Email Marketing vs. Direct Mail for Nonprofits

April 20, 2021
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. 

Its 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 the same goes with digital marketing. 

Organizations of all sectors have come to painfully realize that digital avenues such as social media are not in itself a magic cure-all. Digital 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. 

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. 

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

Moreover, the US Postal Service (USPS) reports that most people simply like getting mail and look forward to it. The key is the personal aspect. 

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

When Is Direct Mail for Nonprofits Best?

Direct mail is not the answer to every single communication. 

Printing is more expensive and time-consuming. Especially if you were to achieve the level of personalization mentioned above, it would be 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.

Recapturing Old Donors

Acquisition is costly, and that makes retention invaluable. Direct mail for nonprofits can be a powerful retention strategy as 70% of customers have restarted a relationship because of direct mail. 

Use direct mail marketing materials to not only remind them of you but show how much you’ve grown and how they helped. 

Take advantage of the physical nature of the materials and show, not just in words, that you’ve been working hard and could do better with their help. You can do this through quality design, personalized messages, and powerful stories, show passion, express gratitude, invite confidence.

Delighting New Donors

You may have garnered enough trust to get the donation but make sure to follow through so that it can maintain 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.

Standing Out To Young People

Contrary to popular belief about the digital-native generation, young people appreciate physical marketing communications. Perhaps it is because they are the most 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.” 

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

So How Do I Get Direct 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. 

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 physical mail over email is that it feels more personal. Take advantage of this to communicate you sincerely care about their contribution, and you can be entrusted with both.

3. Stand Out

Don’t be the boring white envelope that people never get to. Send something eye-catching and evoke the excitement of getting something in the mail. Take advantage of the visual, tactile (and perhaps multi-sensory) aspect of mail.

4. Simplify

Don’t overdo it to the point of becoming cluttered. Play with texture, shapes, sizes, and color but keep it simple and easy. Emphasize numbers and make the most of eye-catching 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? 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. 

First of all, email is still more effective than social media, according to McKinsey & Company

Email is also far more measurable than direct mail. Therefore, email lends to more effective strategy development based on behavioral insight.

[Read More: The Nonprofit Email Marketing Basics You Need to Know in 2021]

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

In general, email is the best practice when communicating with a dedicated or expectant constituency. In other words, it’s the segment that you need to worry less about whether they’ll check their email because these people want to hear from you.

Focusing in on this segment, use email for:

  • Time Sensitive Messages. Notices for upcoming events or special promotions simply might not make it in time through the postal service. Email is also easier to set up links to send donors and members exactly where they need to go to get involved or contribute.
  • Weekly Updates/Newsletters. Some donors and dedicated members want to know how your organization is progressing and how else they can get involved again. Easy regular updates work well on email.
  • Immediate Response. Of course, prompt letters of gratitude and confirmation are very important, even if 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.

Bringing It All Together

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

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

Take advantage of data analytics at your disposal and be more thoughtful about what you send and who you send it to. In order to maximize the impact of any outreach, you should craft a strategy that encourages continued engagement.

So what did we learn? Direct mail for nonprofits should be followed up with a digital sequence of communication. Similarly, email should intuitively lead to actionable behaviors, set to be monitored through analytics software to track conversion.


Neon CRM can be a great way to improve your direct mail and email marketing with its donor and membership management, analytics, and marketing communications software. 

Learn how we can help your nonprofit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *