Diversify Channels, But Don't Abandon Direct Mail

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Many charities are wondering what will become of direct mail in the future. A secure method of communication with donors has become threatened following the recent anthrax incidents.


More concerned than the public are nonprofit organizations that rely heavily on direct mail fundraising for their income. To keep revenue stable, charities are intensifying their e-fundraising efforts because of the safe nature of the medium. For the past several years, these organizations have sought the magical key to turn their Web sites into an effective avenue for fundraising. The recent anthrax incidents may seem like the ideal time to many to move some of the effort spent on direct mail fundraising to the Web. Charities need to be careful not to make strategic plans on a reactionary basis. Rather, they need to make decisions that will help their organizations grow in the long run.


Companies have survived similar situations in the past. Readjusting charities' focus to e-fundraising efforts is a solution, but may not be the proper course. Diversifying to include direct mail and Web-based efforts will prove to be a stronger and more positive course of action in the long run.


Crises are not new. In 1982, the nation was focused on Chicago as seven people died from cyanide poisoning. A well-known pharmaceutical company was dealt a serious public relations blow, and consumers were nervous. The manufacturer made the wise, long-term decision of continuing the existing product line and adjusting packaging methods. Tamper-proof capsules and tamper-proof packaging were unknown prior to this crisis. Now consumers will not buy a product or open an over-the-counter medicine bottle if the safety seal is not in place.


The pharmaceutical company steered through the storm and remains one of the world's largest pharmaceutical manufacturers. Direct mail is in the midst of a similar storm. A means of private communication once taken for granted is under scrutiny. The anthrax incidents bring to light a serious question for charities that rely on the mail to communicate with donors: How much do we rely on this service, and how diversified should the organization be in terms of communication with the public?


A serious but temporary issue. The anthrax incidents are serious, but the climate created by the issue will not be permanent. Just as the pharmaceutical company continues to produce medicine, the mail will continue to be delivered. Some security issues are being resolved. Others will need to be addressed. The setbacks that some charities are experiencing in their direct mail programs will not be long term. Americans have faced similar incidents successfully and will survive the problems of today.


Adjustments are being made, but that does not mean charities should abandon their use of direct mail. It does mean that charities that rely heavily on direct mail programs should consider diversifying.


Charities should consider having several vehicles for donor communication and fundraising. In the event that one becomes temporarily disrupted, the charity will have a network of resources to rely upon until the disruption ends. Direct mail has proved successful for receiving donations, but it is not the only means available. Now is a good time to promote the availability of Web sites and e-mail, but it should be done carefully and not be forced upon the donor.


So far, disaster relief Web sites are the only ones that have experienced significant success with e-fundraising. Promoting a site is in a charity's best interest. Donors should be aware that they have the option of either direct mail or online donations and communications. It would be foolhardy to try to convert a direct mail program entirely to cyberspace even in today's climate. Make the resources available and give donors a choice. Think integration, not replacement.


But be cautious not to add fuel to the fire. Letting constituents know they have the ability to use direct mail or the Web is one thing, but to blatantly state that the Web is a better option than using the mail because of safety concerns could frighten away some individuals. Remember, the direct mail program will still be in place for years to come (unless you scare away all of the donors).


While the charity may look to bolster a Web site presence to ensure constant cash flow, the donor will view it as one of many resources to reach out to the organization. Promotion of the site should be an overall objective of the organization at all times, not just in unstable times. Many of the Web site promotions that exist today use other media, i.e., direct mail carriers, post cards, letterhead and business cards, to promote the URL.


Make the most of the current situation by building stronger communication programs. Direct mail fundraising will remain a significant revenue source for years and will not bottom out any time soon. Opportunities to promote e-fundraising will arise occasionally as a result of good and bad circumstances. Nonprofits should take advantage of these situations. In stepping forward, they should not cut the ties to the programs that have made them a success. Integration ensures a long-lasting organization, while mechanism replacement is always a gamble.


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