Best Practices for Non-Profit Fundraising Direct Mail

Nearly thirty years after the first website went public, non-profit fundraising direct mail remains the dominant outreach channel for organizations of all types and sizes. Even as the pandemic accelerated adoption of online technologies over the last year, mail continues to be the driving force for acquiring, upgrading and keeping donors and members.

Most Non-Profit Fundraising is Not Done Online

Want some proof?

In 2020, 12.9% of fundraising came from online donations, according to data in the most recent Blackbaud Institute Charitable Giving Report. It’s a big jump over previous years, likely as a result of COVID-19. But this also means that 87% of giving comes from offline sources – like mail.

So why do non-profits rely on direct mail and print – especially when digital channels are “free”?

  • In one survey, 67% of Americans said they still preferred printed materials over digital ones
  • According to another survey, 55% of all consumers trust print marketing over any other advertising method
  • Research by Temple University (among others) shows that haptics – the touch and feel of paper – provides a deeper understanding of and engagement with printed materials, such as ads

Another big finding that jumped out from the Temple study is that paper ads engaged viewers for more time than digital ads did. Even more interesting is that when reviewed a week later, test subjects showed a greater emotional response and memory for physical ads.

That last point is important: Direct mail, especially when it’s done well, resonates with people and results in opening donors’ hearts – and checkbooks. Here are some non-profit direct mail practices to help make your job easier.

7 Non-Profit Direct Mail Best Practices

1. Mail Envelopes

According to statistics from Who’s Mailing What!, more than 90% of non-profit fundraising direct mail uses envelopes. With a compelling teaser headline and image, envelopes attract the prospect’s attention and get themselves opened.

All of the classic direct mail elements – letter, lift note, inserts, brochure, reply/order form, and even the reply envelope – can work together to build your case for donating money to or joining a cause.

2. Maximize Your Data

Many, if not most, non-profits have to be super careful when spending money when prospecting for donors or communicating with current ones. Wherever you spend that money – online, offline, or ideally, a combination of both – you need to have the best data possible at the core of your efforts.

Here’s how:

  • Make certain that your data is current, complete, and error-free with hygiene practices and a CRM system that helps you create profiles of your members and contributors
  • Use segmentation to find your audience as well as focus on specific groups to tailor your messaging across channels (including mail) and improve the donor experience.
  • One-to-one personalization lets you treat each donor as an individual based on what you know about them – their demographics, giving history, and more. Variable Data Printing (VDP) helps your mail piece improve both the response rate and donation amounts by using customized copy and images.

3. Focus on Donor Retention

It’s obviously vital to have new donors and members join your non-profit. Because it costs more to acquire them, it should follow that keeping the ones you have deserves more attention than many non-profits actually give it.

As part of a commitment to prioritize – and improve – your retention fundraising, your direct mail should:

  • Thank donors for every gift, regardless of channel
  • Help your brand and its mission or messaging stand out
  • Provide information on the impact of their contribution, such as with a print newsletter
  • Communicate regularly about the needs of your beneficiaries

Depending on donor preferences, you may want to use email for renewals or other donor communications that provide a day-to-day view of activities. There’s also an opportunity to rightsize some of your campaigns – such as special appeals or high-end segments – with an elaborate direct mail piece.

4. Enlist Their Nonfinancial Help

Asking for money is never easy. But when you reach the right people – people committed to your cause – they can help you in other ways as well.

Some ideas:

  • Social media call-outs (e.g., “Follow Us on Facebook; Check out our YouTube channel”)
  • Volunteer their time
  • Include or promote branded premiums (e.g., stickers, t-shirts, tote bags)

5. Make It Easy to Read

Avoid the temptation to throw in jargon or too many statistics. They’ll only distract or annoy the reader, and that means you’ll lose them.

Think of your direct mail appeal as a conversation between two friends, not a bland, boring grant application.

Instead of long blocks of big words, keep your copy sparse.


And emotional (read on for more about that).

If pictures and simple color charts can help bolster your argument, throw them in, too.

6. Drive Response With Emotions

People make nearly all decisions based on emotional factors, not on reason. Of course, you can back up your argument with facts, but to be most persuasive, consider the emotional pain (or pleasure) points of your target audience.

The 7 main emotional copy drivers are:

  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Salvation
  • Exclusivity
  • Flattery
  • Greed

These motivators – some more than others – help you make the case for your message, especially when backed up with powerful images and graphics.

7. Tell a Story

Remember what I said about your appeal being a conversation? Your non-profit fundraising direct mail piece starts with a greeting or introduction, builds rapport, makes a case, and then asks for money.

But an important part of a conversation is about telling stories, and listening to them. Even though the recipient has probably never met the sender before, they can develop an emotional connection if they are made to care about a challenge, choice, triumph, or achievement.

With a story, you can help answer 2 main questions the recipient is asking:
“Do I care about this? What can I do about it?”

That second question is crucial. As much as you want to talk about the greatness of your non-profit, keep all that to a minimum. Instead, make it clear that the donor – not you – is the hero who can save the day.

Wrapping it up

Remember: people give to people. Treat your donors well. Be honest and sincere – and don’t be afraid to ask for their money. Together with these non-profit direct mail best practices, you’ll be on your way to building a sustainable base for your organization.

At, we work with non-profits to bring their direct mail campaigns to life, from design and data management to printing and mailing. Reach out to our team to talk about how we can work together on your fundraising campaign!

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