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In this multi-post blog series, we will outline basic ways you can build a successful fundraising strategy at your nonprofit. Be sure to check back in!

Contrary to what you may hear from some sectors of the fundraising world, direct mail is not dead. A good fundraising shop does not live by mailed solicitations alone. But like country music and fried okra, direct mail is here to stay – almost in spite of itself.

I will continue to give you pointers throughout this blog series on how to create a successful appeal strategy. For now, suffice it to say that if you want to create sustained philanthropic revenue at your organization, you need to plan on sending at least four direct mail appeals each year – not necessarily to the same group of people every time. But plan on four and create a budget that allows you to send four direct mail appeals.

To achieve success in sending those appeals you need to:

  • Send them to the right crowd

I’ve talked before about the best ways to find major gift donors and how to find donors who will support your organization. You are looking for folks who line up philosophically with your organization. Start with the individuals you already know. Dig deep into the archives of your organization for folks who have known you for a long time. Make sure you are including all recipients of all your forms of communication. Go to your board for help. And look outside your organization as appropriate. 

  • Tell a compelling story

You want to focus on the face of your organization. I remember attending a dedication ceremony at an animal shelter in Omaha some years ago. I showed up out of a sense of obligation. My friend was on the board and was given a role in the ceremony. But as soon as the Executive Director started talking, I found myself pulled in. She told three stories of pets – one about a dog who rescued his owner during a climbing expedition gone bad. One about a therapy dog who saved an autistic child. And one about a cat who pulled an elderly woman out of depression. I was moved to tears by these stories of animals! And for a guy born and raised by country folk in the huntin’ and fishin’ land of Tennessee, that’s saying something. Tell a compelling story. Tap into the donors’ sense of possibility and hope. Keep it positive. 

  • Make an appropriate ask

Two things here: ask for an amount that is appropriate for the donor and the medium. 

When thinking about an amount that is appropriate for the donor, use their previous giving to make a suggestion. You can do this in the letter itself – performing a mail merge that draws from previous giving data. Or you can put it in the reply card. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Jones, you gave $XX.XX last year. Will you increase your 2021 donation by making a gift of $XXX.XX? Increase the ask on a sliding scale, depending on the gifts of previous years. 

Regarding the medium, we are talking here about a mailed piece. So, don’t put a request in there for $10,000. That is more appropriately done in person. Typically, for a small nonprofit, your maximum ask amount will be $1,000. You can get into the lower 4-figures for the right donors, but anything more will begin to feel more like a transaction to your donor. And you want to stay away from that.

Finally, and this is key…

Always have a new solicitation in the pipeline. It will take longer, from more tries, initially spending more money than you think is necessary. But it will be worth it.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point here: My 11-year-old daughter enjoys playing Monopoly against me. And don’t tell her I said this, but I usually win.


I invest.

When Lilianna crosses ‘Go’ and collects $200, she gets excited and enjoys seeing her ‘hundies,’ as she calls them, piling up under the Monopoly board. It feels good and creates a sense of security for her to know she’s got cash in the bank.

I, on the other hand, live on the edge. When I get a hundred bucks, I invest it in a money-making property. And I’m almost always cash poor. But that’s because I use my cash to buy properties that will pay back dividends.

Life is of course a lot more complicated than Monopoly! But the analogy stands: if you don’t take risks, investing wisely in practices that will return dividends, your organization will go stale, and your funds will ultimately run out.

Spend your money on fundraising, invest in the right way, build a well-rounded and holistic shop, and the returns will eventually come.

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