Opinions and Facts: Is Direct Mail Fundraising Really Headed for the Exit?

by Chuck Pruitt

imagesUnder the headline, “Is Direct Mail Really Headed for the Exit?” Frogloop – a blog about nonprofit online marketing – breathlessly reports of a startling new study just published by the “research” firm, Borrell Associates. The folks at Borrell allege that money spent annually on direct mail will decline by 40% in the next five years. In grave tones, Borrell concludes: “Direct mail has begun spiraling into what we believe is a precipitous decline from which it will never fully recover.”

Frogloop sees the Borrell “study” as further evidence to support a case they began to make earlier this year:

Frogloop wrote about the seeming decline of direct mail in February due to rising costs and the fact that direct mail appeals largely to an aging demographic. The younger generation seems to prefer to donate online, rather than through the mail. Furthermore, many people view direct mail as ‘junk mail.’ Accordingly, 12 states are developing laws to ban or limit ‘junk mail’ despite strenuous efforts by the Direct Marketing Association and others to fight such efforts.”

For as long as I have been involved in the direct response fundraising world – now over two decades – the prediction of the impending demise of direct mail has been a recurring theme. With the advent of the Internet, this has taken on a new dimension. For now, according to the “direct mail is dying” chorus, online fundraising will step in and provide the mechanism to raise all the dollars direct mail used to produce and capture a growing share of a younger demographic waiting to give.

What has always mystified me about some (but far from all) of the online marketing community is their insistence that for online fundraising to rise, direct mail fundraising must fall. And what angers me about “studies” such as those offered by Borrell Associates and given legitimacy by blogs like Frogloop is they camouflage their underlying biases. Borrell Associates is, according to their website “a media research, consulting and project firm specializing in Internet advertising.” It should come as no surprise that such a firm would be predicting that the demise of direct mail is occurring while, according to Borrell, “email advertising continues to surge and is now the number one online ad category.” Quite frankly, the Borrell study has about as much credibility to me as the tobacco industry’s studies on the health effects of smoking in the 1960’s and 70’s.

This gets me to my second point. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a client of our firm for many years) was fond of saying, “You are entitled to your opinion. You are not entitled to your facts.” So let’s try to elevate the “direct mail is dying and will be replaced by email marketing” debate by looking at a few salient facts.

Fact: The direct mail donor universe is alive and well and actually shows little signs of rapidly diminishing at least in the next decade.

Evidence: In 1995, our firm joined with The Mellman Group to conduct a national survey of 800 progressive direct mail donors to analyze whether direct mail was endangered. We found that progressive donors were aging rapidly – so rapidly they would soon disappear. Their average age was 65 years and actuarial analysis revealed that 40% would expire within ten years.

In 2007, we conducted a new survey – this time sampling 600 direct mail donors and 600 online donors. Our 2007 survey – twelve years after the first one – discovered that a new generation of contributors has been found via traditional direct mail fundraising. Direct mail responsiveness, we learned, is a life cycle not a generational phenomenon. Donors’ responsiveness to direct mail solicitations appears to be a function of their stage in life, rather than characteristics of a particular generation that has largely passed. Sixty-eight percent of today’s direct mail donors are over 60 and their average age is 68 years old – nearly mirroring the donor population we found in 1995. In addition, in recent years, a whole new cadre of online donors has emerged, adding a new pool of potential contributors to candidates and causes.

Our 2007 A.B. Data – Mellman Group survey also found that direct mail and online donors live in very distinct fundraising worlds. Thirty-three percent of online donors also give through the mail but 67% do not. Similarly, 22% of direct mail donors give online but 78% will not contribute through this channel. The conclusion is obvious to anyone except those who myopically seek to wish away one or the other type of fundraising communication: You will not get both kinds of donors and you will, therefore, not maximize your fundraising potential unless you do both online and direct mail marketing.

Fact: The growth of online fundraising is happening but it is happening much more slowly than many predicted.

Evidence: According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s survey, online fundraising accounts for about 2% of the $306 billion raised by nonprofit organizations. While there are not equivalent numbers available for funds raised via direct mail, all agree that the direct mail channel accounts for at least 15 times and perhaps as much as 25 times more than the online channel.

