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Forget Everything You Know About Direct Mail Fundraising


raising-1000-gifts-by-mail-1465823947.jpgForget everything you know about direct mail fundraising—and all your overblown expectations about email fundraising, too. Toss aside those images of white #10 window envelopes, bulk rate postage, garish teaser copy, and name stickers. Banish all thoughts of the “typical” 1 percent response, $20 average gift, and 30 percent first-year renewal rate.

Clear the decks instead for high-dollar direct mail, and get ready for a 3, 4, or 5 percent response—with average gifts measured in the hundreds of dollars and renewal rates to die for!

Here are just three examples found in my newly revised book, Raising $1000 Gifts by Mail in the Age of Email and Social Media:

  • A 10,474-piece high-dollar mailing for an anti-hunger organization yielded $117,749. Overall response was 6.4 percent, the average gift $173.
  • An appeal consisting of just 889 letters for a regional activist organization produced a 3.1 percent response rate, for a total of $59,450.
  • Two high-dollar appeals for an environmental organization produced response rates of 13.3 percent and 12.7 percent, with average gifts of $365 and $395, respectively. The fundraising cost was less than 10 cents on the dollar in both cases.

OK, I can hear you saying, “If this stuff works so well, why isn’t everybody sending the ‘high-dollar mailings’ you’re talking about?” The answer is clear and almost too obvious:

  • In the nonprofit sector there’s an obsession about fundraising’s cost—as opposed to its cost-effectiveness. Time and again, my colleagues and I come up against development directors, chief executives, or trustees who simply won’t spend what it takes to succeed in high-dollar direct mail.
  • Even when decision makers have escaped the cost-obsessiveness fever, there’s that little matter of the budget that so often intrudes on well-considered plans. Faced with a choice between spending, say, $25,000 on a high-dollar mailing to 5,000 donors or spending it on mailing an additional 75,000 donor-acquisition letters, many direct marketing managers—or their consultants—will show a bias for broad reach over high touch ... even though the net revenue will unquestionably be much lower.

When I’m asked how high-dollar direct mail differs from garden-variety direct mail, I’m always tempted to say “in every possible way.” But it’s more accurate to say that there are four distinct dimensions in which the two approaches diverge: 

1. In whom the letters are sent to

An offer to high-dollar donors is unlikely to be effective with donors who habitually give less than $100.

2. In the case for giving

Traditionalists in the field of direct marketing speak about five “hot buttons” or “triggers” that explain donor motivation: fear, guilt, greed, exclusivity, and anger. These base emotions lie at the heart of the offers that have dominated direct mail fundraising for decades.

To some degree or another, one or another of these five emotions is probably associated with almost any offer we might imagine. But I regard this approach as simplistic and misleading.

I know from experience that positive triggers play key roles in motivating donors to give. It’s critical to recognize that emotions such as hope, love, faith, duty, and compassion are even more likely to figure prominently in high-dollar appeals than they do in traditional direct mail.

3. In the packaging

Forget the trappings of standard direct mail: the lurid teasers, the bulk rate postage, the raggedy ink-jet addressing systems, the barcodes, the window envelopes, the cheap 50-pound paper stock. High-dollar direct mail packages must avoid the look and feel of junk mail at all costs. They must be distinctive.

4. In the follow-up

A high-dollar mailing of the sort I’m describing will be only marginally useful as a one-shot proposition. Oh, sure, you might be able to upgrade a significant number of your donors and realize a substantial profit. But if you merely send out a high-dollar mailing once every year, you’ll be squandering the true value of the approach.

Functionally, high-dollar mail needs to serve as a communications platform to upgrade the most promising candidates from your small-donor program to a level of giving that’s high enough to warrant attention from major gifts staff and volunteers. That requires a continuing program—a fundraising track of its own, really.

And like any well-managed fundraising track—membership, major gifts, legacies, whatever—a high-dollar fundraising program consists of at least the following elements:

  • gift acknowledgments;
  • cultivation, education, and reporting;
  • annual renewal efforts; and
  • special appeals.

Every one of these efforts must be conceived and managed with a view toward the special needs, preferences, and circumstances of high-dollar donors.


The best high-dollar direct mail fundraising evokes and simulates the intimacy and directness of face-to-face fundraising. It’s an expression of fundraising as that gentle art, not the market-driven, transactional approach that has dominated direct mail fundraising since it evolved into its contemporary form more than half a century ago.

If you use the techniques described here and in my book in a sensitive and artful way, you’ll touch your donors’ hearts—and the many gifts you’ll receive in their lifetimes of giving will justify all the investment you make in money, effort, and time.

Mal Warwick is the author of the recently revised edition of Raising $1000 Gifts by Mail in the Age of Email and Social Media, from which this article is adapted.

Topics: high-dollar direct mail fundraising