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DIY Direct Mail: A Novice Guide to Direct Mail Fundraising

on Jul 16, 2013

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If you’re in a very large charity, your direct mail fundraising is most likely outsourced. If your charity is small, you likely do it all by hand. This is a guide for anyone somewhere in the middle.

This is a fairly comprehensive guide to helping you save some money in a few key areas, while bringing in more donation revenue and keeping your donors happy.


STEP 1: Know where your costs come from.


It’s important to have a clear understanding of what you’ll need to spend money on. Once you understand how and why costs fluctuate, you can begin to scale back some areas to invest in others. Below is a sample of what the expense side of a bare-bones budget could look like.



Unit Cost


#10 Envelopes (outgoing)
#9 Envelopes (incoming)




Let’s talk about what exactly you’re looking for in each component so that when you do request a quote, your final costs won’t be too far from budget.

Printing Basics:
You don’t need to know how to run the press, but you should know how pricing works.  In the simplest terms, just about any colour image can be created with four colours. Using four colours will cost more than 2, and using 2 will cost more than 1. This includes black. And of course, printing double sided costs more than single sided.

To show how many colours you want to use, write it like this: “[# of colours on front]/[# of colours on back]”. Make sense? So a piece that uses full (or, four) colour on both sides would be “4/4” whereas a piece that only uses black on the front and has nothing on the back would be “1/0”.

Outer Envelopes:
This is the envelope you’ll be putting everything inside. Like any product, envelopes come in ‘standard’ or off-the-shelf formats. Knowing what these are and building your specifications to suit them will save you from getting a bill for a custom-made envelope.

If you’re really pinching pennies, don’t print anything on the back. The flap is considered the back, FYI. If your charity has a 1-colour version of it’s logo, this may be a good time to use it. You could still print a teaser on the outside of the envelope using just one colour. Now you’ve got a “#10 standard left window, 1/0”

All envelopes shapes have a number assigned. The familiar envelope that you’d fold and send a letter in is a #10. Let’s assume you want that size. You can also get a #10 with a left window. In that case you would request a “#10 standard left window”. Why would you want a window? Because if you print an address on the outside of the window and you plan on personalizing your letter, the two custom pieces will have to be matched together and that takes time. Time is money.

My advice is that if you’re going to spend a little extra on anything, spend it on the outer envelope.  It’s the first thing your donor will see, and determines if the package is opened or not. You can’t get a donation if your package ends up unopened in the recycling bin.

Here’s a mistake I’ve seen too many times that results in donations being left on the table – you’ve printed up thousands of reply coupons with a standard gift array of “Here’s my gift of: $35, $50, $100, other _____” printed on them. These then get stuffed into every appeal to every donor. The problem? If a donor gave $500 in the last appeal, you should be asking for gifts of $500 and up, not $35.

I understand the reason for pre-printing coupons. It was done with good intentions, and you can still use those coupons for events or putting inside annual reports.

To save money, you want to keep any personalization to the front page only.  To personalize on page 2 would require reloading the paper and some quality assurance to ensure page 1 matches page 2. This takes time, time is money. A more common industry term for this personalization is lasering. Why? Because most big jobs that don’t require personalization are run through offset printers which are big and bulky. The personalization is done with a laser printer usually.We want to combine the coupon with the letter, because that will allow us to customize the amounts we ask for. A printshop that has experience with direct mail is going to be able to customize fields for you with the proper direction. To fit the coupon and letter together we will need an 8.5” x 14” (legal) sheet of paper with a perforation to separate the two. Typically, the perforation is 3.5” from the bottom.

Some things you may want to ask to be lasered onto the front of your letter:

Unless you are printing pictures on the lettercoupon, you can probably get away with printing this 2/2 if you have a logo that is black plus one other colour. On the back, you’ll have black text and you can use a colour for the electronic signature, and on the back of the coupon.

Return Envelope:
This is the envelope that the donor will send back their donation in. It’s also referred to as a BRE (Business Reply Envelope) or BRM (Business Reply Mail) in Canada. The standard for this size is called a #9, and it is slightly smaller than the #10.  It will have a pre-printed indicia (postage mark, instead of a stamp) so that you can be charged back the postage on returned mail, but no more.

Your charity likely has a Canada Post account already. If not, set one up at In the business solutions section you can request BRM artwork to match your size specifications. You’ll be sent a PDF and EPS to download soon afterwards. You can hire a designer to lay this out, or, the printshop will likely help you out for a small fee.

Go 1/0 on this piece, the extra colour won’t help get the donation, so it’s not worth the spend. You can customize the artwork on your BRE (e.g., your logo) but be sure to stay within the allotted safe-zones.

You may have noticed I didn’t put a line for return postage in my budget. You’re welcome to of course. The trick is that it’s a cost that will fluctuate with the success of your campaign.

This is typically the least understood part of the entire process. I’ll pull back the curtain for you to give you an overview of what happens here:

  1. Data: the shop will sort your data, fix up capitalization errors, identify missing fields, run it against the National Change of Address (NCOA) list, identify invalid addresses, etc. This step costs money, but saves you money in postage also. You can also do a special sort at this stage to get a lower postage rate.
  2. Laser: this is the application of the customizations that you want in the copy of your letter and on the reply coupon.
  3. Lettershop: this is the process of putting everything together into one nicely sealed envelope and getting it into the mail.

