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In our weekly column, consultants with decades of nonprofit experience answer your questions about fundraising, boards, strategy and more. To ask a question and be featured (anonymously!) in the column, email your questions to info@twbfundraising.com.

This week’s question will be answered by Don Souhrada.

The Dilemma

I work at a medium-sized private university. We’re in a campaign and my boss wants us to send direct mail to our entire database of alumni, donors and non-donors. I think we should only mail donors.

She’s worried that if we don’t mail everyone, we’ll be missing out on a lot of donations. I think we will spend more money mailing non-donors than we would ultimately raise from them. What should we do?

Don’s Response

Your boss is probably of a mind that by mailing to every person in your database the institution will significantly increase its total numbers of donors in the year. Not only is this probably money wasted, the resources (time and money) it will take to execute this mass solicitation will distract you from better segmenting and targeting solicitations to your donor renewals and lapsed donors.

I would first evaluate the percentage retention of those who gave in the last fiscal year. I’d start with last year’s donors before spending time and money on prospects who have never shown a willingness to support.  If you are not on track to renew about 70% of last year’s donors, you are not doing enough to renew your best prospects. Also, you will lose any chance of securing the number of donors to meet your participation goal. If you know the approximate number of lapsed donors, you can determine what percentage of those must be renewed to make up for the rest of last year’s donors you will inevitably lose this year.

If your boss insists on mailing to non-donors, you might suggest a test segment of 1,000 non-donor records. Give it your best effort with a targeted message to see what response you receive—10 to 20 gifts (or 1-2%) would be a good rate of return. You can then decide if there is a better way to acquire 10 to 20 non-donors. Phone, email, or volunteer solicitors will likely provide a better yield for less money.

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