Direct Mail with Mike Duerksen

Episode aired Sept. 30, 2020: Direct Mail

Mike Duerksen of BuildGood knows all the reasons why people sour on direct mail. But the amount of money it helps raise and the different types of giving it leads to? You’re not beating that! In this episode Mike discusses

  • 5 reasons why direct mail is still king
  • why you should send more than 1 mailing per year
  • where does fundraising go to die
  • why a clear, urgent, defined problem is critical to success
  • the ‘what-if’ game and
  • why you need to kill your mission statement. 

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.


Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a nonprofit and fundraising expert, Mike Duerksen. Mike, how you doing today?

Mike: I am too blessed to be stressed, so I’m doing well. How about you?

Ephraim: I absolutely love that, too blessed to be stressed. That’s great. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Mike Duerksen is the principal of BuildGood, a Canadian fundraising agency that helps nonprofits raise more money from individual donors, by creating a clear message and building a strong direct response program. He’s also the host of the BuildGood Podcast and he recently launched, a video mini course you can access for free that will help you create a clear and compelling fundraising message to grow your nonprofit, so you can do more good.

Is Direct Mail King

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss direct mail. So let’s dive right in. Mike, with email, texting, social media and a million different outlets, in general, is direct mail still king?

Mike: Is it still king? I mean I think it’s easy to discount direct mail at the front end. It’s certainly fairly expensive, it appears outdated, it’s not environmentally friendly, it has long production and lead times and some donors complain that they don’t like it and those donors, if they complain about that, they probably shouldn’t be getting it. Effective direct mail often isn’t on brand, which can drive some organizations and communications and fundraising folks a little bit crazy. You know certainly direct mail acquisition is harder than it has been in the last few years and maybe with the global pandemic and stuff that might change. So for that and other reasons, a lot of organizations are going for a digital first approach or even a digital only approach.

But if we’re comparing direct mail to everything you’ve mentioned, to email, text, so far direct mail is still more effective than any other medium at acquiring donors and acquiring larger gift donors specifically. It still drives a lot of online giving. Depending on where you live in the world, only six to 12 percent of income actually comes in online. Everything else is not online. We know from MRI studies that holding a physical piece of mail in your hands actually increases your likelihood of remembering it. It also triggers a part in the brain that is responsible for value and for desirability. Direct mail also still drives a large amount of monthly giving and it still drives a large amount of legacy giving, which is the biggest gift most of your donors, for most of your donors, that’s the biggest gift they will ever give to your organization.

So to your question, is it still king, if we listen to what donors are telling us by what they do and by their actions, it certainly remains one of the most effective and efficient ways of building relationships and deepening relationships with our donors. Should you only focus on direct mail? No but should direct mail be like a core part of your communications and fundraising strategy? For most organizations I think that answer remains yes.

Multiple Mailings Each Year

Ephraim: Excellent answer. So let’s follow up on that. Is direct mail a once a year proposition, such as towards the end of the calendar year or should nonprofits make use of direct mail multiple times during the year?

Mike: I mean in broad terms at least the clients that we get to do the best work for… they sort of look at the year in four quarters and once a quarter they are running a direct mail appeal, an integrated direct mail appeal with everything else. So if you think of the year as four quarters, quarter one you’re going to do… you’re going to ask for money, you’re gonna give the donor a problem to solve, you’re gonna open up a story loop. People might contribute to that campaign.

You’re gonna follow what our friend and colleague Steven Screen calls the “virtuous fundraising cycle” which is ask, thank, report, repeat. So you’re going to thank them profusely and then toward the end of that quarter, you’re going to update them on what their gift has done, usually through a mailed newsletter, sometimes it’s an impact letter depending on what you do. So that’s when you close that story loop and then you’re in quarter two and you repeat it all over again.

So most people send out at least four direct mail letters per year, plus four newsletters, plus in the background you probably also have running probably an annual survey, you probably are sending out new donor welcome packs in the mail, you might do a few monthly donor conversion campaigns, you might do a legacy campaign. So your donors are usually hearing from you every four to six weeks. Which means that you as a nonprofit, you are always in production and that’s the way that you have to look at yourself as basically a media organization that is always producing content and always in production.