According to the Chronicle, online gifts grew by a median of 28 % from 2007 to 2008 – a slower growth rate than the previous two years. Not all organizations are growing at the same pace. For 101 groups in the survey, online giving accounted for less than 1% of donations.

In short, the evidence shows that we are still a long way from online fundraising supplanting other forms of fundraising for nonprofit organizations. Progress is being made and growth will continue but remember a 20% or 30% increase on a base total of 2% still means that there is much work to be done. Fortunately, there are significant opportunities out there for smart fundraisers to exploit in the years ahead.

Fact: There are enormous multi-channel marketing opportunities out there for smart people with open minds.

Evidence: There has been much discussion in recent years on the promise of multi-channel marketing. In our work with the Obama for America campaign, we saw first hand that promise become reality. Beyond the slow but steady growth in online fundraising there are two reasons why it is critical for nonprofit organizations to develop a new emphasis on multi-channel marketing.

First, multi-channel contributors have dramatically higher long-term value than single channel donors. Our analysis has shown that:

  • Multi-channel donors contribute over 2.5 times more than their single channel counterparts;
  • Multi-channel donors give almost 2.75 times more gifts than single channel contributors; and
  • Multi-channel donors, who first give through direct mail, end up giving almost 3.15 times more than single channel, direct mail-only donors.

Second, recent studies have underscored the value of using multiple channels – and especially direct mail – to increase donor retention. The 2008 DonorCentrics Internet Giving Benchmark Analysis found that online-generated donors have lower retention rates and value over time. However, more and more organizations were finding success moving segments of the online donors offline and making them multi-channel donors. A median of 33% of the donors acquired online in 2009 renewed their support offline in 2008. In addition, 37% of donors acquired online in 2006 gave again in both 2007 and 2008 but never gave online again. Jennifer Tierney from Doctors Without Borders was asked to comment on the DonorCentrics study and said,

“People are asking us all the time why we don’t reduce mailing costs and save paper with online fundraising but the simple fact is that people come online to give once and don’t repeat.”

We have found that building successful multi-channel marketing programs to move online donors offline and expand direct mail-generated donors to online contributors requires a different creative and strategic approach. The Internet is changing the direct mail experience. And marketing success in the future will recognize the changing sources of news and information and, if the goal is to convert an online donor to a multi-channel direct mail donor, you cannot rely on tired or traditional direct mail techniques.

This is not intended as a defense of direct mail fundraising. Truth be told, it needs no defense. The facts and the evidence, not to mention the continued successful use by scores of outstanding nonprofit, charitable and advocacy organizations, as well as political candidates, is defense enough. What troubles me is the effort to diminish or intimidate successful organizations and professional fundraisers who are currently using or might try direct mail fundraising and see it as some sort of fundraising dinosaur to be avoided.

And what is even more troubling is how such a mindset will lead to a refusal to take advantage of the extraordinary multi-channel marketing opportunities that can occur if online and direct mail fundraisers work together to craft integrated, synergistic multi-channel programs.

In our 21-month long work with now President Barack Obama’s campaign, we saw and participated in an unparalleled success story of the appeal of multi-channel marketing. There are more success stories out there to create but it will require a clear-headed, honest appreciation of the strengths and limitations of both online and direct mail fundraising.

Let me conclude by returning to Frogloop and the Borrell Associates’ study with which I began this article. My industry colleague, Mal Warwick, was asked by The Chronicle of Philanthropy to comment on the “direct mail is headed for the exit” conclusion. Mel’s response: “Hogwash” Now there is an opinion supported by the facts. I couldn’t agree more.

Chuck Pruitt is Co-Managing Director of the A.B. Data Group – a direct response fundraising agency with offices in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.. The A.B. Data Group works for a broad range of national non-profit charitable and advocacy organizations. Pruitt spearheaded the firm’s work on Obama for America’s direct mail fundraising program – an effort which raised $103 million from February, 2007 to November, 2008.