In Canada, we don’t have a nonprofit postage rate. We do have a reduced rate called Addressed Admail, which you can get if you sort your mail in a specific way. Your lettershop will need to do this for you. This is called a Letter Carrier Presort (LCP) and what it does in effect is make Canada Post’s job easier, because they would have had to do it themselves if the mail arrived unsorted, which is why the price comes down.

If you’re mailing 5,000 pieces of mail, the savings from switching to addressed admail rates from first class postage will be about $1,000. Check the Canada Post website for the most up to date rates, because they do change.

Let’s Summarize STEP 1:

  1. The price of each item can rise or fall based on just a couple variables.
  2. More colours = more money
  3. Personalization on more than one side = more money
  4. It’s worth the money to personalize the gift array.
  5. It’s worth the money to make a more appealing outer envelope
  6. It’s worth the money to sneak coding onto your coupon.

STEP 2: Creating the Components & Managing the Process

Critical Paths:
Don’t lose sight of the fact that getting this campaign to market on time is your responsibility. Start early, and ask every supplier along the way what their timelines are. For example:

Graphic Design:
I’ve spent plenty of time over the shoulder of graphic designers that specialize in direct mail, and I have the utmost respect for what they can do. If you have the budget to hire a designer with this niche skill set, hire them!

If you’ve got access to the Adobe suite in-house and someone that knows how to use it, great. I suggest gathering some samples of direct mail from other charities that have used a format similar to what you have in mind, and giving that to the designer for reference.

Pre-printed vs. Offset printed:
It’s important to know before you brief your designer what parts of the package will be static and what will be personalized. You wouldn’t want to offset print “Dear Friend” onto a letter, nor would you want to pre-print a static gift array if you plan to customize the amounts.

There are books, entire blogs, agencies and consultants dedicated entirely to writing copy for nonprofit appeals. For me to assume I could replace all of that wisdom in one short paragraph would be insulting. Here are some great resources that can get you started:

Gift Array:
I mentioned in STEP 1 that you should personalize your gift array.  An array that begins at the donor’s last gift amount and suggests a realistic increase will boost your revenue per donor.  You can do this with a formula that looks like “Here is my gift of $Last Gift (LG), $LG*1.25, $LG*1.75, Other $____”. If you’re using a lettershop, they can very likely program this for you if you upload the last gift amount along with your donor data. If you are an MS Excel whiz, you could do it yourself. If you want to take it even further, you can stratify your ask amounts. For example, a $500 donor may get a more aggressive upgrade formula than a $5 donor.

I don’t have a single perfect upgrade strategy to recommend. Mal Warwick has published many of his tests in his book Testing, Testing 1,2,3 which I’ve found useful. It’s also important to consider the size of your list. For fewer than 1,000 donors, you may not want to go crazy here. For more than 5,000 donors you should consider creating some different gift arrays based on giving history.

Data Instructions:
You’ll need to give your supplier instructions on what you want done. This can include: salutations, coding placement, variable paragraph placement, upgrade matrix, etc. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably got a good sense of what this list looks like.

If you’re having an NCOA update being done to your data, be sure to ask for a report on what records were updated so that you can update your database accordingly. This will likely come with a list of “nixies” which are address that are invalid for one reason or another.

I encourage you to test at least one element of your package, regardless of file size. Here are a few popular tests:

Let’s Summarize STEP 2:

  1. You need to create a critical path and stick to it.
  2. A graphic designer with direct mail experience is a worthy investment.
  3. Clear instructions to your Data/Laser/Lettershop is a must.
  4. Test something!

STEP 3: After the drop


Saying Thank You:
At the very least, ensure that you’ve written a thank you letter to accompany your receipts that is customized to this appeal. The last thing you want is for your donor to get the same thank you letter they received that last time they donated.

Do you have a plan for recognizing different levels of gifts? What if someone sends a $1,000 cheque? What if someone writes a detailed letter back to you? What if that letter is critical?

A good tip is to write your thank you letter at the same time you write your appeal letter. This ensures there is a common voice, and that it isn’t written as an afterthought.

Track your results:
This is where your coding will come in handy. When importing your gifts, be sure to track the appeal to which the funds came from. You’ll be able to export these results after a few months to determine your cost and revenue per piece, average gift, etc.

By the time the campaign drops, you’ll have invested months of time and effort. Most likely you’ll already have ideas for the next campaign, but my advice is to wait and see what the results from this campaign are (if possible) before you try to reinvent the wheel on the next campaign.

Let’s Summarize STEP 3:

  1. Write the custom thank you letter when you write the appeal letter.
  2. Track your results using the coding you placed on each earlier.
  3. Use the results to inform your next campaign.

In Summary

A good direct mail campaign is a lot of work, but after you’ve got a couple under your belt you’ll be a pro. As it gets rolling and you involve more suppliers, it begins to feel like you’re riding a wave as the project gains momentum.

I initially set out with this post to say everything I might have to say about direct mail in the hopes I wouldn’t have to post another direct mail related how-to in the future. I can see now, that wasn’t realistic. You can expect a few more in the future from, specifically on topics like: list rentals/trades, premiums, online integration, and many other more advanced techniques that would have easily doubled or tripled the size of this guide.

So, good luck and let me know how it goes.

This post was by Brock Warner. Hailing from Toronto, Brock works to foster and place value upon the act of philanthropy, no matter the size of gift. As a professional, he values the ‘how’ as much as the ‘how much’ and desire to see the fruits of my labour and energy be a catalyst for positive change. Connect with Brock on Twitter at @BrockWarner.

DIY Direct Mail Fundraising

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