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Dispelling Myths: “Our Packages Should Be More Interesting”

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We’re back with another post in our series on punching holes in long-held direct marketing fundraising myths. One thing is clear: when searching for what really works for our clients’ programs, an analytical approach always puts us on the path to success.

Of course, every direct marketing program is different, which is why we continuously test.

This month’s myth is the often-heard: Our Packages Should Be More Interesting. Perhaps more than any other direct marketing myth, this one really speaks to the conflict between a gut feeling and hard data.

Many see a flashy, full-color envelope alongside a white envelope, and immediately assume the flashy color package will perform better. But the data-driven truth is that popular and visually pleasing images, photos, color, gloss, and inserts do not always lead to better direct mail performance.
More often than you would expect, the plain package is more successful—reminding us to always analyze the data to gauge performance, rather than rely on what pleases our eye. And don’t forget—while visually interesting–more colorful packages with bells and whistles are always more expensive.

To put some hard numbers to our assertions:

  • In one test, when Avalon isolated variables like envelope design to prove or disprove productivity, we found that the simpler carrier reliably generated 43% more revenue per thousand mailed.
  • We also tried printing four-color images on carriers, thinking that an eye-catching photo would lift response. But in another test, the black and white carrier generated 28% more revenue per thousand mailed.

Are Premiums Right for Your Organization?

Are premiums right for your organization? Avalon President Allison Porter gets to the crux of this debate in her article in the June issue of DMAW Advents.

She reports on her conversations with three industry professionals, as well as her own experience, in finding ways to include mission-specific premiums in a marketing program.

From testing to analytics to donor value to premium selection, this article covers the benefits and pitfalls of premium use in the real world.

Dispelling Myths: Major Donors Need to Be Protected from Direct Mail

tjhillinger webHere’s the second in our series on dispelling common myths in the direct marketing fundraising world:

“Major donors need to be protected from direct mail.”

We’ve heard this assertion from board members, senior leadership, existing and new staff…but when we turn to the data to see if it’s true, here is what we find:

  • For many organizations, direct marketing is a pipeline to major giving — but some people find this surprising and do not fully appreciate its importance. The truth is, many major donors come in through direct mail — and increase their giving when organizations continue to contact them through the mail with appropriate, high-touch packages.
  • We also know that including major donors in direct mail campaigns can increase their overall giving. For one organization, major donor prospects who were left in the direct mail stream participated at a rate 40% higher than similar donors who were “protected” from direct mail and instead targeted with personal solicitation.

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  • Lower-dollar donor bases are typically a significant source of future major gifts. In the example above, a single gift of $1,000 is considered a major gift. The chart represents all major donors by initial join level and shows that more than 60% of $1,000 givers joined with a gift of under $100.

The Numbers Don’t Lie


“We should just do this all online.”

“Major donors need to be protected from a direct mail program.”

We are mailing too much.”

“We need to target Millennials.”

Do any of these comments sound familiar?

We get it from all sides — questions rooted in good intentions, but lacking specific industry knowledge.

How can we, as development professionals, dispel these stubborn direct marketing fundraising myths that keep coming up, time and time again?

One word: data.

At Avalon, we’ve found that the analytical approach works best to counter these simplistic “solutions” to fundraising challenges. We dig deep into our clients’ data, using hard facts and sharing our expertise to help them understand what does and does not work.

To demonstrate how this analytical approach works, this month we’re launching a blog series called “Dispelling Myths” by TJ Hillinger, Avalon’s vice president and director of analytical services.

TJ will explain how data and evidence can correct misperceptions about how to achieve real success in fundraising. And she’ll give real-world examples of how to use data to rebut mistaken assertions and protect your program from amateur (albeit good-intentioned) meddling — one metric at a time.

Dispelling Myths: We Should Just Do This All Online

First up in our series on dispelling direct marketing myths is one I’m sure you’ve heard: We should just do this all online. The Internet makes everything else in our lives easier, so why not fundraising, right? Also known as “direct mail is dead,” this myth has staying power because some organizations have successfully limited direct mail programs. But most cannot produce the revenue they need through online fundraising alone. And if your organization does not fully understand the patterns and trends of your revenue stream, this myth could lead you to make harmful decisions about investing in direct mail.

To dispel the online-only myth, look to your data. Specifically, analyze your direct marketing revenue by channel; by cross-channel donor-level giving; and by new joins by channel. To give you some conclusive ammunition, here’s what our research and experience tell us: 

  • Blackbaud’s 2015 Charitable Giving Report confirms that although online giving was up 9.2% that year, less than 10% of giving was online. Blackbaud also reported in their 50 Fascinating Philanthropy Stats report that 32% of online donors would give offline during 2015.


  • Indeed, direct mail remains the dominant channel by far. Reviewing revenue by channel often reveals the significance of direct mail and illustrates the much longer timeline for newer channel growth. 
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  • Direct mail donors provide future revenue to other channels. We’ve analyzed the join source of online revenue and clearly demonstrated the impact of direct mail acquisition on all giving channels.

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  • Direct mail can provide far more new donors than online. When we analyze new joins by channel, we immediately see the significance of direct mail and the quantities of new donors it provides.

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In coming years, online fundraising may overtake the other channels. But for now, direct mail conclusively remains the dominant fundraising channel. If we’re going to raise the funds we need to fulfill our mission, we can’t just do it all online. 


National/Chapter Fundraising with a Local Focus

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When Avalon began working with Common Cause, the progressive nonprofit watchdog and political advocacy group sought a way to streamline its National/state chapter fundraising.

With National’s fundraising interrupted several times a year by in-house mailing windows for the 35 state chapters (using National’s list), neither National nor the state chapters were fully maximizing their fundraising potential. State chapters mailed their own appeals with varying degrees of success, and National lost an opportunity to bring in additional revenue during those black-out windows. Avalon’s task was to help Common Cause take its state chapter fundraising to a new level of success by better integrating it with National’s overall fundraising strategy, while improving and coordinating overall messaging.

Strategy: To ramp up the effectiveness of the state chapter fundraising while simplifying the production process and cutting costs across the board, we tested various formats and techniques. These include letter copy that echoes and reinforces themes from Common Cause National’s marketing campaigns, with custom state-chapter-specific sections highlighting details about their accomplishments and the challenges ahead.

For our other approach, we produced a comprehensive letter from National President Miles Rapoport outlining successes in the states, as well as the common goals and challenges ahead for Common Cause as a whole.

We tested numerous formats and signers, including the National president, a nationally recognized National board chair, and state executive directors.

We dovetailed the state chapter appeals with Common Cause National’s appeal and renewal schedule, pushing a unified message across the country, with a cohesive look and feel for a stronger impact. The major themes — safeguarding voting rights for all eligible citizens and putting power back in the hands of the people by enacting long-overdue reforms in political redistricting — resonated well on both the national and local levels.