lighthouse counsel logo
Direct Mail: Yesterday’s News or Today’s Fundraising Story?

Direct Mail: Yesterday’s News or Today’s Fundraising Story?

May 21, 2021
Pamela Barden

In my years as a fundraiser, one ongoing debate has been, “Is direct mail dead?” Judging by my mailbox (not to mention the results I see from nonprofits), direct mail remains alive and strong. From weekly grocery store ads and letters reminding me it’s time to review my insurance options, to feeding hungry children, to saving wild horses, direct mail is omnipresent in mailboxes across the land.

Why? Because it works. I’ve seen the proof, and so I believe in direct mail — and I’m going to try to convince you to believe in it, too. But I don’t believe in just any direct mail. The old days of “if you mail it, they will give” are gone. Smart nonprofit mailers know that successful direct mail appeals work — but only when certain criteria are met. I challenge you to open your mind for a few minutes and consider with me when you should — and when you shouldn’t — appeal to your donors via the mail.

Direct mail is an option when:

  1. You have something to say that your donors are interested in — and you say it in a way that holds their interest. If your intention is to spew a lot of facts and figures and educate your donors about every nuance of your program, save it for the annual report or your website. Direct mail must capture attention immediately and hold that attention long enough to get the donor to act. If direct mail dies, I believe it will be because we bored the readers to death.
  2. Your offer is simple to understand. Help dig a well. Feed an abused puppy. Buy books for schoolchildren. These offers don’t need a lot of backstory. We all know people need water, puppies need to eat and children need to learn to read. A story showing this need, how you address it and how I can help you is easy to grasp. You don’t need pie charts and spreadsheets to make your point. 

Direct mail is not an option when:

  1. You have no budget and need money fast. Cheap direct mail is (almost always) going to fail. When you get a plain white #10 window envelope in your mailbox, are you excited to see what’s inside? Likely, you put it right into the recycle bin. If you aren’t willing to invest in an envelope that screams, “Open me! I’m interesting!” and then delivers on the inside, you are wasting your money. 
  2. You have not invested in relationships. Unless you are prospecting with a carefully curated list, if you have basically ignored your donors for months and haven’t even bothered to thank them for their last gift, don’t expect them to welcome your letter and send another gift.

You should include appeal letters in your fundraising program. They work. But if you don’t want to invest in doing it right, don’t blame direct mail. 


Pamela Barden

Pamela has amassed more than 40 years of non-profit experience. As president of PJ Barden Inc., she counsels non-profits, helping them develop their fundraising strategies and writing copy to achieve their goals. She previously taught fundraising courses in the Master of Public Administration program at the University of La Verne in La Verne, California, and the Fundraising Certification Program at UCLA Extension. Pamela is a former vice president at Russ Reid. Before that, she led fundraising efforts for non-profit organizations such as World Relief and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, getting hands-on experience in everything from direct mail to DRTV, from major gift solicitation to event management. Pamela is the recipient of a Silver ECHO Award from the Direct Marketing Association, winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and a Distinguished Instruction’s Award from UCLA Extension. She is also the coauthor of “The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management” (John Wiley & Sons), and author or hundreds of articles for fundraising publications. A Certified Fund Raising Executive, Pamela is a graduate of Wheaton College (B.A), Dominican University (M.B.A.), and California Southern University (Doctorate in Business Administration). Her hobbies include travel, hiking and reading. The most-frequently heard quote by and from Pamela is what she has told clients and students alike for many years because, as a fundraiser, she knows it’s true: "I am not the target audience.”