Mailing Lists: God Is In The Details

“God is in the details.”

Mies van der Rohe, American Architect (1886-1969)
Mailboxes have NOT been put out of business quite yet.

No truer words have been spoken when it comes to mailing lists. For me, mailing lists are the alpha and omega of virtually every nonprofit activity, but especially fundraising.

This is true of lists one uses to send mail to constituents via the United States Postal Service, or e-mail lists. If your organization is not sending properly spelled and addressed letters and printed publications to its constituents, they may not reach them. Worse yet, they may reach the intended constituent, and offend them.

When I begin a new nonprofit fundraising project, one of the first things I do is ask to review the mailing list(s), including the e-mailing list(s). I like being “hands on.” This activity, which can take days to a few weeks, will tell me to a great degree – better perhaps than a feasibility study – if an organization is ready to embark upon a fundraising campaign, regardless of size.

If I discover many obvious errors in the list(s), then trouble surely lies ahead. Before any further mailings are planned, the list must be repaired, updated (and sometimes expanded) to ensure the nonprofit is covering all possible bases, and reaching all influential prospective supporters.

You might also discover “hidden gems,” people on a mailing list who may have contributed at a modest level, who are capable of giving truly significant gifts. I once discovered a $25 annual donor who was subsequently cultivated, and who ultimately made a $5 million donation a few years later. This critically important work only happens when a knowledgeable professional simply takes the time to review the mailing list.

Comments I have heard from potential donors about mailing lists, to underscore my point regarding accuracy:

  • “No, I will not be attending the event. For the past ten years I have called and called, asking them to remove my late husband’s name from the mailing list. They have not done so. No one is paying attention. They will not receive one dime from me.” 
  • “That organization can’t get it right. They misspell my name on every mailing – they don’t even know who I am. I toss their mailings in the trash.”
  • “I have called repeatedly, and I am still receiving five copies of each and every mailing they send out. Please tell them to remove my name from the list entirely.”
  • “Thank you so much for the handwritten thank you note. It is so rare to receive something in the mail these days, and it means so much to know you took the time and that you care.”
  • “What mailing?”

People receiving mail often think they are the only person in the universe. You may have thousands of names to keep up-to-date on your mailing list(s), but regardless, that one misspelled name could spell doom for your nonprofit’s fundraising efforts.

Data entry, when done well, results in proper communication with constituents and ultimately, happy donors. From Latana: “No matter how many times it happens, there’s still something special about receiving a letter in your mailbox. It’s personal, tangible, and a bit of a throw-back, if we’re being honest” (2022).

As an aside, this leads me to ask why data entry and maintenance personnel are generally paid at the lower end of the pay scale. The job is tremendously important; it requires a certain set of skills including attention to detail. Better yet, an employee managing your list(s) who also has some depth of understanding about your key constituents and their preferences is even more valuable to your organization.

I would say the same of receptionists, having worked with one nonprofit that refused to hire one, leaving messages to a primitive answering machine tended by a group of interns. The interns routinely forgot to write down messages after listening to the recordings, and missed some unbelievably important messages from major donors, who were then insulted. We almost lost one major foundation grant that way.

These positions need to be taken more seriously.

Back to mailing lists …

One nonprofit with which I worked produced one of the most beautiful annual reports I have ever seen. They were mailing these weighty documents to approximately 2,000 constituents, many of them potential donors. But, upon reviewing the mailing list, I discovered half of the mailing addresses were outdated. With no trained development officer, the staff never could “find the time” to update the mailing list. The upshot: they were sending at least 1,000 attractive, four-color annual reports to the back room of the post office. 

One of the first things I did upon arrival was help the staff find correct and current mailing addresses, delete those on the list who were deceased, and add new names and addresses to the list that made sense for them to educate and cultivate. Then, we had a powerful, genuinely helpful mailing list to use henceforth.

Today, the U.S. Postal Service publishes online guides to proper mailing, and important to most nonprofits, bulk mailing.

Here are a few of those online pages for ease of reference:

In addition, I am a fan of professional mailing services for larger mailings. Normally for a reasonable rate – less than it would cost you and your volunteers to sort through and prepare a bulk mailing – they will send your mailing list through a computer in advance to check it for errors, before you affix labels to each printed item. A professional mail house can also handle the physical aspects of bulk mailings more quickly and efficiently that nonprofit staff and volunteers can. The more sophisticated ones can also print out your labels in attractive formats, and most have good relationships with the U.S. Postal Service that help pave the way for successful bulk mailings that do not languish for days or weeks in the back room.

You might also enjoy reading a 2019 conference recap by Gina Ferrara of Madison Advisors.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear … the same themes that I discussed in my presentation, ‘Why Print is Still an Important Communication Tool.’ In a world where consumers are bombarded by digital interactions, it was affirming to hear her discuss print as a significant component of an omnichannel communications strategy and the important role the USPS can play. Today, marketers have more tools and digital delivery channels available for prospecting, yet it is still hard to convert a prospect to a customer. Because consumers spend more time with physical mail, a digital-only strategy will not work alone; thus, it is important for digital and physical to work together.”

When it comes to email, you will discover more rapidly those addresses that are invalid by simply sending out one email and watching to see what is kicked back. The more advanced professional email platforms today can help spot inactive/incorrect email addresses in advance. The advent of website “signup” lists requiring visitors to complete their own contact information is a terrific help, as it leaves nothing up to chance. In addition, email lists can be very helpful to uncovering new potential donors. Remember, “God is in the details.” By taking the time to review an organization’s email and mailing lists, I have been able to uncover major potential donors.

The constant care and ongoing review of mailing lists takes time, but I have found it is worth the extra effort. Many staff members refuse to sit still long enough to tackle a sizable mailing or emailing list, but nonprofits simply must put a priority on this activity to ensure their organizations are not wasting time and money, and to ensure that the public impression of them is a positive one.

Check out the USPS’ podcast, Mailin’ It!

I wanted to share a personal experience in case it might prove useful to you and your nonprofit. At year-end 2022, I asked several bulk mailing services about “cleaning” a new mailing list I created by hand using Excel. I wanted to be sure the list would result in accurate deliveries. During COVID-19, it seems some bulk mailing services shut down. And other “mail houses” would not help. But then, I found Vistaprint and its mailing and marketing services division. I had used Vistaprint before but never for bulk mailing. They were able to run my list through a USPS checking service and reveal duplicates and bad or undeliverable addresses, for which I was so grateful. And they ultimately produced a lovely holiday post card and mailed it bulk but first class, and it turned out beautifully. So, sometimes in Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog I do recommend companies and Vistaprint would be one of them!

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