Direct Mail or E-Mail: What’s Best for Fundraising?

Walk into any large non-profit development office, and you’ll likely find two camps. On the one side, there’s the group that subscribes to the “tried and true” method of doing things… meetings are done in person, “mail” means snail mail, and new fundraising campaigns require a year of planning and committee meetings in order to launch.

On the other side, there’s the “new and nimble” group… meetings for busy people can be done on the phone, “mail” means e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever way your target group communicates, and fundraising campaigns, well… with some around the clock work you can launch those in two months.

Of all the areas where the “new” vs. “traditional” debate rages, none is more pronounced than the argument over which type of communications and solicitations are more effective: direct mail or e-mail? Let’s take a look at the arguments…

The Case for Direct Mail

First let’s take a look at traditional direct mail. You know, the kind that arrives with a stamp and a reply card, is 2, 3, or 4 pages of information, emotions, and asks, and costs actual money to send out through the good old postal service.

Proponents of direct mail will point out… rightly so… that it works. There are large swaths of people that still respond to direct mail. There’s something about receiving a good looking direct mail piece that makes an organization seem “real” and professional in a way that an e-mail never could. People still open their mail, and still glance through the letters they open… meaning that with some good copy, great pictures, and a keen layout, you just might get a good response.

We know, from thousands of case studies, that direct mail still works. (For tips on using direct mail effectively, read Effective Fundraising by Mail).

The Case for E-Mail

Next, let’s take a look at e-mail for cultivation and solicitation. You know, the kind that arrives in your inbox with a subject line that is either boring (“Our Weekly Newsletter is Here!”) or compelling (“Children are Starving – Thank You for Saving Jimmy!”). The kind that is sent through AWeber, Constant Contact, or your own internal list-server, and which costs nothing, other than time and a monthly e-mail marketing subscription to send.

Proponents of e-mail will point out… rightly so… that it works. There are large swaths of people that respond well to e-mail. Great looking e-mail newsletters and solicitations prove that a non-profit “gets it,” that they can use the Internet and social networks to carry out their mission, without wasting money on stamps. E-mail is even more measurable than snail mail: organizations can know who opens their e-mails, how long they spend with them, even perform split testing to find out which campaign works best.

We know, from thousands of case studies, that e-mail fundraising works. (For more tips on using e-mail effectively, read Fundraising E-mail Do’s and Don’ts).

The Conclusion

Whenever I look at two competing fundraising activities, my first (and often last) question is, “What will work?” What I care about is: what will help us achieve our goal for this campaign?

As you can see from the above discussion, both e-mail and direct mail solicitations work. Direct mail cultivation and solicitations work better for “traditional” fundraising audiences: those that give to political, university, and arts related campaigns, as well as for senior citizens.

E-mail cultivation and solicitations work better for younger audiences, those that give to education, research, and technology focused endeavors, and those audiences that are more tech savvy.

The truth is, most organizations contain donors and prospects that fall into both camps. Most non-profits are seeking (or should be seeking) both older and younger donors, those that are more tech-savvy and those that are less so, givers who fund research and technology projects and those that fund more “traditional” annual and capital campaigns.

In short… most organizations (if not all) should be utilizing a mix of both direct mail and e-mail for both cultivation and solicitations. While it is certainly hard to focus on both sides of the coin (particularly for smaller organizations), the truth is that the best performing fundraising operations use both in their yearly communications cycle. Perhaps you should too?

Photo credit: Mark Sardella