The first thing to know is that mail programs will generally lose money initially. Even if you have great donors and good packages at first, the cost of growing the program will likely outstrip the benefits of running it at first, especially because there are significant fixed costs in the mailing space (e.g., it costs just as much to copywrite a letter than does to 100 people as it does one that goes to 100,000).
Acquisition is where you can get into serious money. Acquisition is designed to lose money for all but the most (absurdly) conservative organization. It’s an investment in bringing new people into the organization and getting them to support you financially. Yet, it’s necessary to start to build your file and lower your marginal costs.
One way to do acquisition on the cheap is with warm and conversion leads. Warm leads are people who have engaged with your organization non-financially (e.g., remember those folks we got to download our white paper last week and give us their contact info?); conversion leads are people who have donated, but not through the mail (e.g., online donors, walkers, gala attendees, etc.). These are inexpensive ways to get new donors, as you don’t have to pay list rental fees.
The other way to get names is, not surprisingly, to pay list rental fees. Try to find organizations like yours to test their lists – often people who support an environmental/cultural/health/etc. charity support many of them. It’s much easier to convince someone to support something very like what they already support.
It also behooves you to put your list up for rental/exchange as well. This will lower your list costs because you will be trading lists with some nonprofits instead of renting theirs.
If this doesn’t seem burdened by an overabundance of logic, you would be correct. Generally, you would do well to take a George Costanza approach to Charity Navigator and simply “do the opposite” of their guidance.
In addition to rental and exchange markets, you can also work with cooperatives to get additional names. These coops include Abacus, Dataline, Datalogix, DonorBase, I-Behavior, Target Analytics and Wiland. I think I’ve tried almost all of these at some time or another. These coops share names among them and will build a model of response to get the best possible donor lists for your organization. Think of it as not renting from 10 different lists, but rather getting the best from 20 different lists. Some work better for some organizations than others and it may take a few to get it right.
The downside here is that your best names will start to get mail from a lot of different organizations. On the flipside, you have access to the best quality names from other organizations. Be sure to hold out part of your file to determine the impact of this mailing structure on your file.
After you look at your first bill for an acquisition and regain consciousness, you will rediscover the value of warm leads. Just because you started a paid mail program doesn’t mean that the free tips discussed earlier, especially about working to turn your Web site into a constituent generator, don’t still apply. On the contrary, free is often the best possible price. Adding to the original thoughts, now that you’ve run a program, look at lapsed donors as another source of (re)acquisition. Generally speaking, lapsed donors once renewed will be more loyal to your organization than an outside acquired name and they generally acquire more inexpensively.
So far, I’ve been talking about mailings – online and off – as one size fits all. In reality, if time and money were no objects, each communication you would send out would be handcrafted and uniquely personalized and there would be bespoke artisanal direct mail pieces coming out of Brooklyn and Portland in lavender scented envelopes.
In truth, you aim for something in the middle using customization. That will be the topic for the rest of the week.