4 min read

Direct mail can seem like a distasteful tool that could ultimately compromise your organization’s integrity. Buying into that attitude may be costing your organization immensely.

You think direct mail isn’t right for your organization. It seems too common . . . too cheesy . . . a blunt and vulgar instrument that couldn’t possibly capture the integrity or sophistication of your organization’s voice or mission.

I get it. Honestly—I do. A lot of people would declare they find the classic “tacky direct mail style” distasteful. In fact, back when I was learning the tricks of the trade, my wife—an academic (read: snob)—asked to see a letter I’d received praise for. She made it about a page and a half in before putting it down. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I can’t stomach any more of this.”

Now, even the most ardent proponents of direct mail aren’t likely to read it for pleasure. But the idea that there’s something inherently and necessarily distasteful about the medium—or about the type of donors who respond to it—is profoundly mistaken. And if you (unlike my wife) are running a nonprofit, an aversion to direct mail might be costing your organization immensely.

So let’s take a minute to dispel a few common myths about direct mail. Then I’ll make my case for why it’s an essential component of any successful fundraising program.


Myth #1: Direct mail messaging is inherently stupid.

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: some direct mail is indeed manipulative and gross—a transparent attempt to guilt-trip the reader into making a fear-based donation. “We need to hear from you TOMORROW, Mrs. Smith, or all our employees WILL DIE!”

(Side note: There are some industry-based reasons for this. Many direct mail firms work on commission, and thus seek only to wring blood from the proverbial turnip today without caring if donors feel exploited or neglected tomorrow.)

We’ve all gotten those letters. But direct mail doesn’t have to be that way. You can write letters in a “direct mail style” that honors the integrity and voice of your organization. That’s because the core idea of any successful letter is the same as the core idea of any grant proposal, campaign, or donor meeting: there’s a big problem in the world, and by making a gift to our organization you can help solve it.

Now, here’s the thing: In direct mail, you have to communicate that message simply. As we’ve written elsewhere, your letter might earn 10 seconds of its recipient’s time—if you’re lucky—so that main idea needs to leap off the page. That’s why direct mail leans on short sentences, short paragraphs, second-person language, bolding and highlighting, and all the rest. You wouldn’t put a grant proposal on a billboard in 12-point font—nor should you treat mail that way.

But simple does not mean stupid. Simple means you’re respecting your reader’s limited time by drilling down to the core idea of your appeal, with jargon and detail cranked down to 1 and problem/solution/payoff dialed up to 11.

That brings us to the second myth that might be holding you back:


Myth #2: Direct mail donors are not the “right kind” of donors and will compromise your mission.

The CEO of a prominent intellectual organization once explained to me that they didn’t want to pursue direct mail messaging because, even if it attracted donors, “it would attract the wrong kind of donors.” This executive was too polite to spell out what they meant by that. I, on the other hand, am not: “Direct mail donors are fire-breathing chumps, not the discerning givers we seek.”

Put plainly, this is a snobbish delusion. Because, do you know who receives direct mail? Everybody. Those influential, thoughtful, high-net-worth individuals you’re pursuing? They get mail too.

And do you know what kind of donors give to direct mail? Every kind of donor. Low-dollar donors, high-dollar donors, legacy gift donors . . . if you capture the core idea of your organization effectively in direct mail, the people who respond to it are people who care about the work of your organization.  

I can hear you saying, “Attracting oafs isn’t our only concern! Direct mail will bring in so many donors that we’ll be beholden to them and their whims.” The fear is that donors will stop focusing on your mission, and instead see your organization as serving their interests.

Let’s say all your donors were Mitt Romney people, but then morph into QAnon followers. Suddenly, there’s pressure on your scholars to stay quiet about certain truths donors would prefer not to hear. Perhaps, you hear, your organization’s priorities should change.

You’re not entirely misguided in worrying about this. But there are two major reasons why it would be misguided to wash your hands of direct response as a result.

First, this type of pressure is a risk with any type of donor. Any giver can decide to turn tyrannical at any time. And that risk—and the donor’s influence—only rises with the size of their gift. A mass of lower-dollar direct mail donors actually helps dilute their power.

Second, pressure from donors only poses a threat if you think your organization is going to buckle. Screw your courage to the sticking-place, and say no to compromising your principles. Sure, miffed donors might withdraw their support in the short term. But in the long run, donors who support your mission are far more likely to make you major and planned gifts.

And, just to hammer this point one more time, people who care about helping the work of your organization are the right kind of donors.


Why direct mail IS right for you

To sum up: Contra the idea that direct mail is a distasteful form of fundraising that attracts irascible chumps, I’ve argued here that direct mail is a vitally important way to communicate your organization’s story and worth with prospective and current donors.

But I would go farther. Direct mail is in fact an irreplaceable piece of any successful fundraising program. Here are its three distinct advantages:

  1. Direct mail is well-nigh universal. I touched on this above, but just about everyone has a mailbox and gets the mail. You might not be able to schedule a call with a prospect, but you can get in their mailbox reliably and (relatively) inexpensively. 
  1. Direct mail is distinctively physical. You don’t need me to crank out any platitudes about virtual tours vs. in-person experiences, or Zoom vs. conversing face-to-face. We are embodied creatures whose encounters with physical objects differ tangibly from our digital encounters. There’s a reason why even Amazon, for goodness’ sake, sends a physical catalogue to juice buyers. Physical objects get the job done in ways that virtual interactions simply can’t.
  1. Direct mail is uniquely personal. A letter is personal and intimate in a way that an email isn’t. A well-written piece of direct mail comes across as a person-to-person communication, one person in your organization speaking directly to the reader. That’s priceless when it comes to forming and cultivating relationships.


In conclusion: Don’t let intellectual snobbery hold you back. Don’t worry that domineering donors will push you around. Embrace direct mail. Far from being distasteful, it can in fact be the lifeblood of your organization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *