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[ASK AN EXPERT] Can the USPS Be Trusted for Year-End Fundraising Mail?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who is worried about sending mail through the USPS right now.

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’m curious what others are doing about mailers since COVID hit. Some people have concerns about opening mail or going to the post office, and there are also concerns about the capacity of the U.S. Postal Service. We are gearing up for our year-end appeals and I’m wondering whether we should even use direct mail for this year’s annual appeal? But I’m worried if we don’t we’ll lose a lot of people.

— Frozen in my tracks

Dear Frozen,

Freezing for a moment to assess the dangers ahead is a reasonable reaction given the times we’re in. And I wish I could offer a definitive answer.

Alas, this is tricky and a bit of a gamble. What I can say is, historically, direct mail (DM) has pulled in the most gifts. Per Nonprofit Source, DM response rates averaged 5.3% compared with email response rates of 0.06%. And per the most recent M+R Benchmarks Report, open and response rates to email and social media have seen a small decline. Plus not everyone uses email or social media. So not using the post office could cause you to lose out on connecting with some of your important supporters.

I’d plan to use the post office to mail, simply send it out a lot earlier. How early? That depends. The mail this year in the United States will likely be delayed. There’s an election, a pandemic, and a change in leadership at the USPS. I’ve heard some experts recommending you treat October 31 like December 31 in an ordinary year. I think that’s fine in terms of getting all your planning, printing and personalization done. However, I’d probably wait until after the November 3rd election date in the U.S. before sending any mail. You just don’t want your appeals to get stuck in a corner while ballots get expedited and prioritized.  My best advice is to:

  • Check with your local post office to get their advice as to best times to send mail, both first class and bulk rate. Some states and municipalities will probably handle things better than others.  If you can, try to make the post office staff your partners. They’re people too!
  • Consider sending more first class this year. Pick your most likely suspects. If you usually send bulk rate to volunteers who are non-donors, maybe this year you might send to them first class.  These folks are more connected and engaged than other non-donors, and you definitely have a good chance with them if your appeal is compelling.
  • Give your appeals more lead time than you’d ordinarily give. If you used to expect direct mail to arrive within 2 – 3 days, this year allow a week to 10 days. Give it plenty of time to reach its destination.
  • Make sure you’re using a multi-channel approach.   Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket (i.e. mailbox).  Set up an email campaign. Supplement it with social media posts. And double and triple up on the online messaging towards the end of December. It’s never been a good idea to rely solely on mail. In fact, a recent report from Nonprofit Source found campaigns using DM plus one or more digital media experienced a 118% lift in response rate compared with only DM.
  • Begin right away to collect email addresses and/or mobile numbers (for texting) for those supporters you can currently reach only by mail. Add a box to collect emails at the top of your website home page (maybe offer a ‘gift of content’ in exchange for their signing up – like a ‘how to’ guide; research report; recommended reading list; book of inspiring quotes; recipes from staff or clients – think of what would be attractive to your constituents). Also post a link to an email collection form on social media at least weekly. Let supporters know digital communications reduce your costs and increase the impact of every dollar given, and ask them to send you their cell phone numbers and opt in to text messaging. You may be surprised to learn the M+R report found nonprofit text messaging audiences grew by 26% in 2019, at a time when Facebook audiences grew by just 4% and email list sizes declined by 2%.
  • Enable social sharing or engage actively in a peer-to-peer campaign with your emails. One study reported this increased click-throughs by 158% . Most likely this is due to the psychological principle of ‘social proof,’ wherein people are more likely to trust messages that come from their friends or others they admire. Take full advantage of this phenomenon!

If you’re getting pressured to go all email this year, understand that email has a very short shelf life. You’ll get the bulk of your responses the first day, as opposed to within the first two weeks for DM. In fact, 13% are opened and read/discarded in the first five minutes. Mail, on the other hand, tends to hang around the house. Folks may put it aside for later, when they plan to discuss their philanthropy with family members. Or maybe they’ll save it to pay with other bills. Because of this longevity problem with email, or lack thereof, you need to send more emails than snail mails.

Bottom line? Use direct mail and email. And layer in some social media and advertising too if you can. Plus put your appeal up on your website. Ideally front and center during the year-end giving season. You never know where people will find you and take notice of you. So hedge your bets.

I hope this helps you to warm up to the season of generosity that lies ahead!

Charity Clairity

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  • Timothy S Cohen

    When do you think is the best timing for direct mail to arrive this year? I usually aim for the week before Thanksgiving, but given ongoing election issues and pandemic concerns, it feels like early December might be a better target date this year. Any thoughts? Thank you!
  • Michael Rosen

    Direct mail still works. The USPS still works. While nonprofits may want to mail a bit earlier than usual, they still should mail and do so without fear. Roger M. Craver, on The Agitator blog, wrote, "... based on actual monitoring of outbound nonprofit mail, that there had been no delay in delivery." He also offered a prediction about mail delivery based on data. I encourage anyone concerned about mail delivery to read Roger's post as well as the special report he references:
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