Reprinted from Contributions Magazine
With all the media we're exposed to—print and electronic—does it matter terribly when you mail to donors? Not really.
In watching the mail for more than two decades, I haven't found a time when it makes sense not to mail.
Indeed, one of the values of direct mail fundraising—especially for organizations receiving lots of grants or that have government contracts—is that it provides cash flow, that steady stream of unrestricted revenue that pays salaries and rent.
To be sure, there are times of the year when the flow of contributions ebbs and when donors and prospective donors seem less responsive. But in my experience these periods vary from organization to organization and from region to region. For some groups, the July-August summer vacation period does spell a slow down. Others I'm familiar with have their second-most productive giving season in July.
The prime reason to send out mailings throughout the year is that you don't really know when your donors or prospective donors are disposed to give. Or even when they're going to be home. The overwhelming majority of your donors are older; a narrower majority are retired or semi-retired. They often plan their travel to avoid the summer months when families are clogging the highways and byways. And who can predict when they might just pick up and go visit the grandchildren for two weeks?
One of the terrible truths of direct mail is that someone has to open your mail, so you have to mail often enough to catch someone at home.
Another terrible truth is that charitable contributions come last in financial priorities. Almost all Americans give what they perceive to be discretionary income—what's left over after food, shelter, and health care are covered. The good news is that millions of Americans—especially those whose children are grown and those with homes and other assets—do have discretionary income. The even better news is that they enjoy using that income to support causes and projects they care about.
But that good news still puts you in a bind, because many factors affect an individual's perception of their discretionary capacity. The "revenue river" widens and narrows throughout the year, as real expenses make their demands and as pension checks, dividends, and other income sources fluctuate.
Even more challenging to the fundraiser is that surprise factors have an even greater influence. For example, illness could prompt anxiety about whether discretionary income should be saved for a long-term convalescence. Or a rise in the stock market could lead a donor to feel suddenly wealthier and more willing to write your organization a $100 check.
To account for this variability in your donors' discretionary income, it's important to provide opportunities throughout the year for them to make contributions.
Sending mailings at least six times a year has an additional benefit. Many people—at least 10 percent and perhaps as many as 20 percent—prefer to make more than one contribution to your organization. They derive real satisfaction from supporting your work, and like to express that support more than once a year. They may also have "limits" to what they'll contribute at any one time; they'll gladly send four checks of $250, but never a single gift of $500.
So, it's true you don't have to worry about which months to mail. In fact, you should look at every month as a mailing opportunity. Of course, you don't want to send mailings to donors who have requested to receive a mailing only once a year. And you certainly don't want to send more than two or three mailings to those who haven't given for some time or to those who make very small gifts.
It's important to say, too, that even though there probably aren't months of the year you should avoid, there are times when you absolutely should send out mailings. Americans do give throughout the year, but a larger percentage make contributions and make bigger contributions in November and December. January is a time when many gifts are sent—perhaps to express hope and commitment for the New Year. It's ideal to mail all year round, but if you're forced to make a choice, early November, early December, and mid-January are the times when donors need to receive your mailings the most.
© 2009, Stephen Hitchcock. Reprinted from Contributions Magazine, vol. 23, no. 3; reprinted with permission of Emerson & Church, publishers.
Stephen Hitchcock is the author of Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why.