The Difference Between Direct Mail and Online Fundraising: which is more successful?

How to Fundraiseby Heather Stewart

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the fact that direct mail is in decline.  So does that mean that we should ditch it now and switch to online fundraising?

Or, as it’s a gradual decline, should you just ignore the stats until things are really bad and switch your approach then?

Before you make a drastic switch from one to the other, it pays to determine who your audience is and what you are trying to achieve:


  • Direct mail is typically the preferred giving mechanism for older people and for those who give to traditional causes, such as universities, politics and the arts.
  • Online fundraising tends to appeal more to younger audiences and those who are tech savvy.

Let’s not forget that, no matter what, most donors tend to be middle-aged to older people so ditching direct mail might just see your donations plummet.


The Case for Direct Mail:

  • It works – 75% of US non-profits receive donations through direct mail as opposed to 10% received online.
  • It appeals to older audiences who typically make up the majority of philanthropists
  • It is still the greatest source of new donors

The Case Against:

  • It’s expensive
  • It’s in decline (gradual)
  • Younger people tend not to respond to it
  • It’s expensive to get wrong with a badly written appeal or a badly selected mailing list


The Case for Email:

  • It’s low cost
  • It’s fast and the results will start to come in more quickly
  • It’s on the increase – while online fundraising only accounts for a small percentage of donations at the moment, it is a rising percentage
  • It’s easily leveraged – by which I mean that you can send an email that directs people to a web page where they can donate but they can also go on to share with their social media networks.  For example, by tweeting or commenting about their donation on Facebook or in Google +.

The Case Against:

  • It’s not a good way of signing up new donors
  • It can get lost among all the other online approaches and emails people receive
  • It still only accounts for a small number of donations


So What Should You Do?

First of all, determine who you want to reach and why.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, consider the reality that your donors (and potential donors) are probably a cross section of those who like online fundraising and those who prefer direct mail.  So a mix is probably the best approach.  Don’t throw out direct mail just because online is the latest thing.  It still works – and remember that 75% of new donors will give via direct mail.

Direct mail may eventually go on to be replaced by online fundraising but the stats suggest that’s still a long way off so until then segment your data to determine who will receive what.

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