Donors Welcome Direct Mail but Not Too Often, Study Finds

Direct mail is still the No. 1 way donors want to be contacted by fundraisers, according to survey results released by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.

Respondents said they were more likely to respond to fundraising appeals through direct mail than through television, telephone and the Internet. On a scale of 1 (very unlikely) to 5 (very likely), direct mail received a mean overall score of 3.42, considerably higher than the other media.

But that does not mean donors like to be contacted indiscriminately.

When respondents were asked to rate various aspects of the fundraising relationship on a scale of 1 (very unimportant) to 5 (very important), “not asking for support too often” received a 4.30 overall mean score; “leaving it to the donor to decide how much to give” received a 4.28; and “asking for appropriate sums” received a 3.23.

The Indiana University study was conducted last fall by Adrian Sargeant to determine why people choose to support or not support nonprofits. Sargeant also examined why people let their support lapse after one or more donations.

Sargeant collected data from a survey developed with 10 large U.S. nonprofits. The survey went to a sample of 5,000 active and 5,000 lapsed donors. Sargeant's results are based on the responses of 2,800 people — 2,500 donors and 300 people who said they had not donated in recent years.

The survey results contradict conventional fundraising wisdom, which says that repeated solicitation is the key to success and donors respond better to specific requests.

Though 41.2 percent of respondents said they do not give to charity because they cannot afford to make a donation, 14.4 percent said they do not give because nonprofits asked for inappropriate sums, and 10.3 percent said they do not give because they found nonprofits' communications inappropriate.

Given these results, Sargeant suggests that nonprofits would benefit by allowing donors to determine the type and frequency of correspondence they receive as well as the amount they want to give.

Some fundraisers, however, disagree with Sargeant. They say the survey cannot be used as a cure-all for what donors say they dislike about direct mail.

“Our direct mail program is based on years and years of scientific testing. We stay with the programs that work the best,” said Chris Paladino, communication and marketing officer at the American Red Cross. “There's a difference between asking people what they would respond to versus asking them to make a gift and seeing if they respond.”

Ken Schwartz, senior account executive at Sanky Perlowin Associates, a direct mail and Internet fundraising consultant firm, wanted to know whether Sargeant had asked lapsed donors and nondonors whether they ever told the charities in question why they did not make a gift.

“Any responsible charity should be taking into account how often and when donors want to be solicited, and most fundraisers do that when donors let them know,” Schwartz said.

But even the most unequivocal donor response has its pitfalls, Schwartz said.

“Most people say one thing and do another,” he added. “Which is why no direct marketer asks customers upfront how many times they want to receive a solicitation.”

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