Skip to Main Content

Nonprofit Email Marketing: Is Email More Effective Than Direct Mail?

8 min read
April 26, 2023
Rachel Clepper headshot
Rachel Clepper
Sr. Content Marketing Specialist
Direct Mail

One of the most contentious marketing methods (in any sector) is direct mail, especially when you are talking about direct mail for nonprofits. There’s a big question of whether nonprofit email marketing is a better investment and use of an organization’s limited time and resources.

Direct mail supporters swear that recipients love the personal touch and that mailings help increase donations. On the other hand, direct mail’s opponents scoff at how mailings are expensive, too often treated as junk, and largely ineffective.

So who’s right? Well, everybody! Direct mail done right can help re-engage lapsed donors and delight current donors and prospects. And, in different circumstances, nonprofit email marketing does the same.

Organizations in all sectors have come to the painful realization that digital avenues such as social media are not a magic cure-all. Nonprofit email marketing may be cheaper, but its effectiveness also depends on its execution. 

Whether your marketing communications are in print or digital, the ROI can be substantial if you implement them strategically.

Is Direct Mail for Nonprofits Worth It?

Overall mail volume may be declining, but overall response rates among customers have been rising at an impressive 43% year-over-year. Moreover, prospect response rates more than doubled.

As opposed to a 20% open rate for email, 77% of consumers sort physical mail immediately upon receiving it. 

As opposed to a 20% open rate for email, 77% of consumers sort physical mail immediately upon receiving it.
As opposed to a 20% open rate for email, 77% of consumers sort physical mail immediately upon receiving it.

Moreover, the average American spends a half-hour reading their mail. Why, in such a digital world? More than half of consumers considered print marketing to be the most trustworthy. Of course, trust is important to any sector, but particularly so for nonprofits. 

Nonprofit direct mail can be a powerful way to communicate legitimacy and evoke confidence in old and new donors.

The US Postal Service (USPS) reports that most people simply like getting mail and look forward to it. 

According to the USPS, 67% of Americans considered physical mail more personal than the internet. Direct mail for nonprofits can be a great way to communicate sincerity and establish relationships.

In fact, an ANA study showed in 2022 that traditional direct mail sent in a letter-sized envelope produced a 112% ROI.

When Is Sending Mail Best?

Direct mail is not the right channel for every single communication. 

Compared to nonprofit email marketing, printing direct mail is more expensive and time-consuming. If you were to achieve the level of personalization mentioned above, it would be especially unwise to rely solely on direct mail. However, it can be very effective for recapturing old donors, delighting new donors, and standing out to young people.

1. Recapturing Old Donors

Donor acquisition is costly, and that makes retention invaluable. Direct mail for nonprofits can be a powerful retention strategy

Use direct mail marketing materials to not only remind donors of the work your organization is doing but to show how much you’ve grown and how they helped. 

Take advantage of the physical nature of the materials to show that you’ve been making an impact and could do more with their support. You can do this through quality design, personalized messages, and powerful stories. Show passion, express gratitude, and invite confidence.

2. Delighting New Donors

You may have garnered enough trust to get a donation, but make sure to follow through to keep donors’ interest and establish a relationship. 

Physical media leaves a deeper mental imprint than digital media. Quality correspondence expressing gratitude and illustrating the impact of the donation, coupled with a personal touch, can deeply resonate and extend the good feelings from the initial engagement.

3. Standing Out to Young People

Contrary to popular belief about the digital-native generations, young people appreciate physical marketing communications. Perhaps it is because they are so inundated by messaging in their digital lives, but young adults under 24 were among the most responsive to direct mail. 

The USPS found that millennials are “far more likely than non-Millennials to read and engage with direct mail.” 

Break through the clutter of their digital lives and offer something refreshing and sincere.

How Do I Get Direct Mail Marketing Right?

If direct mail marketing is so great, what’s the problem? Marketing Sherpa reported that people get too much mail and don’t have the time to go through all of it. 

To get the most out of direct mail for your nonprofit, consider these four key factors:

1. Segment

The era of mass marketing is over. Don’t try to reach anyone and everyone. Utilize digital analytics with your CRM to get a solid targeting strategy. 

2. Personalize

As mentioned above, the power of direct mail over email is that it feels more personal. Take advantage of this to communicate that you sincerely care about your donors’ contribution and that you can be entrusted with it to advance a cause they care about.

3. Stand Out

Don’t be the boring white envelope that people never get to. Send direct mail with an eye-catching design that evokes the excitement of getting a letter written specifically for you. Take advantage of the visual, tactile (and perhaps multi-sensory) aspect of mail.

4. Simplify

Don’t overdo direct mail to the point of having cluttered designs. Play with texture, shapes, sizes, and color, but keep it simple and easy. Emphasize numbers and make the most of attention-grabbing graphics with limited copy.

When Is Email Best?

Now you might be thinking: If direct mail for nonprofits is so great, does that mean I should scrap email marketing? Absolutely not! Direct mail can be a powerful way to reignite old relationships or attract and surprise new ones, but the expense and time required are not suited for regular communications. 

During our research for The Nonprofit Email Report: Data-Backed Insights for Better Engagement, we found that 48% of donors cite email as their preferred method of hearing updates and appeals from an organization.

Nonprofit email marketing is also far more measurable than direct mail. Therefore, it’s easier to develop a marketing strategy with email because you have access to behavioral insights for your audience.

Coupled with the affordability it offers, a robust nonprofit email marketing strategy can have a strong ROI even for smaller or newer organizations. 

In general, email is the best channel for communicating with a dedicated or expectant constituency. With your dedicated donors, you don’t need to worry so much about whether they’re checking their emails because you know that they want to hear from you.

Focusing primarily on this segment for regular communications, use email for:

1. Time-Sensitive Messages

Notices for upcoming events or special promotions simply might not make it in time through the postal service. Email marketing makes it easier for nonprofits to set up links that will send donors and members exactly where they need to go to donate or get involved.

2. Weekly Updates or Newsletters

Some donors and dedicated members want to know how your organization is progressing and ways they can continue to be involved. Sending regular updates by email works well.

3. Immediate Response

Of course, prompt letters of gratitude and confirmation are very important, even if they’re not as detailed and personalized. The first round of communications should be prompt so that you can show your constituents that you are not only thankful but responsible. Email marketing is perfect for this!

Nonprofit Communications: Direct Mail or Email Marketing?

At the end of the day, print or digital, nonprofit marketing communications is all about the same end goal. 

Both should be integrated into an overarching plan (marketing pros call it integrated marketing communications) and used strategically. Remember that direct mail or email shouldn’t stand alone for any of your marketing efforts.

Take advantage of the data analytics at your disposal and be more thoughtful about what you send and to who you send it. In order to maximize the impact of any outreach, craft a strategy that encourages continued engagement after a piece of direct mail or an email is received.

So what did we learn? Direct mail for nonprofits should be followed up with a sequence of email marketing communication. Similarly, email should intuitively lead to actionable behaviors, set to be monitored through software that tracks conversion. Neon CRM is a tool for nonprofits to improve your direct mail and email marketing efforts with its donor and membership management, analytics, and marketing communications software. If you’d like to know more, join us for a group demo! These 30-minute sessions provide a broad overview of the platform’s capabilities and integrations, including our email builder, donation forms, customizable reports, and more.

Sign up for a Neon CRM Group Demo

Join the discussion in our Slack channel on connected fundraising

Looking to become a more connected nonprofit leader?

Join 73,000+ of your peers getting industry news, tips, and resources straight to their inbox.