What the “stop direct mail acquisition” experiment teaches us

Almost three years ago, American Cancer Society made either a visionary decision or a massive boneheaded mistake. They did so very publicly, and everyone in the fundraising industry was interested. It was a big deal.

They suspended direct mail donor acquisition. And they generously promised to be open about what happened and why.

Then reality set in. The suspension turned out to be much more of a boneheaded mistake than a visionary decision. When it came time to share inside knowledge at the DMANF New York Nonprofit Conference, many who were there were disappointed at the lack of information and openness.

The reaction is reported by The Agitator, at American Cancer Society Flops.

I wasn’t there, so I’m not ready to join the chorus calling “BS” on the presentation.

I think the ACS experiment teaches us something hugely important that every fundraiser should pay attention to: Direct mail (still) matters!

We’ve been hearing from a lot of sources for at least ten years now that direct mail is dying. Or even already dead. ACS tested that DM-is-dying hypothesis on a huge scale. They stopped direct mail acquisition in January 2013 and restarted June 2014. Some of the outcomes:


  • New donors dropped by 11%
  • New donor revenue dropped by $11.3 million in the first year
  • The five-year impact on income: $29.5 million
  • The ACS Relay for Life raised $25 million less than the previous year

That’s not all. The ACS gets more than $51 million in planned gifts from direct-mail donors. It will take years for the future loss of planned gifts to run its course.

And guess where major donors come from. For most organizations, the large majority start their relationship as direct-mail donors. Stop direct mail acquisition, and you’re throttling the pipeline into your most important donor program.

As an ACS leader said, “For every $1 we invest in direct mail acquisition, we bring in $7 over the course of three years.”

We learned something from the ACS experiment that you can take to the bank: Direct mail is not dead. You’d have to be a complete idiot to walk away from it.


  • You’ll lose immediate revenue.
  • Your event revenue may suffer.
  • You’ll get fewer planned giving prospects.
  • Your major donor program will shrink.

ACS should have known that. I bet many people there did know that. So why? The Agitator speculates:

Too busy focusing on the old burn and churn tactics which produce lots of profit for vendors but not much value for the organization? A CFO asleep a the switch? An innumerate or uncaring board? A weak or arrogant C suite?

(To which I’d add: Empty-suit consultants?)

So I’m not complaining about a BS-filled presentation at a conference. That would be like complaining about rain in Seattle or snow in Boston.

I say we thank the American Cancer Society for making it clear to everyone else: Direct mail matters. A lot.


Comments

2 responses to “What the “stop direct mail acquisition” experiment teaches us”

  1. Jeff, I love you for this. Enough said.

  2. Jeff, I love you for this. Enough said.

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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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