4 min read

Many organizations are asking whether they should keep mailing during the coronavirus pandemic. You can’t stop mailing—but you do want to make certain tactical shifts in light of the current fundraising environment.

As cities, counties, and states across the country are implementing “stay-at-home” orders and closing non-essential businesses, the post office (and direct-mail caging companies) continues to be considered essential business.

This is extremely important for nonprofits who are staying in the mail. Now is not the time, even amid economic downturn, to pull out of the mail. Lacking the ability to see donors in person, direct mail is an essential way for nonprofits to stay in touch with donors and to remain top of the mind with them. If you stop mailing and communicating, you risk losing donor interest and engagement at a crucial time.

That said, the fundraising environment is not the same as it was even two weeks ago. Don’t stop mailing, but don’t fail to make adjustments. Making sure that your list selections and segmentation are adjusted for current needs is key for mailing in the midst of the current economic environment.

Refining acquisition mail

It’s always a good practice to include a lapsed donor segment in your acquisition mail. Those donors have a demonstrated affinity, but they may not have a strong memory for your organization. For that reason, you want to approach them more like new donors than current donors.

That said, you don’t want to mail too deep into your lapsed file right now. As always, you want to give them a reason to come back, and you can try to use the current crisis to help give them a reason to come back. Don’t communicate instability—but don’t shy away from the fact that we’re facing unprecedented times. Typically these names will outperform the list rental names. Moreover, using data modeling can help identify the best names to mail.

Nevertheless, you still want to keep using your continuation rental lists. Stopping acquiring altogether new (not re-engaged) donors is the surest way to hamstring your development growth. If you have a strong acquisition program, you know which lists perform well for you. Keep using these but consider reducing or even eliminating pure test lists until things settle down. 

You want to keep acquiring donors and sticking to your strategy. But don’t charge full steam ahead. You probably have several lists that you are eager to test, but now may not be the time. Lean on your proven lists, reduce the number of tests, and play a little safer for the time being.

Refining house-file mail

With regard to your house-file mail, you can tighten up your segments and total units. One good option would be to mail fewer lower-dollar donors and concentrate on $100+ donors or those with higher giving frequency

Determining how exactly this strategy applies to you will depend on your unique needs and donor file—but the objective is to focus on your most loyal and long-term advocates. Why? Because these are the folks that are the most likely to continue supporting you during this crisis.

When thinking about your best donors—in crisis or out of crisis—don’t get distracted by dollar signs. Highest past contribution is an important factor, but not necessarily more important than frequency and especially recency. Take all of those factors into account as you try to hone your list for a house-file mailing. Especially in crisis, recency will be of utmost importance. You are top of mind for those donors, and they want to make sure that their most recent gift isn’t rendered ineffective by an economic downturn.

Incorporating digital tactics

Digital direct-response tactics are invaluable at this time. If you aren’t already, you should allocate funds and staff to accelerate your digital outreach. The entire country is sitting at home, glued to the news and social media and email. Enhance your digital outreach with a relevant and meaningful message across the social channels where you have an unusually captive audience.

Most importantly, don’t just publish content but engage your donors. Here are four simple ways to engage donors digitally:

  • Monitor and moderate your social channels. This means stepping into an interactive conversation with people by responding, asking questions, sharing relevant information, and providing opportunities to engage. Don’t let your donors and non-donor audience talk to a silent Facebook page.
  • Craft emails that are relevant and support the direct mail message and fundraising offer. You can scarcely do better than to reach donors multiple times through multiple media with integrated messaging. Send emails that echo and reinforce what you’re sending in the mail and time them accordingly—prior to the in-home date, on the in-home date, and even after. 
  • Consider supporting the direct mail campaigns, including acquisition, with co-targeting and other digital outreach methods as mentioned earlier….  And don’t overlook your SEO and SEM efforts and the support social media can provide as well. All work in tandem.

The key is that with digital, you need to apply the same messaging principles that you are using with direct mail. The multiple channels with provide an opportunity for you to engage at a deeper level by providing relevant and meaningful information that is cross-pollinated between the two. 

Finally, don’t publish for the sake of publishing. Online media and marketing is important, but it’s also easy. Don’t let the ease of online publishing reduce the quality of your messaging. Don’t publish unless it is meaningful, thoughtful, useful, and encourages some type of engagement.


Here’s the main thing: you should not stop acquisition mailings. Instead, refine the lists and modify your messaging—but don’t change things too much! You want to stay with the core message, offer, and creative approach that has worked in the past. 

With house-file mailings, you should also refine your audience and your message but stay true to your core message and mission. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room—the pandemic affecting us all—but don’t let the elephant become the focus. Your donors are donors because they care about your mission, and while the coronavirus pandemic is on their minds, their real interest is the success of your organization and mission.

Finally, incorporate digital tactics when possible to add an extra boost to the campaign effectiveness. Make sure digital and mail communications are integrated both with timing and messaging.

For the next several weeks, Philanthropy Daily will be a resource for fundraisers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back daily for new articles addressing news about coronavirus and philanthropy and providing strategic and practical recommendations for weathering this storm as a fundraiser.

And please join us on Thursday afternoons at 2:00 eastern time for a webinar on “Fundraising During Uncertain Times.” American Philanthropic leadership and Philanthropy Daily authors are hosting a weekly webinar to discuss the impact of the pandemic on fundraising and to answer your questions. Sign up here.

2 thoughts on “Mailing during COVID: refining tactics to improve results”

  1. Eric says:

    Thanks John. Much appreciated. These are unprecedented times for sure. Thanks for your help with the clients with serve together.

  2. John Kehoe says:

    Eric Your article is very good you are giving the non-profits the correct advice Stay Strong and continue to Mail and Email both Renewal and Acquisition

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