What’s In My Mailbox | A tried and true that needs to make like a dinosaur (hint: donors hate them)!

April 26, 2017

 For this week’s mailbox installment, I’m going *there* once again, venturing off into the land of “how not to.” I’m also going to vent a little bit, but it’ll be short, and it’ll actually be worthwhile for you to hear. I promise.

I’m going to start off by pointing out something that’s not only true, but likely pretty obvious to anyone who’s been a fundraiser or had some other connection to donor communications. Here’s the thing: donor communications are never black and white, and direct mail is included in the equation. How can it be that a tried and true direct mail tactic, while garnering great results, belongs in the category of “should nots” when it comes to crafting compelling direct mail? It’s a complicated conundrum, but I’m going to get to the heart of it as best I can.

You should know that I have a pile of mail that I don’t like very much, and sadly, I find myself adding to it often. And a lot of the additions to this unfortunate stash contain coins. Why? Probably because many nonprofit direct response gurus will tell you that the use of coins in a fundraising appeal “boosts response rate by about a third.”

Maybe it does. But what do donors say? I’ll allow the Instagram and Facebook posts below shed some light on it for you, as it contains authentic, honest donor reactions. I’ve also included a piece from my “how not to” file of direct mail. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but as a fundraiser *and* a donor, my instant reaction pretty much paralleled the former two. It has not grown more favorable with time for the simple reason that it never will.


The foundation for this type of appeal and the primary rationale behind it is rooted firmly in Professor Robert Cialdini’s reciprocity rule. This approach, which creates and offers something tangible in order to encourage the recipient to “pay it forward” and give back, is often used in the world of direct mail as a tactic, and it is costly. Because logically speaking, you’ve got to give something to get something in return, right? This makes sense in terms of investing for the sake of long-term solutions, because you’ve got to spend money to make it. But when it means giving people crappy little trinkets and mailing labels in our appeals to boost their giving? Nah.

Are these examples from mystery organizations acquisition pieces or were they sent to regular donors? In the case of the piece that was sent to me, it was part of a disjointed cycle of mail I received throughout the year, straight from an organization that I chose to support. It feels impersonal and directionless. They may abide by a schedule, but they apparently have little indication of who I am as a donor, and that’s sad.

In case you haven’t noticed, I absolutely loathe this kind of mail, and a lot of other donors feel the same way.  As you can see from the posts above, these attempts take the form of a cliche that is ripe for internet fodder. These bad apples give direct mail fundraising a bad name, and that’s not fair. And when I receive them from organizations I’m already supporting? I scratch my head.

I’ll leave you with something to remember: tricks and gimmicks are rarely ever donor-focused, nor are they aimed at fostering genuine long-term donor relationships. Sure, they might generate fast results, but they don’t lend themselves to stability or sustainability. They are bright, shiny objects (sometimes literally) best left in the land of “how to not.” What are you really paying for when you play this game?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa Niemuth April 28, 2017 at 10:40 am

Maybe you could have chosen different examples of donor postings/verbage of dissatisfaction to receiving this form of fundraising direct mail appeal to get your point of view across. I don’t think the majority of donors would respond with profanity.

David McCauley April 28, 2017 at 9:32 pm

Hi Pamela,

I happen to be one of those copywriters who write the direct mail pieces, and can attest that the shiny object does create more response. But, it only makes sense in some cases, and like most inexperienced copywriters and marketers, they like to send out packages they ‘think’ will work hoping they don’t get caught doing what they ‘should’ have done in the first place – Research your Audience. Sure, they get an initial higher response, but in the long run, they lose customer lifetime value because they don’t truly know their customers.

I have switched from business copywriting to cause marketing and non-profit copywriting, and I only take on clients whom are interested in being transparent and donor centric/donor focused in their mission. Donors want to know their money is being used wisely and appreciate being updated, but when an organization receives a donation from you, then places you on the ‘greedy and ask for more shiny object list’ it does more harm than most organizations can imagine. I am sure you know this all too well.

It’s unfortunate there are limited copywriters with enough experience in non-profit copywriting, and it’s even harder when a non-profit is inexperienced in the fundraising/donor asking process and doesn’t know the value or where to find a quality non-profit copywriter. If nothing else, they should see red flags if any so-called guru suggests sending shiny objects or gimmicks to donors to get a better response. Immediate better response doesn’t mean you will convert to long-term donors. Invest your time and love to a donor, they will reciprocate.

I appreciate what you do and value your work and advice. I am also a director for a non-profit. I encourage our volunteers and staff (and my potential clients) to read your material to get a better understanding of being donor centric. Keep up the good work!

P.S. I have received similar coin/donation requests like above, and I have actually responded to the sender the same response. What puzzles me, is I never received an apology or explanation. They just keep sending the same letter, causing me to donate somewhere else.

Pamela Grow May 3, 2017 at 7:40 am

Thanks so much for this, David. I couldn’t agree more. Begin with the audience and their motivations and passions.

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