envelope with letter coming out graphic

Why Nonprofits Need to Stop Turning Their Direct Mail Appeal Into an Email Appeal

Five tips to use both channels to their fullest potential!

Your direct mail appeal is written and approved. Postage is paid for, and drop dates are pinned down.

All you have to do next is simply copy and paste that document word-for-word and drop it into an email. Hit send and watch as the donations flow. 

If only. 

Mail and email are, to state the obvious, different. In tactics, tone, and also, more often than not, audience. So how can you leverage the good work you’ve done for the mail channel? 

We have a few ideas for you to consider.

But first, step back and think about the channel you’re using

We’re not here to besmirch the good name of Direct Mail. The data is clear: Mail remains a vital source of revenue for most nonprofits.

That said, your audience interacts with mail very differently from email. They may even be fairly distinct groups of people. In other words, it’s okay for them to differ. No one is sitting in front of their desktops, letter in hand, comparing the two. (This only happens in the fevered minds of career fundraisers.) 

Compared to digital fundraising, direct mail letters are long-term projects with fewer touchpoints and a longer run-time. We love it because it’s difficult to completely ignore; when you send a letter, you can be fairly confident your recipient sees and handles it, even if it’s destined for the recycling bin. 


So how should these two different, yet integral, channels interact? Here are a few tips on how to use each channel to its full potential — and how the two can work together to actually boost your revenue. 

Tip #1 – Complement, don’t duplicate

Why send a fundraising piece conceived as mail over digital channels? Instead, ask yourself: How can I use email to follow up with this specific cohort of donors who are also on my email list? 

We suggest sending a targeted email follow-up to mail recipients, inviting them to complete their secure gift online. This approach allows you to speak directly to this audience, acknowledge the fact they recently received a mail piece, and utilize best practices for writing in email — not mail. 


Tip #2 – Use digital channels to drive volume!

Remember, unlike Direct Mail drops, it likely doesn’t cost your organization much to send more email. Further, despite reasonable worries, we’ve seen time and again that unsubscribe rates tend not to increase with volume. That means you have a chance to lean on email follow-ups to boost volume and thus, revenue, from your campaign. This is not to discount the value of mailed follow-ups. Just as we see in email campaigns, we know that the second letter in a series can pack a tremendous strategic punch. 

Consider, for example, one final email just hours before a “deadline” set in the mail. A final touch like this helps your audience process a last-minute gift and seizes that very-last-minute urgency that Direct Mail cannot. 


Tip #3 – Know when to pivot!

Many fundraisers aim for a thematic echo chamber across channels. So long as your tactics match your channel, this makes perfect sense. That said, when the news changes, chances are your direct mail doesn’t. Each piece is a major undertaking that demands a long process. Your digital programs know no such constraints. Our point?

Know when to decouple your email from your mail. If you have a rapid response moment, don’t hesitate to hold your previously planned campaign — even if it means a messaging disconnect across mail and email. Instead, lean into what makes digital special: It can turn on a dime and hit inboxes the same day.


Tip #4 – Engage online (for free!) — and bring the fun. 🎉

The Internet is home to cat videos, Buzzfeed quizzes, and impulse shopping. In other words, even if your mission brings the gravitas, you can still reach your audience with fun engagements like trivia, guessing games, quizzes, community polls, and beyond. This keeps your email program fresh, and your audience clicking. That’s good for your mail donors and your online donors.

So as you develop your email calendar, remember to bring the fun, and don’t suppress direct mail donors! They need to be engaged, cultivated, and primed too — with an eye to the topics on which they’ll receive letters. Plus, it’s much easier, and cheaper, to lean on digital channels for these ends. 


Tip #5 – Don’t compete with your team-mates!

Digital and mail fundraisers should sit on the same team, with a common revenue goal in mind. Concerns about attribution, even “donor theft” should never arise, especially considering the rich, multi-layered donor experience your organization is doubtlessly providing. If Direct Mail numbers dip, but the email component boosts the entire campaign, that’s a good thing — for everyone! Multi-channel donors are even more valuable to the organization.

If direct mail and email hold different top-line revenue goals, it’s time to reconcile them and make nice with your fellow fundraiser across the aisle. If this is hard for you, remember: Last touch attribution only tells you so much. Even if a gift is closed on email, it’s more than probable the physical letter played an important role in the decision to give. 


A few of these tactics drove a major difference for Waterkeeper Alliance, whose email fundraising calendar previously hewed closely to their direct mail strategy. When we collaborated during their year-end 2020 campaign, we established a digital-first strategy that drove volume on key giving days, including Giving Tuesday and the final 72 hours of the year.  

We were even able to repurpose some of the excellent mail content to inform email drafting — all while implementing digital-first tactics and launching sends at the highest-impact moments. 

The results were more than encouraging. Between 11/1 and 12/31, we helped Waterkeeper Alliance raise $150,391, compared to $59,339.50 in the same timeframe last year. 

The single most important change made, year over year? 

To let email be email.

To let Direct Mail be Direct Mail. 

Through each medium you can meet each audience where they are. 

And soon, with a bit more effort, you’ll be hitting that send button and counting that money. 


Looking for more fundraising tips? Check out our latest blog posts here and more examples of our work here.