New blood. Fundraisers are busy trying out non-direct mail channels (email, mobile, social media) in varying efforts to retain their current donor bases. But regardless of how successful these channels are for any nonprofit, you can only go back to the well so often.

In other words, the donor stock must be restocked for a nonprofit to survive today, and by far the best way to acquire new donors remains direct mail. That was the topic of the recent DirectMarketingIQ webinar, “Acquiring New Donors through Direct Mail: Best practices and case studies from leading fundraisers.”

Besides speaking during the webinar, Bob Merrigan—President of Merrigan & Co., a Kansas-City based firm specializing in strategy and messaging for non-profits—took time to answer many questions from attendees.

Here were a few highly relevant questions and answers:

Question: What is the best delivery for your direct mail piece? #10 envelope? Taped flier? Color? Plain?

Merrigan: Ask yourself, “How can I get attention in a way that sets the stage for for my ask, but doesn’t give the prospect an opportunity to say ‘no’ before being asked?”

There’s no single solution. I tend to prefer having the organization clearly identified; we all want open relationships … why would you start out as a mystery. I tend to prefer printing design/copy rather than leaving the envelope blank. That’s valuable real estate; you only have a few seconds to get attention and you need to use it. I like to invite (tease?) the reader into the package.

There are economic realities to deal with, too. Most acquisition efforts won’t support a closed-face, hand-addressed envelope, but that may work well with higher dollar donors. We’ve tested four color vs. two color. Four color typically gives a lift in response, but it really depends on your mail quantities and production capabilities. If I were starting out (not much reference in terms of return to expect) I would probably go with 2 color.

Similarly with self-mailers … I would start with a letter and flyer in an envelope and establish some benchmark patterns. Then I’d try to test in a self-mailer to see if the expected drop in response is more than offset by the cost savings.

Question: Can you provide “best benchmarks” on average cost to acquire a new donor, average cost to retain an existing donor, and average cost to convert (2nd year) across your NP clients? And you mentioned that the first gift amount is really important in the long term investment return. What did you mean?

Merrigan: First gift tends to be indicative of future gifts. It’s much harder to take a $5 donor to a $25 gift level than vice versa. The first gift tends to be indicative of the donor’s giving tendencies—not always, of course, but indicative.

Lifetime value is always going to be determined by average gift size x frequency x longevity. An effective fundraiser is going to establish benchmarks in each of those areas and constantly look for strategies to implement that could bump up those numbers.

Question: In your experience, is there a major difference if the letter is written in first person by the organization’s client, instead of written by the President/CEO?

Merrigan: I’m a huge fan of personalizing the organization … through its clients, through other supporters, through volunteers, through key employees. I would encourage you to collect and tell those stories in as many ways as you can.

That said, I’d ask myself before putting your cover letter over that signature, “Is this the most natural/comfortable way to make this ask?” It may be that the ED can tell the story of a client … or set the stage, include the client’s story, and then make the ask. It might be that the story is on a buckslip.

The key question is this: What is the “voice” that is most likely to elicit a response? The fact is, sometimes the president/CEO is not able to balance the need to maintain their personal voice and also be the voice of the organization.

Another consideration is how many appeals you are making. Do they all need to come from the same person? If your prospect is receiving multiple asks, it may make sense to try having some of them come from different people.

Ethan Boldt is the chief content officer of DirectMarketingIQ, the research division of the Target Marketing Group and publisher of special reports, how-to guides and books for the direct marketing industry

Originally posted on

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