Pros and cons (yes, there are pros) of snail mail.

Are you saying I should stop using mass mailers for donor prospecting?

The real issue: do you want us to abandon everything that has worked for us in favor of an experimental technology? We’re pretty sure most of our donors don’t even use social media, and a lot of them don’t use e-mail.

The answer: not necessarily.

First of all, more of your older donors use social media than you’d think.

But I, for one, am not saying you should stop using something that’s been working for you—at least not yet. But you have to understand what’s coming down the road: Generation X is likely to throw away your prospecting letter unopened, and Generation Y (the Millennials) probably won’t even get it.

For now, snail mail prospecting still has a decent rate of return—you might not make our money back on the first round, but even that 5% of the recipients who end up donating will more than reward your effort over the next few years.

Another point I’ve heard made here is the opera example: young people don’t go to the opera (or the symphony), so a lot of companies have tried very hard to cater to them. It didn’t work. The Knight Foundation and others put a lot of money into studying what did and didn’t work to attract audiences. (I published a study of this in my report on art philanthropy for Philanthropy Roundtable.) One thing they found is that a lack of appreciation for high art wasn’t a generational thing—it was a young people thing. When those young people got older, they started going to the symphony and the opera just like their grandparents had.

So the question is: is snail mail prospecting a similar case, where Gen X or Gen Y will start opening the letters and giving you money as they get older?

I don’t think so. Two thoughts:

First, the younger generations do not process information the same way—the want their information in smaller doses, more frequently. Their brains are being trained by TV, YouTube, Twitter, and other similar things. In addition, they’ve been marketed to their whole lives, are skeptical of scams, and prefer to support fewer organizations but know them more intimately. (That last bit is increasingly true of a suspicious older generation as well.) Seven-page letters from complete strangers asking for money go straight into the trash can, and I don’t think that will change in 20 years (in fact, I think it’s likely the trend will go the opposite way).

Second, if you had potential donors who you knew for a fact wouldn’t respond to snail mail letters for 20 or 40 years, why wouldn’t you invest in some prospecting techniques that would get them to donate now?

So by all means, keep using the methods that have been working for you. But invest in tomorrow’s methods as well, whatever you decide those might be.

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