Are You Making This Big Mistake When Mailing to Donors?

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches in the US, a conversation on Twitter caught my eye. I recently read a pair of tweets from two charity donors that made me want to scream. I must share what I read about how they were thanked for their support. I hope it keeps you from making the big mistake that the donors describe.

After nearly four decades as a fundraising professional, not much about the nonprofit sector surprises me. However, every so often, I still come across an item that stuns even me. The Twitter conversation between The Whiny Donor and Meghan Speer provides an illustration of this:

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After making a donation, Whiny received a thank-you letter from the charity she supported. The envelope was addressed to her and “or Current Resident.” Speer contributed to another charity. As a supporter, she was invited to attend a donor thank-you event. The invitation was addressed to Speer and “or Current Resident.”

Both donors were annoyed at how the mailings were addressed. Speer wrote sarcastically, “…makes me feel super appreciated.”

For her part, Whiny demanded, “Spend enough on postage, or we’ll let some other resident donate the next time around.”

I never would have guessed that this was a problem. Apparently it is.

Who can blame Whiny or Speer for being annoyed? When someone supports your organization, they feel good about helping to achieve its mission. As a fundraising professional, part of your job is to help donors continue to feel good about their decision to support. With a proper thank-you letter, relevant information, and meaningful opportunities for engagement, you can help preserve and even build that warm feeling. If you properly steward your donors, they’ll be more likely to renew their giving, upgrade their support and, possibly, make a planned gift. Conversely, if you fail when it comes to stewardship, you risk alienating your donors.

They gave you money. They already like you. Don’t give them a reason not to.

Addressing a thank-you letter or donor-appreciation event invitation to “or Current Resident” is a certain way to make donors feel less than special and less than valued by you. If Whiny and Speer are put off by such addressing, you can bet other donors are as well.

So, why do some nonprofit organizations do this?

Some charities think they are saving money when they include the “or Current Resident” phrase when addressing mail. While “or Current Resident” can save some upfront money, it can actually prove costly. Organizations that send mass mailings and want to take advantage of bulk-postage rates have two choices:

Option 1 — NCOA Link: Move Update requirements from the US Postal Service say that mass mailers, either for-profits or nonprofits, must update addresses at least 95 days prior to a mailing that uses discounted postage. Charities can contract with a service provider to update addresses with the NCOA Link system. NCOA stands for National Change of Address. While organizations must pay for this service and updates, it allows them to send mail using discounted postage. Furthermore, using NCOA Link helps nonprofit organizations keep track of valuable prospects and donors. By the way, some service providers also provide proprietary services in addition to NCOA Link that further enhance an organization’s database.

Option 2 — Loophole: The USPS rules contain a loophole. Organizations can avoid the expense of updating addresses while still benefiting from discounted postage rates by including “or Current Resident” in the address. This saves the postal system from having to deal with otherwise undeliverable mail. This might be perfectly fine for a local restaurant sending menus. Or, it might be acceptable for a local retailer to send a catalogue or circular to name plus “or Current Resident.” If you test it first, it might even be okay for your charity to send a donor-acquisition appeal with this language. However, the downside of taking advantage of the loophole is that you’ll lose track of valuable prospects and donors. Furthermore, as Whiny and Speer have demonstrated, you risk alienating supporters, which can prove exceedingly expensive.

There is a third option: Charities can send mail using full-price, first-class postage.

When it comes to mailings to supporters, you should either use first-class postage or verify your addresses so that you do not have to use the language “or Current Resident.”

Donor-retention rates remain painfully low. One way to enhance donor retention is to make your donors feel valued. Mailings addressed to name plus “or Current Resident” do not achieve that. So, verify your addresses as per postal service requirements or, as Whiny suggests, spend the money on postage. It’s just one simple thing you can do to make supporters feel special or, at least, avoid making them feel un-special. In short, there is simply no valid reason for sending a thank-you letter or donor-appreciation event invitation addressed to “or Current Resident.”

What other things are you doing to show your donors that you value them? What crazy stuff have you seen charities do that is alienating supporters?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

5 Comments to “Are You Making This Big Mistake When Mailing to Donors?”

  1. Great post, MIchael. I had no idea this was happening. ALL of my clients will be receiving a copy of this post!

    • Jon, thank you for your comment. I’m glad that I’m not the only one caught by surprise. 🙂 I hope this is a rare problem, but who knows? Between this sort of thing, nonprofits that do not send any thank-you letters, and charities that send terrible thank-you letters, the nonprofit sector has a real problem with the first-step in the stewardship process. Maybe that’s one reason for the high rate of donor attrition.

  2. This is the same mistake as : Dear Friend! We live in a donor-centered world. If you don’t have the capacity to send a letter to a donor directly, then you’ve got to make a change- either to a direct mail house that can assist you or revise your data so you have your donor names correctly.

    Biggest mistake is NOT reviewing your data before the merge. It will trip you up every time. The more personal, the better response.

    And, that thank you note? Personalize it as much as you can. Handwritten is the best- especially when you see a pattern worth noting (increases every year). Too many thank yous is never a bad thing. Anything that comes to my house that says ‘or current resident’ usually goes straight into the recycle can.

    Thanks, Michael for giving me the opportunity to reiterate best practices that work!

    • Laurie, thank you for your many excellent points. I particularly appreciated your reminder about the power of the handwritten thank-you note. In our electronic age, a handwritten note really stands out and makes the recipient feel special. Unfortunately, most nonprofits don’t do this and many don’t even send a thank-you letter of any kind to all donors! Thanks for the reminder about best practices that work.

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