Direct Mail Strategy for the Small Organization
by Jerry Huntsinger
I often receive telephone calls from executives of small organizations and they express
a high level of frustration because they urgently need to develop more income from their
small mailing lists.
Obviously, they realize that they face problems that the large charity doesnt
have to worry about. They often cannot afford, or do not have access to an adequate
computer service, printing press, letter shop or other productions facility. They usually
cannot afford to hire professional consultants or even a staff person trained in fund
Quite often the top executive plans the mailing program and writes the appeal letters
in his spare time, and he feels that the techniques reported in the various seminars and
professional publications often do not apply to his problems.
However, I have observed that some small organizations have successful mailing
programs, and by successful, I mean they are able to generate enough income to meet their
needs, with acceptable fund raising costs. I dont necessarily mean they are on their
way to becoming a twenty million dollar operation.
Here are a few techniques that seem to work for these small organizations.
- First of all, they follow the basic fund raising principles that apply to any marketing
situation, large or small.
- They plan and execute a systematic mailing program that gives the donor adequate
opportunity to respond to their appeals. They segment their mailing lists, they use
suggested dollar amounts, and they slant their copy according to the status of the
individual on the mailing lists.
- In other words, they do their best to use all the techniques that major organizations
have found to be successful.
- The individual who runs the organization works to develop a strong image and the
organization communicates that strong image to the donors
- Since this image is developed in a consistent way through the mailings, you almost never
see a successful small organization sending out a letter co-signed by two board members!
- The image they communicate is that the organization is not the work of a committee, but
the burden of an individual.
- They take great pains to avoid looking like an institution. They avoid institutional
looking logos, they talk more about the needs of the people they help than the meetings of
their board of directors.
- Their mailings often use small, intimate, personalized formats. Many times they avoid a
#10 carrier envelope simply because so many organizations use that size. They will often
use the personal letterhead of the chief executive rather than an organizational
- And combined with this, they change formats many times during the course of a year to
communicate to their donors that they are moving forward, not stuck in a rut
- They use personalization as often as possible. Many times this includes hand-typed
letters to their major donors. The smaller the mailing list, the more important
personalization becomes. They try to avoid the "computer look" that the major
organizations use, by utilizing personalization at a deeper level.
- They use a great deal of first class postage and they often use a live postage stamp on
the reply envelope.
- They take advantage of their smallness by playing the role of the underdog and talking
about how small they are and what a good job they are doing with the money they receive
and how they must struggle to stay alive, etc.
- For the portions of the lists they dont use mail first class, they almost always
use a postal meter for their non-profit indicia. This gives the look of first class mail
and often in a limited geographical area, non-profit mail is delivered almost as fast as
- They give their major donors tender loving care and this often includes visits to the
home, telephone calls, special dinners and events where the major donors are honored, etc.
- They have the advantage over the large organizations in that they can often be closer to
their major donors and communicate with them on a more personal level.
- Combined with this, they often have strong local committees who are assigned to make
personal calls on major donors. In a way, their fund raising program is a combination of
direct mail and personal contact techniques, because if they rely wholly upon direct mail,
they simply wont generate sufficient income to keep the operation afloat.
- They often use the "challenge gift" technique because with their smaller
budgets, it is not as difficult to find a individual who will provide a significant
challenge gift for the donors to match.
- They find that a pace-setting gift by a major donor often helps generate income during
the annual giving campaign.
- They find that telethons, as a follow-up to the annual giving program, are quite
effective and it is possible for a small organization to contact every donor by
telephone at least once a year.
- The recruitment of new donors is always a problem in the small organization because they
often cannot afford the high cost of prospect mailings in the limited volume that their
- However, if their work is confined to a small geographic area, they can effectively use
census tracts, automobile registrant lists, and other means of identifying potential
- Also, because they are small, they can communicate this problem to their donors and ask
for donors to help them find individuals who might want to support their type of charity.
- They almost never mail out a "routine appeal." Instead, every appeal is for a
very specific project.
- They have the advantage over the major organizations because with their limited
overhead, they have less worry about receiving too many gifts that are restricted to
- In summary, the successful small organization utilizes every technique available to the
large organization and, instead of saying "That stuff wont work for us," they
say "Lets make it work for us because we dont have any other
(from Fund-raising Letters by Jerry Huntsinger, Emerson Publishers, 1987)