Now if you do that, if you can manage to do this well, at first you spin up this fundraising communications flywheel, at first it might go slower but once it’s up to speed, it’ll run really consistently and really evenly and what it’ll do for you is it’ll increase the retention rate of your donors, it’ll increase the amount of times they give, the frequency, it might increase their total giving in the year, that might increase their gift amounts, it will surface for you monthly giving prospects, people who just give to you quite often. It’ll surface middle and major donors, so these are people that might raise their hand with a bigger gift and say I’m interested in giving more. It’ll also surface legacy leads for you and all of that, you can’t do that by sending out a direct mail appeal letter once a year or twice a year. This needs to be a completely integrated, consistent engine that is running day in, day out, year after year.

Preparing A Direct Mail Packet

Ephraim: Excellent answer. Given that it’s year round, let’s go to today’s actionable item. Could you please tell us three to five things a nonprofit must prepare in advance before sending out that direct mail packet?

Mike: Three to five things. Well I’m gonna give you one thing every nonprofit needs to do before they send out a direct mail pack and that thing has many many different parts to it.

Usually it goes like this: Somebody is tasked with creating, somebody in-house is tasked with creating the direct mail appeal and if you do this- agencies will do this for you but let’s say you’re doing this in-house- you’re tasked with doing this direct mail appeal and here’s what happens: You write the letter, you take it back to either the CEO or the director of development, they pull in some program people, they pull in some other people, everybody starts critiquing the letter. You get it back, you make changes, you send it back to them, they’re still not happy. They make some more changes. Every single person that is asked to look at the letter thinks that they have to add value to the process by changing stuff which is fair and valid, because we’ve asked them for feedback, so naturally they’re going to give us the feedback. So we can’t be too upset if that happens because we’re the ones who made the mistake of involving too many people and in all of those meetings, that’s where good fundraising goes to die.

The way that you can prevent this and the way that you can build more successful direct mail packs is by doing a strategic brief… it’s necessary. Sometimes program people have to be involved… sometimes just for… people are involved and sometimes it’s actually good to get different perspectives. So let’s say that we can’t circumvent that. So let’s do this: Let’s get everyone who will have… who will need to give their input, let’s get them all in a room before we write the first word of the direct mail appeal. Let’s sit in there for an hour, let’s create a project brief together and the brief is going to be very very detailed. We’re going to say: Here’s what we’re going to mail, it’s going to be an outer envelope, it’s going to be two pages, it’s going to be this, it’s going to be this Here’s who will get it: These are the segments who will get this. Here’s what we’re going to say. Here’s the story we are going to use. Here is the offer we are going to use. Here are some red flags of things that we can’t say or that maybe we need to be sensitive about. Here are the resources that we need to make it happen. Here is the timeline and as part of that timeline, we are going to choose one or two people in this room to approve the letter for the rest of  the room. We’re all going to agree this person, we trust this person to sign off on this at the end. After this meeting, we all agree on the strategic brief, as long as the end piece sticks to the brief, we trust the person that we’re going to select one or two people to sign off on this.

That way everyone gets their input, they don’t get to see the letter later before it goes out. We have selected one or two people to make that choice and in the timeline, we’ve also given them not a lot of time to make that choice. So the approval process has to be quick and we all sign off on this and we all agree that as long as we stay on strategy and on brief, we’re all happy with it basically. We’ve all given our input, we’ve all added value to the process. You as a fundraiser, you’ve built a bit of buy-in with the rest of your team and hopefully this is going to cut down a lot of time, a lot of frustrations a lot of other meetings later and hopefully this will make your job a lot easier.

And the great thing is that after you walk out that meeting with that brief, half your appeal is written for you, because you know what the story is, you know what the offer is and so writing that appeal becomes a lot easier. So that that’s my one tip for anybody who’s producing direct mail in house: Always start with a brief. And if a lot of questions come up later and people want to change stuff, you say well listen, we agreed to this strategy, so let’s stick with this. i hear your concern and understand it. So next time we have one of these meetings, save it for then and the next time we do this, we can incorporate your suggestion. Once you have that brief and everyone’s agreed to it, you got to try to stick to it as well as possible.

Elements Of A Direct Mail Ask

Ephraim: That is a fantastic answer. Your company produces compelling direct

mail fundraising campaigns using cases for support designed to get the readers attention and move them to action. What elements make up a compelling direct mail ask?

Mike: We could be here all day on this.

