Own Your List


We’ve all heard stories about people and companies that were succeeding on social media… and then “the algorithm” was changed…  and they lose a good portion of their audience.

This can happen to nonprofits, too.

As more and more nonprofits use Facebook and Instagram for fundraising, it’s good to remember that social media companies can change their algorithms or terms of service at any time. 

They can change a rule and your posts will seen by fewer people. 

This means that as you build a social media fundraising program, you are embracing more risk than when you’re building mail and email fundraising programs.

Please note: I am not advising nonprofits to completely avoid social media.  Social media can be a fantastic tool for smaller nonprofits to boost the performance of their mail and email campaigns.  Larger organizations with dedicated staff and budget can raise significant amounts of money.

But with all things social media, it’s good to acknowledge that you don’t have as much control as you do with traditional mail or email fundraising. 

This is why we counsel organizations to focus first on building their mail and email lists.  When you have limited resources, first build the systems and processes to maximize what you can highly control. 

This is doubly important because more money is raised via the mail and email than social media.

Then start to do the more speculative work of building and monetizing your social media presence.

Super Simple Segmentation

Segmentation list.

You can save a lot of money by segmenting your mailing lists.

I’m going to make a couple of super simple recommendations here, then I’ll unpack why:

Only mail your appeal letters and newsletters to donors
who have given you a gift in the previous 18 months.

Of course it gets more complex than that, as your donor file grows.

But if you’re new to segmentation, here’s where to start: mail only to donors who have given a gift in the last year and a half.

Why Just Those People?

Two reasons:

  1. The longer it’s been since a person gave your organization a gift, the less likely they are to give you another gift. (This has been tested, analyzed and proven again and again.)
  2. The dropoff in a donor’s likelihood to give you another gift is not a straight line. There’s a real “cliff” 12 months after a donor’s last gift.

When sophisticated organizations analyze the success of their mailings, they notice something: it often costs more to mail their lapsed donors than the income they receive from those donors.

Here’s what that means for you: if you’re sending your mailings to more people than “donors in the last 18 months,” you’re almost certainly throwing some money down the drain.

So the savvy organizations stop mailing those folks – with a couple of exceptions.

Should You Ever Mail Your Lapsed Donors?

Absolutely. But do it smartly:

  1. Mail them only a couple times a year. Pick those times carefully; they are usually your Holiday / Year-end Appeal, and your other best-performing appeal.
  2. When you do, create a version of your main appeal just for your lapsed donors. That version should, right at the beginning, tell the donor that you haven’t heard from them in a while. It usually goes something like, “Dear [NAME], I haven’t heard from you in a while, but I’m writing today because [URGENT REASON].” Then use the rest of your original letter.

Nerd Nerd Nerd

Please forgive me, the Teacher / Explainer / Nerd in me is making me say something.

Most nonprofits with large mail files do not follow my recommendation above. Instead of mailing to donors in the last 18 months, they mail donors who have given a gift in the last 12 months.

You know that “cliff” I mentioned earlier? It’s real. After it’s been 13 months since a donor gave you a gift, their chances of giving you another gift really drop. Fast. So most larger organizations don’t waste money by mailing donors who are unlikely to give a gift.

But I recommended 0 – 18 months above because, through testing, we’ve found it fruitful for smaller nonprofits.

Why? Because smaller nonprofits aren’t mailing their donors often enough. They just aren’t giving their donors enough opportunities to give. So when we mail to donors 0 – 18 months, we give the 13 to 18-month donors another chance or two to give a gift. And those gifts (plus the additional revenue from reactivating those donors) make the investment to mail them a good one.

What Should You Do?

The next time you pull a mailing list, critically think through who you are selecting.

If you’re mailing more people than “donors 0-18 months,” you can save real money by cutting your mailing costs!