How To Use Direct Mail for Nonprofit Marketing Success in 2023


Many nonprofits steer clear of direct mailing because they fear that it's an outdated practice and that its start-up costs are too high. However, those are common misconceptions.

Like nonprofit emailing, nonprofit direct mailing is an important part of any organization’s marketing plan. We are here to show you how to use direct mailing to your advantage. 

Let's go!


Why Use Direct Mail?

Direct mail is paper mail that you receive through the post office and can hold in your hand. Much like a printed nonprofit newsletter, that very tactile experience is actually one of the major benefits of this kind of communication. Because digital processing is such a new thing for the human brain, we are not wired for it. 

In fact, physical media holds more of an emotional sway and therefore stays longer in the memory. Researcher Roger Dooley reports that direct mail uses 21% less cognitive effort than digital communication. Thus, your audience can process direct mail more easily than digital media, making it more effective.

Nonprofit direct mail also has less competition than digital marketing. An average person can see over 100 emails and ads per day. Compare this to the 2 pieces of physical mail that the average person receives. Considering the physical mail tends to be bills, sometimes it pays to be the star of an uncluttered mailbox!  

Many people also find direct mail more trustworthy than digital marketing. Statistics show that the open rate for direct mail can be as high as 90%, while the rate for email lands at around 20-30%. Email outreach certainly has its place in your marketing strategy. However, mixing that with the higher open rate that comes in the form of an envelope is a great way to diversify. Especially if it comes from what they consider a reputable source.  

Emily is ponderingIs direct mail right for Emily's nonprofit? She's pondering!

With these kinds of numbers, it is easy to understand why direct mail campaigns for nonprofits cannot be discounted. It is a time-tested marketing mode that works. For a small initial cost, your nonprofit can set up a reliable way to get information to readers, including new donors, current donors, members, and anyone else your organization communicates with. 

Pro Tip: If you already have nonprofit direct mail set up but want to move forward with nonprofit email marketing, take a look at our resources on nonprofit email hosting and nonprofit email services.


Use the Envelope to Your Advantage

The envelope is a marketing component that is unique to direct mailing, yet too often it is not exploited. The outer envelope is the first thing a recipient will notice, so make it stand out from the other pieces of mail that your reader will receive. This can be done in several ways:

  • Add a unique design: This can simply be your own nonprofit logo, a tie to your brand. This is especially good if you have strong branding through other channels, such as social media. You can even have the envelope designed with your brand color scheme to bring it all together. 

  • Create an emotional tie: Add an inspirational quote or a brief explanation of your mission. 

  • Create urgency: Add a message that shows that there is something important inside. Use simple sentences like "Important info, open immediately", or for a more emotional appeal "Open to save lives" (if this is true to your mission, of course). 

Pro Tip: Use an emotive image + quote combination to pull on the reader’s emotions and encourage them to read what is inside. 


Ask for Non-Financial Help 

It is not easy asking for money, and when you work for a nonprofit donation appeals can seem like a never-ending cycle. But there are other forms of help that people can give which do not involve money. You can reach out via mail to ask for other services like marketing assistance from an influencer, or editing help from a video specialist. Think outside of the nonprofit fundraising box and make a personalized appeal for experience, instead. 

Most of the time people are willing to give their time if they know exactly how it is being spent. This is not always the case with money. 


Use QR Codes

We have a tendency to think about direct mail and online mail as completely separate things. However, they can actually be integrated in a really smart way. By using QR codes, you can take advantage of direct marketing’s higher open rate to direct your audience to a particular website that they may not have opened if sent via email. Looking for a donation? Make it as easy for the recipient as possible by linking them straight to your donation page. 


Personalize Your Mail With VDP

In the era of online marketing and social media, readers have a certain level of expectation when it comes to personalization. Gone are the days when simply plugging in a name was enough to make printed communications feel individual. It is important not to let your members feel like just a name on a list. 

Oliver loves being able to personalize his direct mailOliver loves being able to personalize his direct mail!

VDP is the acronym for "variable data printing." Essentially it allows you to print en masse with elements that differ from one print to the next (such as text or graphics) This allows you to take a personalized approach with your direct mail in the same way you would with email campaigns. 

For example, you can create a different experience for those who are repeat supporters by changing the style and tone to thank them for past support while encouraging them toward another donation, while first-time donors may receive a letter with more direct emotional appeals and information about your mission. 


Use the National Change of Address (NCOA) Database

This database is an excellent resource that helps keep your mailing list up to date, ensuring that the right people are getting the right mail at the right time. When current members or donors move, they do not always remember to maintain contact with your organization. It is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of new experiences and let some things fall to the wayside. 

It is both difficult and time-consuming trying to hunt down these drop-offs, but the NCOA database is there to help. It is the USPS solution to decreasing the number of undeliverables in the United States, and while it is not a free service it is very reasonably priced. Especially when you consider the ways that it can help your nonprofit direct mail campaign succeed. For example, it allows you to: 

  • Be proactive when a member or donor moves

  • Identify when someone moves

  • Re-evaluate a donor’s prospect potential, while looking for giving trends in their new area

  • Note trends in who is moving (generous donors, younger members?) It is worth looking into whether they are moving to similar areas and whether there is potential to appeal

  • Opt for Coding Accuracy Support System (CASS) screening. For a nominal fee, this service will identify whether you have the address listed correctly and will modify it if not. This ensures your letter will get to the recipient every time. 

Launching a direct mail marketing campaign encompasses a wide range of starting costs, anywhere from $1600 to several thousand for larger endeavors. But the returns are worth the cost when you consider the increased levels of engagement with your members and donors. 

Loyalty creates higher retention numbers, and loyalty is built through meaningful communication. A nonprofit direct mail strategy is an important way to gain an advantage over competing appeals. 

Use the tips and direct mail fundraising best practices in this article to help your nonprofit create a truly exciting and personalized experience for your new donors, long-time donors, members, volunteers, and more. 



💡Does direct mail work for nonprofits?

Direct mail can work for nonprofits for a number of reasons. There is less competition compared to digital marketing, physical media holds longer in people's memories, and many people also find direct mail more trustworthy than digital marketing! Find out more. 

🔑 How do you write an effective direct mail letter?

We recommend making your direct mail as personalized as possible! You can achieve personalization in different ways, and we suggest using VDP (variable data printing) to print en masse with elements that differ from one print to the next. Find out more. 

📝 How do you keep your direct mailing list up to date?

The National Change of Address database is an excellent way to keep your mailing list up to date! The NCOA is the USPS solution to mitigating the amount of undeliverable mail. It isn't free, but it's very reasonably priced, and in our opinion, worth the cost! Find out more.

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