Last week the fundraising, marketing and communications blogs were abuzz over the current state of fundraising and marketing in the non-profit world. The firestorm was mostly centered on the question of whether direct mail is dying, dead or simply changing and what to do about it.

Well, if direct mail is dead it’s one exquisite corpse! Direct mail currently so outdistances online in the amount of money raised that I don’t know whether its downward trend line will cross the upward trend of online in my lifetime.

Most of all when it comes to this debate I’m a realist. I intend to use the most effective direct mail possible for as long as possible even while I invest more and more into online activities.

Here then is some brief background on the current debate.

Holly Hall of the Chronicle of Philanthropy got the ball rolling with a piece titled Direct-Mail Appeals Suffer, New Survey Finds citing the Target Analysis Group’s latest quarterly survey indicating that direct marketing appeals have failed to keep pace with inflation…that the number of people who have made gifts have declined by 1.6%…and, most disturbingly, the 72 organizations in the survey reported a median of 6.2 % fewer new donors in the first three quarters of 2007–this on top of a 10% decline in new donors for the first three quarters of the previous year, 2006.

Next, Mark Rovner, in a post on his Sea Changes Strategies blog noted, and I think correctly, that:

  • The era of cheap direct mail and high response rates in acquisition is over
  • What currently passes for an online funraising model is at best stopgap.
  • The problem is not just about direct response. Not just about non-profits. It’s that everything is changing.

Mark cited Seth Godin’s latest book, Meatball Sundae, in which Seth makes the point that companies (non-profits) are generally built around the modeof marketing available to them. Arguably this means that oganizations started in the past 30 years generally were built around cheap mail and high response rates.

Seth Godin then responded to Mark’s post with one of his own entitled I gave at the office warning that "most big charities are based on direct mail fundraising" … and that "direct mail is dying." He added "I despair for most of the top 50 non-profits in the U.S. These are the big guys, and they’re stuck. …the top charities rarely change…if you’re big, you’re used to being big and you expect to be big."

Seth persuasively makes four important points:

  • Most money that’s collected by non-profits is not the result of smart marketing. It’s mainly technologically advanced donors are simply using a more convenient method to contibute the funds they would have given anyway.
  • Simply asking people for money in the same old way — even if online — "doesn’t scale", according to Seth. "Not one bit. It’s super easy to ignore a direct mail solicitation when all you have to do is hit delete and no one notices."
  • "The big win is turning donors into patrons and activists and participants." And the internet allows non-profits to "flip the funnel" by reorganizing around the idea of engagement online.
  • "Responsible stewardship requires that you find and empower the mavericks and give them the flexibility to build something new, not to try to force the internet to act like direct mail with free stamps."

So, what’s a fundraiser to do? Ater 35 years in direct mail, 30 in telemarketing and 12 on the internet my take is simply this: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Get some more bathwater. And maybe a few more babies.

 My advice to any non-profit that relies on direct mail, but wants to survive and thrive into the next decade follows below.

Recommendations for the Direct Mail Dependent

  • Read and heed the recommendations and trends outlined in last Monday’s Agitator. Particularly those involving new media.
  • Understand that direct mail isn’t dead, but it sure is changing. It still is the most predictable, and if managed properly, secure part of your fundraising channels. So, do it well and benefit. BUT…make sure you’re using part of that direct mail revenue to open up new channels.
  • Get serious, and I mean serious, about online involvement of donors and volunteers and those prospectively interested in your cause. This means investment. Organizational change. Risk taking. Courage. Guts. Patience.
  • As I noted in last Monday’s piece, there’s a whole new group of donors out there — but they must be engaged, they must be legitmately involved in your mission, and you have to nurture them with solid information and meaningful involvement. It’s instructive that Seth Godin’s post right before his "I gave at the office" post is about the dangers of "dumbing down" customers (donors). Dumb donors are the worst kind, so invest properly providing your donors with the best information you can and the opportunities for involvement.
  • Invest your own time in understanding what’s going on out there. Let your mind wander out and about like a hunting dog on the scent — on the trail for new ideas, new thinking, new ways to advance your cause.
  • Not only should you be reading The Agitator each day, take advantage of the resourses listed in our BlogRoll.

Finally, download Seth Godin’s FREE e-book titled Flip the Funnel, which in his words will help you…

"Turn strangers into friends.
Turn friends into donors
And then… do the most important job:
Turn your donors into fundraisers."

If think you don’t have time to do all this, then you oughta be fired


Roger Craver


This article was posted in: Direct mail, Nonprofit management, Online fundraising and marketing.
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