9 common reasons direct mail fundraising doesn’t work

So your direct mail piece didn’t work, and you’re not sure why.

Here are the top two, most-common reasons direct mail doesn’t work:

  1. You mailed to the wrong people. Not everyone is likely to donate to you, no matter how good a job you do of asking. Tribute and event donors are unlikely to give, as are volunteers, neighbors, and that great list of prospects a board member came up with. Even lapsed donors (people who haven’t given in more than a year) and very unlikely to give. Mailing to those groups is an investment (possibly a bad one), and you can usually expect to lose money if mailing to them.
  2. No call to action. Fundraising is about action. If your message is “We exist, and we’re really good at what we do” — that’s not fundraising, and it rarely works. Direct mail works when it puts a clear and compelling action in the hands of donors.

After those two most-typical problems that beset direct mailings, here are seven more common reasons direct mail doesn’t work:

  1. Your teaser gave it all away. If the outside of the envelope tells the whole story, the piece usually suffers. A teaser should tease, create a reason to open the envelope. (There are exceptions to this principle, but not many.)
  2. Your message is too short. If you have a one-page letter, you probably didn’t make your case. Testing is very clear about this: Longer letters work better than short ones. Make two pages your minimum.
  3. You told a story, but it’s a success story. When you tell an amazing story about a problem that was solved, the message of the story is that the donor isn’t needed. Tell a story about a problem the donor can help solve, not one you’ve already taken care of.
  4. Your photos told the wrong story. Photos speak more forcefully than words. If you show beautiful photos happy people, the story you tell is loud and clear: You are not needed, donor!
  5. You didn’t quite ask. You have to come right out and directly ask for a donation. This may feel uncomfortable, but if you hint at giving, many readers won’t realize they’ve been asked. Just say it: Please send a gift today.
  6. You only asked once. Even if you ask clearly and directly, if you only did so one time, many of your readers won’t know you asked. Ask several times in your letter. Readers are skimming.
  7. You asked donors to support your organization. Donors don’t give to make your organization exist. They give to make something happen.


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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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