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Nonprofit Direct Mail: Top 5 Best Practices


Nonprofit Direct Mail: Top 5 Best Practices

Here are five essential tips to help you get started planning and creating direct mail for your nonprofit.

Since direct mail became a major communications medium, it has been the powerhouse for charities and organizations trying to raise money. That hasn’t changed in our internet age. According to Blackbaud Institute’s latest Charitable Giving Report, online channels account for only 8.5% of all fundraising.

So how do you bring about positive change using direct mail?

Although it’s a subject that could easily fill several thick books, here are some essential tips to help you get started planning and creating direct mail for your nonprofit.

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1. Use Emotions

Direct mail is tailor-made for nonprofits because people connect with a cause, a charity, or organization on an emotional level – and unlike other sectors – are far more likely to admit to it. Many are very proud of it.

In many cases, tapping an emotional driver begins with a teaser and/or image on the outer envelope. More about that later, but the point is to continue – carefully – getting the recipient to focus on what they’re feeling and channel it into action: a donation.

For example:

“She dared to wear sandals”
(Women for Women International) (Anger)

“All Emily had to eat was crackers and jam” (St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance” (Guilt)

“INSIDE: The little card that could save lives” (Best Friends Animal Sanctuary) (Salvation)

2. Tell Your Story But …

Good fundraising is all about telling stories. Stories about needs, wants, successes, failures, can be pretty powerful. But for some of the best possible impacts, let those who benefit from your organization talk about impacts. How has your organization’s work made a difference in their life? They should be specific and personal as possible about impact.

But here’s the thing – the donor is the hero.

Remember that emotional connection I talked about? It’s not all about you (the nonprofit) but about them. Help people feel that they are the one who makes solutions possible by donating money or joining a cause. This positive approach puts the donor in control.

3. Stand Out in the Mail with Envelopes

The right direct mail format can greatly serve your needs. In the words of the late marketer Herschell Gordon Lewis, “The purpose of the carrier envelope, other than preventing its contents from spilling out onto the street, is to get itself opened.” To accomplish this for your nonprofit, you can choose from several tactics. For example, an interesting teaser on the front of the envelope that leverages one of the emotional copy drivers is very effective (see above).

Many times, it’s the envelope itself and not the copy on it that can successfully stand out in the mailbox. Amnesty International and FINCA both airmail-like envelopes with a red, white, and patterned border. This feature also helps the recipient make an association between their envelopes and their worldwide missions.

Envelopes with a 4-color bleed to the edge image or graphic catch the eye much more than plain envelopes with, at best, a logo and maybe a short line of copy.

4. Make It Personal with VDP

It used to be that personalization in direct mail consisted of plugging a name, an address, but not much else. This was supposed to make your donors or members feel special.

The big problem here is that this is not a personal approach. It’s awkward and cold, and not conversational at all. With all of the data or information you collect about your donors, you should be able to enrich your relationship with them and build their loyalty.


We’ve all seen how some companies and organizations speak to people one-to-one with digital communications, so it’s time to apply at least some of that personalization to direct mail using variable data printing (VDP).

VDP lets you customize copy, graphics, offers, and calls to action specifically for each audience of one. For example, you can recognize a member’s past donations and offer to upgrade them to a higher level with various gift ask amounts (and benefits) to match.

And loyalty is incredibly important. Studies show that it costs about 5 times more for a nonprofit to acquire a new donor than it does to keep one. With a smart and successful retention strategy, you’ll save money, and be able to invest your savings in other areas of your fundraising.

5. Drive Web and Social Media

How do you begin online relationships with your donors? With print! A good direct mailpiece builds a foundation for people’s hard-earned trust (and money). That’s a difficult task to pull off with digital communications when email and social media all look the same on a computer or smartphone screen.

A printed mailing that follows the other practices outlined in this post sparks interest, curiosity, and for current members, deeper loyalty in your organization’s mission. But it doesn’t have to stop there. You can make it a bridge to your social media and web messaging and campaigns, as well as a way to take care of more practical tasks like providing a way to renew a gift or membership.

With your mail, drive your donors online for further details and information. Or maybe adapt content and member interactions that perform well online to use in your direct mail campaigns. With QR codes, you can give them an easy way to access whatever part of your site or social media presence you desire. Ultimately, you want to tear down any silos that exist in your organization, and connect with your audience as it best suits them, not you.

How to Find Nonprofit Mail in Who’s Mailing What!

On the search page, members of Who’s Mailing What! can search on the entire Nonprofit category, or focus in on mail in one or more subcategories:

  • Civic & Social Organizations
  • Fundraising-Animals/Wildlife
  • Fundraising-Children
  • Fundraising-Environment
  • Fundraising-Health/Disability
  • Fundraising-Politics
  • Fundraising-Relief
  • Fundraising-Religion
  • Fundraising-Other
  • Religious Institutions

Listings in your search results can be sorted in category order. According to the latest count (as of June 9, 2020) there are 18,000+ total mailpieces in Who’s Mailing What!’s Nonprofit category.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that these techniques and tips are only a few of the many time-proven ways to create nonprofit direct mail. Any one of them – or more than one at the same time – are worth testing against your current campaigns.

Don’t be afraid to try new things, even as a test. Sometimes a contrary or opposite approach to what others in your niche – your competition – might work well as well as grab attention. Oxfam America, for example, has long refused to include premiums in its mail campaigns to drive up response. On the outer envelope and in the letter, it proudly tells donors about its “no gimmicks” approach.

As always, regardless of what tactics you use, remember to tirelessly advocate your mission and give profound thanks to your supporters.

Direct Mail Evangelist



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