4 Direct Mail Rules for Nonprofits

Recently, I had the opportunity to represent SPC at the DMA Nonprofit Federation Conference in our hometown of Chicago. During this conference I heard many accomplished nonprofit professionals discuss their business objectives, successes and even failures. Direct mail was a core tool used in almost all of the case studies. Yes, even in the failures!

Direct mail is powerful. Anyone who has ever seen a Spider-Man movie knows that “with great power comes great responsibility.” A lack of attentiveness or responsible execution of your direct mail campaigns can lead to failure, keeping your brand from success. I gathered some of the most common insights that kept coming up during the conference and condensed them into a helpful set of rules for nonprofits looking to utilize direct mail successfully.

Anyone who uses direct mail effectively needs to respect the medium and the process. Respect is the name of the game!

Rule #1 – Home is where the heart is…

Respect your first party data. The basic forms of direct mail data are a house list and a prospecting list. Your first party data will be your strongest data. This list is full of people who have already donated to your organization or have already purchased a product from your business. This suggestion kept coming up—mail to your house list at least once a year.

Rule #2 – Looking to prospect? Do some homework first!

Prospecting is hard. Successfully using a prospect list in a direct mail campaign is even harder. Most of the nonprofits who shared their stories had success using an experienced mailing team or consultant. Nonprofits should know their break-even points, clearly define their objectives, and expect to break even on these campaigns, not make a huge profit out of the gate. Direct mail prospecting in the nonprofit space is a marathon, not a sprint.

Rule #3 – Respect your data!

As mentioned in Rule #1, your first party data is your strongest data. Treat it with respect! Don’t only send donation asks to this list. It’s important to also send some cultivation mailings like newsletters, foundation updates, thank you letters, gifts or even simple postcards. A variety of communications will allow your audiences to feel connected to your organization, rather than just feeling like vending machines.

Rule #4 – Respect your efforts and measure!

Test, Test, Test! It’s easy to say, but it’s harder to be diligent in measuring your mailing efforts and re-designing a campaign based on those insights. In the nonprofit space, true A/B testing may not fit in the budget, but there are alternatives. Before prospecting to a large list, send a smaller percentage out with your offer. If you’re not getting the desired results, make some changes and try again. Mailing to a large list with a weak offer or message is basically throwing your money out of the window.

While using a house list, it’s important to keep track of historical campaign data – knowing that a recipient has donated previously, or if they respond to specific offers. Does one style of letter perform better than another? Continue to challenge the status quo, let your findings drive future mailing strategies, and go after improvements and extra mileage in your campaigns.

Best of luck in your next direct mail campaign!


Brooke Pertner
Strategic Accounts Executive

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