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Digital Engagement Versus Direct Mail for Fundraising in the 21st Century

By: Christopher Bayerle

Back in January, I saw some interesting news testifying to the power of direct mail in fundraising.

You read that right. The postcards, envelopes, and circulars that I periodically move from my mailbox to my recycling bin are a powerful fundraising tool in 2021. Forget social media. Move over Google Ads. Don’t even think about email. Direct mail is the next big, not new thing.

Ok, I’m being facetious. That’s not exactly what the research bears out. Direct mail is powerful, but it doesn’t mean that digital engagement is a bad investment. In fact, depending on your audience, it may still be the best investment.

Let’s review what research is telling us about direct mail versus digital engagement and what means for fundraising efforts.


Direct Mail

What’s so powerful about direct mail? It’s actually kind of novel in a digital world. 

Thirty years ago, marketers didn’t have many options. It was all about TV, radio, print, and direct mail. And if you were lucky enough to be alive back then, you remember the veritable cornucopia the mailbox offered each day, filled as it was with bills, advertisements, magazines, and letters from grandma.

Today, I don’t receive many letters and thanks to autopay I haven't received a physical bill in the mail in almost a decade. Yet I still check the mailbox every single day. So when I do receive something other than the weekly circular it stands out to me.

And here’s where the direct mail research comes in: direct mail was the preferred outreach method for 21% of respondents in a study as cited this year by The Nonprofit Times. That’s a sizable chunk of donors.

In fact, that same article notes that direct mail moves donations from 45% of donors older than 60 years old. And donors in this age bracket give the biggest donations to charities. AARP reports that baby boomer giving accounted for 41% of the amount of all giving in 2017.

So, direct mail is powerful with a demographic that contributes a significant amount to charitable giving.


Email and Digital Engagement

However, if we look at how other generations respond to direct mail, the numbers change a bit. Direct mail moves donations for around “34 percent of donors between the ages of 45 and 60, then 26 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds and only 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds.” Direct mail is less effective for soliciting donations from younger generations, but not completely ineffective.

And there’s a little bit of a numbers game to play here. Though the average amount that the baby boomer generation donates to charity is much higher overall, more individuals from younger generations make donations. During the Covid-19 pandemic, somewhere around 80% of millennials made a donation to a charity in some amount. So if your goal with your marketing is to impact a large number of people, investment in digital engagement might resonate more with Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z.

In fact, if we look at preferred outreach channels, 48% of those surveyed identified email as the channel they preferred most across all generations. Email is potentially still the most powerful tool in any fundraiser’s toolbox. Furthermore, email can see a return on investment of 122%, which Whole Whale says is four times more than social media, direct mail, and paid search.

We can probably break down the efficacy of digital engagement even further, too. If email is the best tool for broad fundraising, what’s most effective for your core supporters? It’s here that we see online communities and social media become critical for engaging and retaining your most ardent supporters and relying on them to help spread the word about your mission.


The Name of the Game Is Multi-Channel Marketing

Let’s return to the initial report and review one last interesting stat: 29% of donors make a donation through an organization’s website after engaging through another channel. What does that mean? It means almost a third of donors made donations through a website after being directed there through email, social media, direct mail, or some other medium. The article doesn’t give a ton of details about what this includes, but I suspect this stat might be even higher if we consider the multiple touchpoints through the journey of a donor that lead them to make a donation.

It potentially takes 7-10 touches for a donor to decide to support your organization. This is why it’s important to engage donors across multiple channels — your website, social media, direct mail, newsletters, and email. You need to be able to track those interactions with each channel in a single place. And your CRM should be at the center of that multi-channel perspective.

Picture this scenario: A community member volunteers time in the summer. In December, you use PrintSF to send your volunteers direct mail about your year-end fundraising drive and add them to a Salesforce campaign. The link on the mailer is tracked in Marketing Cloud Account Engagement (powered by Pardot) and leads to a donation page set up with Salesforce Elevate. If the volunteer makes a donation, we’ll update the contact’s status in the designated campaign. From here, we can use Salesforce and Marketing Cloud Account Engagement to report how many volunteers were in the campaign, how many volunteers visited the donation page through the tracked link and made donations, and how many people overall made end-of-year donations. The CRM at the center of your marketing campaigns and channels helps you see how effective those campaigns and channels are separately and together.

The lessons here are to use all the tools in your toolbox, to know your audience, and to make sure you’re set up to track multi-channel engagement in one place. 


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