Direct mail is super tactic driven and there’s a lot of stuff to this. But I think the one thing that I would say that would make any direct mail or any piece of direct response, email, text, phone calls, even major gift solicitations, what would make them better is having a good offer and it’s surprising how often direct mail or fundraising pieces just don’t have a clear offer. Basically a good offer just gives the donor a really clear and urgent problem to solve and you want to present that urgent and clear problem really really early on in the message. You want to lead with it.

Now your donor’s brain is super busy. Your donor is working hard all day, they come home, they look at your piece, their brain has burnt a lot of calories and so you need to lighten the load of your donor’s brain. You need to make it very easy for your donor’s brain to understand in a second or less if this is interesting or not and if it’s not interesting, the brain goes oh shut down, I’m going to preserve some calories because I might need them later.

So if you open with a problem, you open a story loop, all of a sudden there’s interest and intrigue, there’s something for the brain to start to think about. You want to give your donor a clear and urgent problem to solve. The problem can’t be too big. Your donor knows that she on her own can’t end homelessness. She knows that. It sounds lofty and it sounds inspirational. Maybe for some major donors that’s like a really big vision that might inspire them. For most people, they know that, they know that they can’t end homelessness but maybe they can provide a meal, maybe they can they can provide a bed for the night, maybe they can contribute to some employment training, that’s something they can do.

Lastly you want to give the donor a really powerful role to play in fixing that problem. The way you do that is you ask your donor to help your beneficiary, not you. You don’t say help us provide meals or help us provide shelters. You say help brain have a safe place for the night. Or this animal needs you right now. So you want to make sure that donor knows that she is needed to solve an urgent problem, a clear problem, a fixable problem, something that’s not too big and that somebody on the other end is really going to benefit from her action and that she actually has the autonomy and that she can do this, that she can actually solve this problem. I would start there. And if that’s not clear, if you glance at a piece and it’s not very clear what the problem is and what you’re being asked to do and what your donation will do, then go back to the drawing board and try to just think about that: What is a really clear, urgent, defined problem the donor can solve, something they can do, that’s not too big, it’s something that’s clear and hopefully you can also come up with a clear dollar handle of what it might take to solve that problem.

The What-If Game

Ephraim: Perfect. Excellent. Love that answer. Top to bottom, every nonprofit if they just listen to that, you have the recipe for success. You wrote an excellent post about the what if game. Could you tell us a little bit about the game and how it can help an organization move forward?

Mike: Yeah so we’ve got a few different games that we play with clients. These are all strategy games. They’re meant to make planning and strategy more fun, because planning and strategy meetings are so boring most of the time.

The game that you mentioned we call that game ‘the game of constraints,’ so a few of our games follow a what-if pattern. This one is the game of constraints and the game is to come up with a few different scenarios that might seem implausible but not impossible. So something that very likely is not going to happen but that could happen. Then you take those scenarios and you brainstorm with your team what you would do if that happened. And so each scenario has a bit of a constraint to it.

So maybe one scenario that might be useful at this time, you know, if you played a game that said, what if starting tomorrow we could not send direct mail to our donors anymore? What if the postal service goes on strike or you and I are recording this during the coronavirus pandemic and early on in the pandemic, it certainly looked like that was a possibility. Print shops were calling us and saying, yeah we might have to shut the shop down if there’s a total lockdown. So all of a sudden your lead times for printing that were already like a few weeks, all of a sudden looked like they were going to be months. And so that’s a kind of an impossible… implausible scenario but not impossible.

So if that’s a scenario, what would you do if you couldn’t mail your donors a single piece of mail tomorrow, what would you do? So your team starts brainstorming and you just want to write down as many ideas as possible on a post-it and listen: These ideas can be outlandish. That’s okay but just try to think what could we do? Now in this case… most people in this case would say, oh we’ll email our donors. Perfect. Now we’ve got a great starting point to create an email strategy. Now let’s look at how many emails do you actually have on file. It turns out we have 20% of our donors, we have an email for them on file. So you can’t reach anyone by the mail tomorrow, now you can only email 20 of your donor file. What’s your open rate? Around 50%. Alright, so now we’re talking to 10% of your donor file if tomorrow you can’t mail anymore. So that indicates that you’ve got tremendous opportunity to work on getting your emails opened, so start testing with headlines and with different things you can do and you’ve got tremendous opportunity to actually start harvesting more email addresses, because only 20 on file is probably not enough. Part of this game is to get people to think creatively.

