How to really understand fundraising direct mail

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by Jan Chisholm

Jan reviews Revolution in the Mailbox by Mal Warwick

I love direct mail fundraising. I love the accountability it offers, I love waiting with baited breath once the letters go in the mail to see how donors will respond. I love the arcane mix of art and science that creates a wonderful direct mail relationship between charity and donor.

I know that professing your love for direct mail isn’t a particularly fashionable claim right now, but I firmly believe that the principles of great direct mail are the principles of great fundraising with individual donors.

I learned much of my craft from Mal Warwick, Ken Burnett and others. My agency, Pareto Fundraising, recommends and uses many of the techniques Mal describes in this book to great effect for our clients. We use real deadlines and specific asks to demonstrate urgency, variable text to create high levels of personalisation and emotional stories personally told. I know these things make the difference between a successful direct mail pack and a pack that doesn’t deliver, for either your donors or your organisation.

So if you’re looking for a review that picks holes or refutes the key elements of this book: look elsewhere.

Re-reading this fantastically useful guide to creating an effective direct mail programme I was struck by three things.  The first is that so many in our field seem to have forgotten (or perhaps have not been shown) the basics that underpin effective direct marketing. A key strength of Mal’s approach is his unflinching focus on the importance of the technical aspects of direct mail. There are two whole chapters on how to construct a robust acquisition test programme that means you’ll actually learn something from the results.

But it’s not all about spreadsheets. The donor is never forgotten and Mal’s number one ‘important thing about direct mail fundraising’ is to view your DM communications as a process, a series of conversations rather than a number of singular approaches. His case study (sharing results) from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows this approach in action.

Finally, I was hard pressed not to cheer at each repeated exhortation to consider the cost effectiveness of your programme rather than the cost.  There’s even a resource chapter on why fundraising ratios are, to say the least, a spurious measure of impact or effectiveness. Music to my ears.

Fundraisers are constantly searching for the next big idea. I am too. But reading this book reminded me that we need to be sure we really understand the principles of the reigning big idea, direct mail, in order to be able to use what we know to build the launch pad into the future.

If you haven’t read this book yet, read it now. It’s a great grounding – if a
US-focused one – in all aspects of direct mail fundraising. If, like me, you haven’t read it for a while, read it again. I guarantee you’ll be rewarded for your attention.

Jan Chisholm has been a fundraiser for so many years she remembers typing thank-you letters to donors on a real typewriter.  Nowadays she gets to work with fantastic fundraisers and nonprofits around the world and is currently head of fundraising at Vision Australia. This review was originally published on

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