Response Rate Goals

Reply envelope.

At last week’s Storytelling Conference, I was asked a really good question:

“My organization is new to direct mail. What kind of response rates should I be getting?”

In case it’s helpful to you, here’s my answer:

For printed appeals my goal is a 4% response rate

For printed newsletters my goal is a 3% response rate

Those are helpful benchmarks, and I hope they help you judge how your mail is performing.

But I have to mention, things start to get interesting right away. Take a look at these variables:

  • The more donors you have, the lower your response rates tend to be. For an organization with 40,000 donors, achieving 3% for an appeal and 2% or 2.2% for a newsletter might be success.
  • The fewer donors you have, the higher your response rates tend to be. If you have 500 donors, you might be getting a 6% response rate on appeals, and a 4% response rate on newsletters.
  • Finally, who you include on the mailing list is another big variable. If you include your monthly donors, your response rates tend to go up. If you include lapsed donors who haven’t made a gift in 36 months, your response rate will go down.

I hope this helps you or your team have benchmarks and goals to aim for. And that there are variables that need to be taken into account. What “success” looks like varies quite a bit from organization to organization – even from mailing to mailing.

The important thing is to measure your results so you know what works best for your organization, and then do more of that!

Help Your Donor Imagine Herself Making A Gift


This year for the holidays I’m sharing the thinking and stories behind my fundraising posts that got the most reactions on social media.

Here’s #7, #6, #5 and #4.

As we get closer to Christmas, here’s #3…

In direct response, ask donors to do something that’s doable by 1 donor. “Will you provide 1 new library book” will work better than “will you provide new library books to local children.”

Big Idea: if your donor can imagine herself giving a gift, and imagine that her gift will do what you say it will do, she’s more likely to give you a gift.

Say you’re a local library and you’re raising money to buy new children’s books. You write a letter to your donor telling her that her gift of $20 will provide one new library book.

It is EASY for your donor to imagine herself doing that. She can afford $20, so it’s easy for her to imagine herself giving that much. And $20 seems like it’s about what a library book might cost. And the organization is a library, so of course they are going to buy the books.

In that scenario, it was easy for the donor to imagine herself giving a gift. And it was easy for her to imagine that her gift would do what the organization said it would: provide one new library book.

Great, no problem, a gift is on the way!

But now, say you’re a local library and you’re raising money to buy new children’s books. You write a letter to your donor telling her that her gift will provide new library books.

It’s harder for a donor to imagine herself doing that. She doesn’t know how much one book costs, so she doesn’t know how much to give. And she knows that she can’t give enough to provide books for all of the local children, so how much help will she really be providing, anyway?

In that scenario, it’s harder for the donor to imagine herself giving a gift. She doesn’t know how much to give, and doesn’t specifically know what it will accomplish.

When it’s harder for a donor to imagine herself giving you a gift, you receive fewer gifts.

Plus, there’s another reason that asking donors to do one small thing (like providing a library book) works so well: it gives the donor the chance to completely solve one problem.

When a donor is asked to give one book, she can give a gift and solve that problem. She did what she was asked to do. She feels great.

But what if a donor is asked to “provide library books for all the local children”? The donor knows that unless she gives a massive gift, she won’t solve that problem.

In general, most individual donors prefer to feel like they’ve “solved a problem” more than “being part of the solution.”

Will you raise money either way? Of course. Donors are generous, and we live in a fundraising-friendly world.

But you’ll tend to raise more money if you give your donor a smaller problem that she can easily, completely solve.

The Next Question Everyone Asks

The next question everyone asks is whether all the donors (even the majors) will only give enough to “pay for one book.”

The short answer is no. Donors tend to give at the levels they are already giving at. And if the gift asks on your reply card are customized based on each donor’s giving history, then they will likely give the same or more than they gave last time.

What To Do

So in your fundraising for 2023, pay special attention to how you describe what your donor’s gift will accomplish. If you give her problems that are easy to solve and easy to say “yes” to, you’ll raise more money.

Think of it this way: don’t ask your donor to fund your organization’s mission. Instead, break up your mission into small “units” and ask your donor to fund one unit.

You’ll lower the barrier of entry for your donors. You’ll make it easier for them to imagine giving you a gift. You’ll raise more money. By breaking your mission down into smaller units, you’ll fund more of it!

Should You Mention Your Goal Amount?

Goal Amount.

Here’s a great question from a smart Fundraiser (and Free Review Friday watcher) named Jeff:

“I had a quick question: Is there an advantage to mentioning the overall goal in an Appeal? Yes, our offer may be $25 a week to help a kid in need, but what about telling our donors our overall appeal goal is $50,000? Have you found an advantage in telling this larger goal, or can it actually decrease giving from some donors?”

And here’s my answer:

Yes, I think it’s a good idea to mention the goal in the appeal.

However, what’s more important is to include multiple other reasons for the donor to give a gift today.

For instance, if you have five kids who are coming into your program next week, I’d mention that before I’d mention the goal.

Here’s why…

Your goal has far more meaning to internal audiences than it does to external audiences.

Insiders and stakeholders love mentioning goals because they know exactly what the goal means. They know the context, they know the scale of the amount, and they know how important it is.

But I’d wager that more than 95% of your donors don’t know if a particular amount is a lot or a little for your organization.

Note: there are times where a massive goal can get your donors’ attention and help motivate them to give. But those situations are outliers, in my experience.

Most of the time, your goal – by itself – is just not much of a motivator for your donors.

Give Your Goal Meaning

When mentioning a goal, I try to give it a meaning that a donor would value.

Here’s an example I gave Jeff: “We need to raise $50,000” is a LOT less impactful than “I need to raise $50,000 so that every child who comes to us can be welcomed, witnessed to, and see the love of Christ in action.”

In that example, I’ve turned a number with little meaning into a number that has a lot of meaning for Jeff’s donors.

The Context is More Important than the Amount

Here’s a data-driven finding that brings this whole idea home…

When an organization has a shortfall, the fact that they have a shortfall is more effective at getting donors to respond than the size of the shortfall.

That tells you something important: the context around an amount is more important than the amount itself.

So next time you have a goal, mention it!

  • A goal can be helpful, but you sure don’t need one (or need to mention one) to be successful.
  • What’s more important is to include multiple reasons to give today that have meaning to your donors.