“God is in the details.”
~ Mies van der Rohe, American Architect (1886-1969)
No truer words have been spoken when it comes to mailing lists. For me, mailing lists are the alpha and omega of virtually every nonprofit activity, but especially fundraising.
This is true of lists one uses to send mail to constituents via the United States Postal Service, or e-mail lists. If your organization is not sending properly spelled and addressed letters and printed publications to its constituents, they may not reach them. Worse yet, they may reach the intended constituent, and offend them.
When I begin a nonprofit fundraising project, one of the first things I do is ask to review the mailing list(s), including the e-mailing list(s). Unlike some consultants who talk “at” you rather than work with you, side-by-side, I like being “hands on.” This activity, which can take days to a few weeks, will tell me to a great degree – better perhaps than a feasibility study – if an organization is ready to embark upon a fundraising campaign, regardless of size.
If I discover many obvious errors in the list(s), then trouble surely lies ahead. Before any further mailings are planned, the list must be repaired, updated (and sometimes expanded) to ensure the nonprofit is covering all possible bases, and reaching all influential prospective supporters.
You might also discover “hidden gems,” people on a mailing list who may have contributed at a modest level, who are capable of giving truly significant gifts. I once uncovered a $25 annual donor who was subsequently cultivated, and who ultimately made a $5 million donation a few years later. This critically important work only happens when a knowledgeable professional simply takes the time to review the mailing list.
Comments I have heard from potential donors about mailing lists, to underscore my point regarding accuracy:
> “No, I will not be attending the event. For the past ten years I have called and called, asking them to remove my late husband’s name from the mailing list. They have not done so. No one is paying attention. They will not receive one dime from me.”
> “That organization can’t get it right. They misspell my name on every mailing – they don’t even know who I am. I toss their mailings in the trash.”
> “I have called repeatedly, and I am still receiving five copies of each and every mailing they send out. Please tell them to remove my name from the list entirely.”
> “What mailing?”
People receiving mail often think they are the only person in the universe. You may have thousands of names to keep up-to-date on your mailing list(s), but regardless, that one misspelled name could spell doom for your nonprofit’s fundraising efforts.
As an aside, this leads me to ask why data entry and maintenance personnel are generally paid at the lower end of the pay scale. The job is tremendously important; it requires a certain set of skills including great attention to detail. Better yet, an employee managing your list(s) who also has some depth of understanding about your key constituents and their preferences is even more valuable to your organization. As NTEN says, “love a ‘techie’ today!”
I would say the same of receptionists, having worked with one nonprofit that refused to hire a receptionist, leaving messages to one primitive answering machine tended by a group of interns over the course of each week. The interns routinely forgot to write down a few messages after listening to the recordings, and missed some unbelievably important messages from major donors, who were then insulted. We almost lost one major foundation grant that way. Ahem!
These positions need to be taken more seriously. Of course, in some instances you might decide to handle all your own telephone messages – which is certainly “do-able” in this technological age. See my posting, “Grasshopper!” for one example of how this can actually be a manageable process.
Back to mailing lists …
One nonprofit with which I worked produced one of the most beautiful annual reports I have ever encountered. They were mailing these weighty documents to approximately 2,000 constituents, many of them potential donors. But, upon reviewing the mailing list, I discovered half of the mailing addresses were outdated. With no trained development officer, the staff never could “find the time” to update the mailing list. The upshot: they were sending at least 1,000 attractive, four-color annual reports to the back room of the local post office.
One of the first things I did upon arrival was help the staff find correct and current mailing addresses, delete those on the list who were deceased, and add new names and addresses to the list that made sense for them to educate and cultivate. Then, we had a powerful, genuinely helpful mailing list to use henceforth.
Today, the U.S. Postal Service publishes online guides to proper mailing, and important to most nonprofits, bulk mailing.
Here are a few of those online pages for ease of reference:
In addition, I am a fan of professional mailing services for larger mailings. Normally for a reasonable rate – less then it would cost you and your volunteers to sort through and prepare a bulk mailing – they will send your mailing list through a computer in advance to check it for errors, before you affix labels to each printed item. A professional mail house can also handle the physical aspects of bulk mailings more quickly and efficiently that the nonprofit can. The more sophisticated ones can print out your labels in attractive formats, and most have good relationships with the U.S. Postal Service that help pave the way for successful bulk mailings that do not languish for days or weeks in the back room.
