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How do I raise money with direct mail cultivation?

Direct mail cultivation means putting letters in those mailboxes.

Cultivation is a numbers game.

Successful direct mail cultivation depends on three questions:

  1. Who are you mailing?
  2. What are you sending them?
  3. How often are you mailing them

1. Who are you mailing?

Since this is cultivation, not acquisition, you’re only sending out letters to people who have already given through one of your acquisitions channels. I say “one of” because you don’t have to limit yourself to donors that came in through direct mail gifts. If you have donors that have given via online giving, you can add them to your direct mail list. If you have volunteers who have registered and given you their address, you can mail them. The only exception is if they have explicitly opted out of receiving mail communications from you.

2. What are you sending them?

Your direct mail pieces need to tell your donors about a need, provide a solution that meets that need, and ask them to make a specific gift. I go into more detail about some different types of direct mail cultivation pieces that might work below.

3. How often are you mailing them?

It’s important that you know up front that many ministries send fewer mail pieces than they should rather than too many. Why is that? The main reason that I’ve heard is that they don’t want to alienate their donors. This doesn’t make sense. Do you remember every piece of mail that got last month, especially the ones that you didn’t open? Even if you have a superb memory, the answer is likely no. Neither will your donors. Think about how often that McDonald’s commercial runs during your favorite program. Marketers know what most fundraisers don’t – most people forget 90% of the information that they encounter every day almost immediately. More contact with your donors is better. You will get the occasional donor who calls or writes to complain about the volume of your mailing. Change that individual to a reduced mail plan, or take them out of your list entirely. But don’t change your whole plan because of one grumpy response.

It’s all about the response rate.

A wildly successful direct mail piece has a response rate of 5-10%. A strong one will have a response rates from 2-5%. Put simply, the “response rate” means the number of gifts you get for every 100 pieces of mail you send out.

This means that on a “good” mailing, 95-98% of your mail pieces don’t get a response. Most of those pieces don’t even get opened. The more times you mail in a year, the more opportunities you are giving for those 95-98 percenters to respond. A person who tossed your last letter in the trash might sit down with a glass of wine to read your next one… and break out the checkbook. You never know why exactly people give, so you want to give them more opportunities to do so.

Types of cultivation letters

Direct asks

A direct ask is the bread and butter of any direct mail program. In each piece, you’re telling the story of your ministry and inspiring the reader to get involved by making a donation. You don’t necessarily have to create a brand new letter for every mailing. You’d be surprised how effective it can be to reuse the same letter year after year, especially if you’re doing sufficient testing. If you don’t have the expertise to do testing in house, you can always hire a direct mail vendor that will handle the work of testing and modifying the pieces for you.

Program related asks

Some ministries are big enough that they are able to focus individual mail pieces on specific programs that they operate. For instance, the Food Bank does two separate direct mail pieces that focus on children and senior feeding programs. The reason that this works is that it caters to the individual interests of your donors. Some people are more stirred to action by children’s programming than senior programming, and vice versa. Having special focuses enables both of donor groups to give to something they are passionate about.


The newsletter is a way to close the “thank you” gap and show your donors what good their gifts are doing. The newsletter can share success stories, profile community volunteers, share the needs of the ministry, and thanking special donors. My favorite book on how to do non-profit newsletters is Making Money with Donor Newsletters by Tom Ahern.

Seasonal asks

Your donors don’t live in bubble, neither should you. Your direct mail pieces can and should be tailored to the time of year. It’s no mistake to think that Thanksgiving and Christmas appeals are some of the biggest winners of the year. Many non-profits depend on the large responses they get to their holiday appeals during the year’s prime giving season.

Planning the year

What does your  cultivation calendar look like? It depends on your ministry and the resources that you have. (For the big picture on developing your annual plan, read How do I create an Annual Fundraising Plan.)

At a minimum, you should be mailing your direct mail donors. This gives you a connection point every three months or so and allows you to keep them interested in your mission. The danger of only mailing once or twice a year is that the donor will forget entirely about you, or commit their dollars to an organization that asks more regularly for their gift.

You will need approximately 2-3 months of lead time for creating each direct mail piece. That includes writing, designing, proofing, and correcting the letter, reply device, and envelope. It also includes creating and cleaning your list of mail recipients.

If you are more sophisticated and can plan more time, you might do testing on your piece before sending it out to your entire list. Testing means sending out your piece to a small number of donors to see how well the piece performs with your donors. Testing can make a big difference on success rates, because small changes often have a big impact. Remember the response rates – one tenth of a % in response rate can translate into thousands of dollars if your are mailing out to a big enough list.

Using a direct mail vendor

Sometimes it makes sense to outsource your direct mail cultivation to a vendor that specializes in this kind of fundraising. You have to make an investment up front, but it can make a big difference. The vendor will be able to create pieces with your assistance, run tests, do budget projections, clean your mailing lists, put individualized codes on the pieces to help improve your record keeping, print the packages, and mail them to your donors.

When looking for a direct mail vendor, try to find one that is familiar with the market segment that you serve. So if you’re a food bank, work with a vendor that has other food banks as clients. If you’re a church, work with a vendor that has other church clients. Talk to their clients and find out about their working relationship. You should also take a look at the direct mail pieces that they have prepared for other clients, backed up by data like the response rate for the piece, the total cost of the mailing, and the total amount raised.

Looking for more articles on direct mail fundraising? Try these:

Check out The Fundraiser’s Playbook for a full list of fundraising articles.

Would you like to learn more about raising money for Church and Ministry? Check out Letters From The Almoner, now available on Amazon.com.
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