The other part is also some of these scenarios people just go like, that’s impossible, I don’t know what we would do. And then 10 minutes later, after people brainstorm because they’ve been given a constraint, they’ve been put in a box, all of a sudden what feels restrictive becomes very very creative, because now you have to be creative to overcome that constraint. And 10 minutes later people go from that’s impossible to ‘you know what? I think we might be fine. I think we would figure this out. I think we can do this.’ And so it also boosts your confidence in your ability to actually raise more funds.

Learn More About Mike

Ephraim: I think it’s a brilliant idea. The post and the idea behind it, I absolutely loved it as far as building things out and being able to brainstorm. It’s an excellent excellent game to play with any organization. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Mike: It’s a little bit like you. I was sort of born into it. I grew up in South America and in a very very poor country and so we were certainly middle class but everyone around us was extremely poor and just a lot of examples of extreme poverty right next door. My parents both worked for nonprofits. My dad was a CEO of a nonprofit, my mom was a nurse at an organization that worked with street kids and with orphaned children and so we were always very close to the work growing up. I was always really interested in marketing and in advertising and in persuasion. As I got older I was really interested in creativity and business but i wanted my work to have meaning and to matter and to have purpose. I think you can find that anywhere else. I don’t mean that you can only find it in the nonprofit sector but I found that I can apply my skills here, I can make a difference, I’m suited for this kind of work and it’s been very rewarding and very fulfilling.

Ephraim: So given your years of experience, if there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Mike: In the lightning round, if there’s one thing I could shake up.

I’ll try to keep this brief but I think most nonprofits should kill their mission statement. Mission statements by and large are vague, they’re run on sentences, they’re not defined and clear, they are overly ambitious and not that a nonprofit shouldn’t have an ambitious mission but they’re written in such a way that it seems outlandish because you’re not even sure what exactly they’re trying to achieve. So I don’t think it serves anybody.

Oftentimes you ask 10 different people who work at a nonprofit what their mission statement is, you get 10 different answers. Nobody really seems to know these statements because they’re so long and so I think, you know we’re talking about playing a game of constraints, I think every nonprofit should play this game: If our mission statement was only 10 words long, what would it be? When you talk to donors, no donor will ever tell you if you ask them, hey what do you think about this organization? What do you think they do? They won’t say, well, they end hunger in all its forms so people can live in dignity and peace and justice and wake up with a brighter future and hope for tomorrow and less food like insecurity for their children. They just don’t know what any of that means. They’ll say like, well those are the people that feed hungry people or those are the people that work with refugees or those are the people that shelter the homeless.

And so we are often so afraid of using plain and simple and concrete language, because we think our donors are really sophisticated and if we make it too simple, maybe donors would think that the work is too simple. But the opposite is true! The simpler we make things, the clearer it is for donors to understand what we do, the clearer it is for us to motivate our staff and it serves our beneficiaries a lot more, it serves our donors a lot more. And so I think mission statements should become clearer, more simple, more plain language and a lot punchier.

Ephraim: 10 words or less. I absolutely 100% cosign. That is an excellent excellent answer to that question. The best and hardest part of running your own company?

Mike: Well every morning I get to drive my daughter to school and I get to pick her up every afternoon. I’m in charge of my time and my schedule, so that’s the best part. It’s also the worst part. So when you’re taking holidays, you’re always carving out a little bit of time to do work and so it’s for sure a blessing that you get to control your schedule and that that you can be more in control of your time, at the same time that ends up leading a lot into your personal life. I think that’s true for most jobs today. I think the home life and job life balance, that whole thing is hard for anyone to figure out.

Ephraim: Yup. Person or mentor who influenced you the most?

Mike: Certainly I’ve had a lot of good friends and bosses and mentors in my life but when it comes to fundraising and marketing, a lot of it, a lot of my mentors have been books. It still amazes me that for 20 bucks you can buy a book, you can spend five to ten hours with it and you’ve downloaded the brain of an expert in a field, if you’re willing to spend 20 bucks and a few hours.

