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In times of economic uncertainty and global panic, like we face today, it’s tempting to step back and play it safe. If history is an indicator, this is a bad idea.

Regardless of the crisis around us, nonprofits must continue to communicate with their constituents and also fundraise. Based on decades of experience and evidence, direct mail remains one of the most effective ways to stay in touch, communicate, and fundraise—even in a time of great uncertainty.

It is a proven marketing fact that organizations that chose to forge ahead during a crisis were typically more successful in the long run when compared to organizations that paused, stopped, or significantly altered communication, particularly fundraising appeals.

Direct mail is an incredibly effective way to stay in touch with your donors­ and help keep your organization top-of-mind.

  • Considering that a very large percentage of people are at home for the foreseeable future, it stands to reason that direct mail, more than ever, should be utilized as a primary fundraising and communication channel.
  • Even during good times, direct-mail appeals to your house-file usually receive less than a 10% response rate on average, which means some 90% did not respond. We don’t stop communicating because of the 90%. The best strategy is always to continue mailing to as many people as possible.
  • While overall donations and direct-mail response rates may decline, the need to stay connected with your donors and communicate about your organization only increases in this economic uncertainty. You want to maintain, at a minimum, your current and ongoing relationship with your constituents so that when the crisis is over you are still connected.

Here are some practical ways to make your direct mail program work smarter.


We are in a global crisis. Your communication should reflect this fact—otherwise your message will seem out of touch and irrelevant. Messaging should always be authentic, timely, and relevant to your constituents—that means you cannot ignore what is going on in the world. That would be a missed opportunity to demonstrate how your organization provides real-world solutions in a time of great need.

How do you do this? Simple ways include using a lift note and modifying your appeal copy to weave in the realities of the world—including how it is affecting your supporters and more importantly the mission of your organization.

Then think even more out of the box, beyond lift notes and changes to appeal copy. For example, a free-market think tank could develop a downloadable PDF on the “10 Best Ways to Survive the COVID-19 Financial Upheaval” or “10 Indispensable Resources for Small Business Owners in a COVID-19 World.” Be creative in channeling your unique mission to address the situation and to deepen engagement with your stakeholders on a visceral level.

While the primary objective of direct mail is to fundraise, it is also an opportunity to stay purposeful in your mission and helping those in crisis. Be a benefit to the greater community.


Re-evaluate and refine who should receive your direct-mail appeals. When planning your acquisition campaigns, you may want to mail fewer lapsed donors, or even eliminate the more deeply lapsed donors. But continue using your continuation rental lists and consider reducing re-test lists—maybe even eliminate pure test lists until things settle down. The key is: do not stop acquisition mailings but refine the audience for greatest success.

Regarding house-file appeals to current donors, you should consider refining your segmentation. For instance, perhaps mail to fewer lower-dollar donors and concentrate on $100+ donors or those with higher giving frequency. This strategy will depend on your unique needs and donor file—but the objective is to focus on your most loyal and long-term advocates—in other words, those that are the most likely to want to continue supporting you during the crisis.

The key take-away is that you should not stop acquisition mailings; instead, you should refine the lists and modify your messaging—but don’t change things too much! You want to stay with the core message, offer, and creative approach that has worked in the past. And with house-file mailings you should also refine your audience and your message but stay true to your core message and mission.


Digital direct-response tactics are invaluable at this time. If you aren’t already, you should allocate funds and staff to accelerate your digital outreach. People are sitting at home, glued to the news and social media and email. Enhance your digital outreach with a relevant and meaningful message across the social channels where you have an audience.

More importantly, don’t just publish content but engage your donors! Monitoring and moderating your social channels means stepping into an interactive conversation with people by responding, asking questions, sharing relevant information, and providing opportunities to engage.

By applying the same messaging principles to digital as you are with direct mail, you have an opportunity to engage at a deeper level.

Final Thoughts

Whatever you do, do not pretend our world is not different now. Pretending the situation does not exist or overreacting to it are two extremes that will not work. When your message is authentic, clear, meaningful, and relevant you will strengthen relationships and yield positive results in both the short- and long-term.

I would recommend formulating your strategy during these crazy times around three core principles:

  1. Advocate the Mission: Let people know that your organizational needs are increasing, not decreasing. Articulate your needs and the lives you impact in simple, clear ways that the donor can relate to. And show them how they can serve your mission and the people served.
  2. Share Deep Gratitude: Demonstrate a sense of real gratitude to your supporters and advocates. Thank them profusely for their support, thoughts, prayers, volunteering, and so forth. Let them know that they are the only reason your organization even exists.
  3. Promote Community: Be valuable to the broader community. Look beyond your core mission and help others. Be a benefit to the broader community in a selfless way. Be tireless in your willingness to serve and provide solutions.

For the next several weeks, Philanthropy Daily will be a resource for fundraisers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back daily for new articles addressing news about coronavirus and philanthropy and providing strategic and practical recommendations for weathering this storm as a fundraiser.

And please join us on Thursday afternoons at 2:00 eastern time for a webinar on “Fundraising During Uncertain Times.” American Philanthropic leadership and Philanthropy Daily authors are hosting a weekly webinar to discuss the impact of the pandemic on fundraising and to answer your questions. Sign up here.

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