Is Direct Mail dead or making a comeback?

The old way is dead. Now its time to think about writing polite letters to

people in their own home asking for help.


Long before Direct Marketing emerged as a discipline separate from press and TV Advertising; and long before there was a sub-discipline of Direct Marketing called Direct Mail there was the art of writing polite letters to kind people asking for help by way of a cash donation.

The art of writing polite letters asking for help was hi-jacked by marketing companies who harnessed data manipulation and mass printing and production technologies to send millions of letters that, by and large, had one aim: to generate a responder who would be a ‘lead’ (ie a target) for a phone call asking that donor to sign a direct debit. Securing that direct debit became the all-consuming aim because it was only the future direct debit income that justified the cost of the direct mail in the first place. As that cost itself became inflated by agency fees, the direct mail ceased to be a free-standing activity that justified its cost on its own terms and became a cog in an ever faster moving machine that got completely out of control. This abuse was exposed in 2014 and occupied the media and Regulators from then until May 2018 when GDPR came into force. As a result of the abuse and backlash, ‘Direct Mail’ is a tarnished phrase in the charity world. But in truth it was that way of writing to people that was unacceptable and rightly condemned.

So it is time to move away from ‘Direct Mail’ and return to the approach that existed before: it’s time to go back to the art of writing polite letters to kind people asking for help because very many people want to give and love receiving letters that are polite; that don’t pressure them; that share the pleasure of making a difference with a small amount of money.

The information in this publication on fundraising by writing letters that raise money for clients without follow up phone calls is based on the experience of over 800 campaigns in the UK and abroad. For beginners, it should provide a sound introduction. For those with experience, it will hopefully serve as a refresher and source of ongoing reference.

What is fundraising by writing letters?

There many different ways of raising money. Events, fun runs, dinners and just about every possible sponsored activity known to humanity. But none of these is as effective as simply asking directly for money.

There are numerous different ways of asking directly for money.

You can do it by phone, if you can get their phone number and have permission to use it.  And if the person you are calling hasn’t opted out of phone calls through the Telephone Preference Service, doesn’t opt out of your phone calls there and then ( in which case you have to stop immediately and never call again) , is at home when you call and likes discussing donations over the phone. Because of these vagaries, typically, using the phone you will end up actually speaking to only 20 % of your intended contact list.

For small monthly donations you can do it face to face using a PFO (professional fundraising organisation). However, this requires a substantial budget and is, in any case, an uncertain medium due to regulatory pressures and public objection.

For large donations you can fundraise face to face using well placed and influential volunteers to act as your major gifts fundraisers. There are numerous charities and most universities and higher education institutions which are very successful at this form of fundraising. But recruiting and co-ordinating any group of volunteers is difficult at the best of times. Asking your board of trustees to do this is……..well, try asking, then let me know how you got on! Setting up a group of non-trustee volunteers is probably the best bet, but asking businesspeople to go out asking for large amounts of money is just not easy and takes a lot of time, energy and patience.

Then there is fundraising by writing letters. We are strong advocates of fundraising by writing letters. Despite many challenges from digital media, this form of fundraising has stood the test of time and still draws in far more money to charities than all of the digital sphere combined. Perhaps its persistence is due to the fact that it achieves so much in one contact. Over 80% of recipients will open their fundraising letters, and once opened they achieved all of the following:

  • Asked someone directly for help
  • Increased that person’s understanding of the charity
  • Did not put the reader under any undue pressure
  • Allowed the reader to make up their own mind in the privacy of their home
  • Was very easy for the donor to use
  • Was tailor-made to the donor’s financial circumstances
  • Cost very little in relation to the money raised
  • Enabled the charities concerned to contact many supporters or prospective supporters in a single campaign lasting just a few weeks
  • In some cases, enabled the charities concerned to raise large amounts of emergency funding in a matter of days
  • Raised large gifts and smaller gifts alike
  • Raised hard to get, unrestricted core funding
  • Left the donor feeling good and happy to give again soon.

But there is an advantage to fundraising by writing letters that surpasses even this list of benefits. It is that, once created and well maintained, a database of willing, knowledgeable and interested donors who have chosen the mail as their preferred medium of support will come to be one of the charity’s greatest assets in fundraising. This is because those donors will be there, year in year out, month in month out, happy to lend their support when politely asked.

So, what is fundraising by writing letters? It is asking someone directly for help by mail sent to their home address.

How effective is fundraising by writing letters?

Without taking more than a moment to think about it, the following campaigns help to answer the question:

A financial emergency

An arthritis charity which had suddenly suffered a halving of their legacy income – a reduction of over £200,000 over 3 months. The charity relied on legacy income to cover its core costs. Because of the crisis, consultations were under way as to whether half of the staff would be laid off or whether all staff would suffer a 50% pay cut until things improved.

We suggested  an alternative remedy – an emergency appeal by letter. 20,000 letters were sent to previous donors asking them to rally to the cause. £140,000 in donations were received in just 3 weeks. No layoffs or pay cuts happened and the charity gained time to re-group.

Covering running costs

A small equine rescue and welfare charity needed to raise a guaranteed £10,000 per month to cover all running costs. It had struggled for years, living hand to mouth and somehow surviving from the uncertain income from a small number of charity shops it operated.

We suggested building a database of letter-responsive donors who could enable the charity to meet its running costs in a predictable and secure way. 18 months later the charity was receiving £15,000 a month from donations and had a healthy database of donors who committed to animal welfare.

A special opportunity

A plant conservation charity had the opportunity to buy a valley in the Derbyshire Peak district that was a unique and unspoilt habitat and home to several rare and threatened species. A letter appeal was sent to its list of 10,000 members who sent over £90,000 in donations. The valley was bought and is now in safe hands.

The point behind these case histories is that in each case there probably was no other feasible way to raise the money in the time available.

In each case, letters proved to be the most effective way to raise the money needed.

Will letter fundraising benefit every charity?

As we will emphasise many times in this publication, letter-writing is a very specific – and  special – medium.

To make it work to its fullest potential, a number of particular factors have to be working in your favour. In particular, it is a highly “visual” medium. It works best when the readers can visualise for themselves the moment when their money made a difference. This means that it favours charities whose work delivers an outcome which can be portrayed in words and pictures that can come together to form a “mind picture” of that moment.

In our experience, given a little imagination, most charitable endeavours can be presented in this way.  But we would expect that charities whose work involves a slow and lengthy process ( such as social work with adults for example ) would find it more difficult to meet the specific needs of the medium.

How to decide if your charity can benefit.

Here’s a brief checklist to help you assess if direct mail will work for you.

Does your cause have an ‘ideal supporter’ market you can readily identify?

If not, is your cause one which is of universal interest?       

Does the work of your charity produce an outcome which a prospective donor can visualise?     

Can you express this outcome as a strong fundraising proposition in letters you send?                

Are your trustees and other key figures committed to adopting letter writing as a key fundraising medium?   


If you have answered “yes” to at least 4 of these  questions, then your charity probably has the basics in place to take advantage of fundraising by writing letters. And you are ready to go to the next section and begin exploring the 7 Keys to Success in Fundraising by writing letters.