There’s a guy by the name of Donald Miller. I read everything he puts out. I’ve taken his courses. I’ve learned a lot from him. In terms of other mentors in the form of books, this one for your readers who are watching this, your listeners who are watching this, Advertising Secrets of the Written Word, by Joseph Sugarman. This is anybody who really wants to persuade, needs to use persuasion for anything, not just for direct mail and fundraising. It’s just a fantastic book. If you need to communicate a big idea and you need to persuade people to join you on that big idea, you should definitely read that. And then my mouse pad is this book, it’s Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples. Fantastic book when it comes to direct response and the value of testing.

Ephraim: I love that that’s your mousepad. Why Winnipeg?

Mike: You know my parents moved here when I was younger and I never moved away. Winnipeg is in the middle of Canada, we have the coldest winter in all the land, so it’s certainly in the winter… it’s a fairly harsh place to live but that just creates an amazing community. Hardy prairie people who live here and work here and Winnipeg is often… Manitoba is often named Canada’s most generous province per capita. It’s probably the hardest place to get anyone to move to but it’s also a very hard place to get anyone to move out of. In the middle of a country, we can be in each coast by grabbing a two or three hour plane. It’s a good place to be. It’s very good people and the cost of living is very affordable.

Ephraim: Excellent reasons. Let’s turn the table, you get to ask me a surprise question, I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Mike: Alright. So I know that you’re a bit of an 80s music geek slash expert and so I had a question about an artist named Meatloaf. Now Meatloaf was big in the 80s. My question is about a song that came out in the early 90s and you know Meatloaf goes like, I do anything for love but I won’t do that. I want to know from you, what wouldn’t he do for love?

Ephraim: What wouldn’t you do for love? I have to tell you… first of all I’ll start with a quick story. I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I heard that song. I was in my roommates… in college, when it came out, I was in my roommate’s car. We were driving in New York City and I had a friend with me who was returning to her college dormitory and the three of us heard the song. They had already heard it, I had not heard it yet and so it was interesting for them to watch me listen to a six, seven minute song and try and start figuring out the lyrics and going… and halfway through I realized oh my God, that’s what he’s talking about and they burst out laughing! So the question is what wouldn’t he do for love. Well he says I would do anything and I have to take him at his word, right?

Mike: But I won’t do that.

Ephraim: But I won’t do that… so that was… so the question was what that that was. That’s why I say they burst out laughing because I had my own ideas and I think a lot of people have their own ideas of what the song… what that that is.

So going back to what you said about being very clear with donors, I would not “but I won’t do that” I wouldn’t use such a line in a direct mail piece because you will create all kinds of confusion and they will go out of there. On the other hand, he did it very smartly and expertly because now he got everybody talking about what it was. Now if you imagine this is still the early 90s, when radio didn’t… Howard Stern was big but radio didn’t necessarily cover certain issues and we’ll leave it at that. If he did that today, oh everybody would just speculate all over twitter and it would be a free-for-all. But back then it was still a little taboo for him to be going “but I won’t do that” and some people had ideas of what that was and they’re like, oh no, you can’t talk about and how could you play that song. I remember there were people who said don’t play that song on the radio because of that.

What the what is I could speculate from here till next week but I will go with I would do anything for love and I will leave it at that. Like I said I remember the first time I heard it, what I thought it was and we’ll just keep that off the air. But my friends had a laugh of a lifetime watching my face suddenly light up and go, oh my God he’s talking about and they lost it as we’re driving, as we’re driving towards midtown Manhattan.

Mike: Well I actually have no idea. I have no idea what he’s talking about, so I thought maybe you could clear that up for me.

Ephraim: I would say read Wikipedia and then you can start from there going down the rabbit hole, because I remember there were a lot of different theories. Again, I was 20, in university, so my head was in a different space than where it would be now that I’m much older and maybe more mature. But yeah you can start on Wikipedia. I would say start there, work your way and see where you end up.

Mike: I started with the 80s music expert and I’m going to move on to Wikipedia.

Ephraim: Yes pretty much that’s where I’m telling you to go. Also remember that song came out in the 90s, so early 90s is out of my area of expertise. Although I know the song, I’ll say it’s out of some…. easy way for me to get out of having to answer the question, but an excellent question nonetheless. I like it a lot.

Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast today. Check out mike’s company at and you should definitely connect with him on twitter at @MikeDuerksen. Mike have a wonderful day.

Mike: Thanks for having me.

Ephraim: A pleasure. Take it easy.