Your top 3 burning questions — answered, Part 1

In my work with charities, I hear a lot of questions. Some are pretty unique. But others come up over and over again. Some I would even describe as “burning questions.” These questions are the topic of today’s post.

So what’s a burning question? I’d suggest the following criteria:

  • It relates to a make-or-break issue affecting most nonprofits.
  • It has no easy answer.
  • It’s controversial, with multiple conflicting opinions.

Burning questions, in short, are the kind of questions that keep nonprofit professionals up at night. Here’s the first one — a question I’m hearing a lot right now — and my best shot at an answer:


Does direct mail have a role to play in my organization’s future?

The vast majority of the charities we serve are rapidly moving toward a digital-led, multichannel strategy for donor engagement. The question now is about direct mail’s future as a marketing strategy. It’s still a revenue-generating workhorse for most organizations. Is it really going to “die” at some point in the near future? If so, when? If not, what role will it play?


Direct mail as a channel for donor acquisition has been declining for many years. This is a fact, not an opinion. List co-ops and other predictive data models are helping to prop up performance.

But the trend in new donor recruitment is clearly shifting toward nonprint media, particularly digital. And this is likely to impact the usefulness of mail for ongoing cultivation and retention, as donors generally prove most responsive to their initial medium of choice.

Still, I believe mail will be an important part of the nonprofit marketing mix for the foreseeable future. For one thing, I believe data models will continue to boost results for direct mail acquisition. In fact, I predict that digital and direct mail data models will merge, increasing the effectiveness of both channels.

Meanwhile, mail will continue to work best as a retention tool for certain segments of the file, including mail-acquired donors and Boomers in general. In fact, Masterworks’ proprietary approach to segmentation, called MRI, is consistently helping our clients achieve net income improvements of up to 15%.

I anticipate one other important role for mail — as a high-touch engagement tactic. As direct mail becomes less common, it may actually become a more memorable and personal experience. This will prove beneficial in affirming donors, illustrating the importance of their support, and making them feel needed and valued. And highly personalized, automated print pieces may prove quite valuable as a way of targeting smaller numbers of donors with precise messaging, integrated with online touchpoints.

That said, while many nonprofit DM cultivation programs are still generating ROIs of 4:1 and 5:1, I believe mail as a dominant marketing channel for acquisition of donors IS dying and will eventually be dead forever. Nor can it stand alone any longer for cultivation.

Our donors have become used to multichannel communication that adheres to their media preferences. That is what they get from their preferred brands. They’ll increasingly demand the same from their charities. Organizations that fail to catch up to this reality — and the agencies that assist them — are headed for a cliff.

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Well, that’s one down and two to go. Join me next time and we’ll dive into another of your burning questions.