” and a “steadfast supporter”. They also both thanked me for my “annual contribution” (annual? really?), and one of them listed my “Gift Summary” for the previous year. (Yes, it was blank.)
I’m certain that:
I’m not the only person, nor the only “major” donor, getting solicitations like this.
Direct Mail works for some organizations, but probably (hopefully?) not with pieces worded the way mine were.
This can be done better, and we likely don’t need to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” because different people have different preferences relative to communication.
If these organizations had cared a bit more about the recipient, they wouldn’t have sent me something thanking me for something I didn’t give.
When they sent these mailings, I had a moment of confusion. How is it possible that a major, highly respected institution could send out a solicitation like this? The tone and contents of the letter (and remittance form) seemed diametrically opposed to the brand logo that I was looking at. As any brand marketer can tell you, this is not the result any organization is looking for.
In case you’re wondering, I do appreciate some direct mail pieces. My favorite example is one I wrote about in a recent post:
“A better idea might be something like the postcard I received recently from a political candidate I supported, thanking me for a donation by telling me very succinctly what my donation allowed her to achieve. It was simple, clear, had a great photo on one side, and made me feel glad to know that my gift meant something.”
Now that is a Direct Mail piece that I will remember, and you better believe that when and if that person asks for a donation again, I will happily contribute.
The recent “Trust in Civil Society” reports by Independent Sector (well worth reading) tell us that about 56% of Americans trust nonprofits — almost the same in 2022 as in 2021. That still leaves a whole lot of people who don’t trust nonprofits or don’t care either way. (Neither of those answers is good for fundraising.) It also says that GenZ people are “skeptical of the sector” and many prefer giving person-to-person instead of to a large organization. The report also says that “public trust is the currency of the nonprofit sector”. That makes sense, right?
Let’s do this simple exercise. Read about the solicitations I received and think about how you would respond to them. Would you want to give to those NPOs yourself after reading them? Would you trust those organizations?
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