When it comes to e-mail lists, you will discover more rapidly those addresses that are invalid by simply sending out one e-mail and watching what is kicked back. The advent of website “sign up” lists requiring visitors to complete their own contact information is a terrific help, as it leaves nothing up to chance. In addition, e-mail lists can be very helpful to uncovering new potential donors. Remember, “God is in the details.” By carefully reviewing an organization’s e-mail list, I have been able to uncover major potential donors by tracking back to the original corporate or foundation website, for instance.
The constant care and ongoing review of mailing lists takes time, but I have found it is worth the extra effort. Many staff members refuse to sit still long enough to tackle a sizable mailing or e-mailing list, but nonprofits simply must put a priority on this activity to ensure their organizations are not wasting time and money, and to ensure that the public impression of them is a positive one.
A note of thanks …
Over the years, I have worked with Gulf Coast Mailing Services of Corpus Christi, Texas, which is owned and operated by the Guzman family. They do a tremendous job and are one of the finest mailing services with which I have ever worked (and I have been working in the nonprofit sector a long time). Routinely when they would handle a bulk mailing for me, the pieces would arrive to those on my mailing lists at the same time as first class mail – incredible.
~ Don’t give up on direct mail yet! The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) released, “2012 Response Rate Report” (July, 2012).
“DMA compares direct mail response rates over time. The time series reveals that direct mail response rates have dropped nearly 25 percent over the past nine years. Even so, mail campaigns draw a better overall response than digital channels. For instance, response rates for direct mail to an existing customer average 3.40 percent, compared with 0.12 percent for email, which is roughly a 30-fold difference. Costs are also higher, which translates to roughly equivalent costs-per-sale/lead for direct mail, email, and paid search.”
~ “Research Shows Americans Still Prefer Print and Paper Communications, but Misconceptions About Environmental Sustainability Remain,” from The Corporate Social Responsibility Website (January 18, 2012).
“If you prefer to read from paper instead of an electronic screen, you’re not alone. According to a recent survey commissioned by Two Sides, the fast-growing non-profit organization created to promote the responsible production, use and sustainability of print and paper, 70 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, say they prefer to read print and paper communications compared to reading off a screen.”
~ Thanks to The Agitator’s December 15, 2011 blog post on, “Consumer Survey Results Reveal Direct Mail Is Most Preferred Channel for Receipt of Brand Communications.” Postal mail is not “dead” because of social media:
“Epsilon Targeting, the leading provider of consumer information for targeted marketing solutions, today released the 2011 Channel Preference Study, which shows that through economic turmoil, technology advances and channel proliferation, direct mail continues to deliver as consumers’ preferred means of receiving marketing messages from brands.“ All the more reason to be paying attention to your mailing list(s).
~ Grant Johnson wrote for Chief Marketer Network, “Direct Mail: Still a Bargain for Marketers” (February 27, 2013). “Great direct mail is about understanding your segments and varying your offers/messaging so that it resonates uniquely with each of your targeted groups. It’s the offers and messaging to the right audience at the right time, which creates relevance and gets them to take action now.” Grant notes the cost-effectiveness of direct mail, and I believe this is sound advice for those of us in the nonprofit sector.
~ NTEN’s e-journal, CHANGE contains a terrific article by Alec Stern of Constant Contact on, “Growing Your E-mail List” (December, 2011, page 29). If you prefer communicating with constituents via e-mail (and it is probably a good idea to use multiple avenues of communication including e-mail), Alec provides excellent advice about enticing new people to sign-up for future e-mails.
~ Rochester Institute of Technology’s “Print in the Mix” discusses the continued importance of direct mail. Click on the link to reach the Direct Marketing division.
~ The Stelter Company is a highly regarded planned giving advisor. They have also found direct mail is the preferred way to communicate with donors.
~ After updating this post in January, 2013, I received several comments about the importance of e-mail marketing. Here is a helpful write-up from Firespring, a highly regarded firm based in Nebraska, “Five Benefits of Email Marketing for Nonprofits” by Jay Wilkinson.