99% failure in direct mail fundraising?

When I first realized that being a fundraiser meant doing a lot more than writing fundraising copy, I started paying close attention to response data.

One day, I thought I’d uncovered a major oversight in the way we looked at direct-mail response rates.

As you know, with new donor direct-mail acquisition efforts, it’s often a hurdle to get more than 1% response. Some organizations can’t ever get that high, while others routinely top it. But 1% is pretty normal. (If you got 1% response to an email, you’d think a miracle had happened.)

But 1% success is a 99% failure rate, isn’t it?

I told everyone who would listen.

This is a fundamentally screwed-up reality! We tolerate 99% failure!

My 99% comment was a good way to get attention, but it was pretty half-baked.

One percent is what happens when you’re sending unsolicited postal mail to people who may or may not know who you are, and have not donated to you.

If you think about it, 1% is pretty amazing. You’re writing to people out of the blue. They’re probably getting a handful of other solicitations at the same time. Many of them look at your fundraising the way a first-grade teacher looks at a wad of gum — and they don’t trust you.

Cripes! It’s amazing as many as 1% respond!

Also, there’s evidence that direct-mail response is more of a process than an event. Studies show that most new donors who come on board via direct mail got mail from the organization five to six times before they responded.

That 99% non-response still bothers me. But I can’t call it a failure.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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