Friday, November 21, 2008

To Mail or Not to Mail?

Once we're comfortable with average gift and response rate, we can figure out whether we should even do a direct mail appeal.

First, we need to calculate our revenue and expenses. For revenue, we multiply: number of constituents (people on our list), average gift and response rate.

For expenses, we multiply constituents by variable costs. Then, add fixed costs (table 2 shows the costs, expenses for net revenue for the chart above):



REV =Total Revenue
CON = # of Constituents in Database
AG = Average Gift
RR = Response Rate
EXP = Total Expenses
VC = Variable Costs
FC = Fixed Costs

Table 2





Net Revenue


Fantastic! We made $750 (roughly $.05 per $1 spent).


There are two situations when expenses exceed revenue:

1) when Variable Cost (VC) is greater than the Response Rate (RR) multiplied by the Average Gift (AG) and

2) when Break Even Quantity is greater than the number of constituents you have.

For the first case, do not continue with the mailer. Each time you put a solicitation in the mail, you're losing money!

In this instance, you need to rethink the costs of the mail piece. In the model below, you'll know this is this case because you get a negative BEQ! Bad news (see table 3 below).

Table 3

Sample Nonprofit








Total Fixed Cost




Variable Cost




Average Gift




Response Rate




Per Unit









Per Unit Net








The second case is a little more nuanced. Here, you are making money each time you put a solicitation in the mail, but you do not have enough people to mail to cover your fixed costs (FC).

To remedy this, you can:

  • Send your mailing by bulk (~$.27) instead of regular mail ($.42). Your mail will take a couple weeks to hit, but it may well be a trade-off worth making;

  • Reduce the number of inserts, cutting your paper and printing costs;

  • Identify which geodemographic cluster has the lowest response rate and eliminate that population from the mail piece. This drives your response rate up, perhaps to profitability.

  • If removing that geodemographic cluster improves the response rate to 3%, then the BEQ becomes 2,143 (above). Because we started with 5,000, but by removing that 1,000, the appeal goes from losing $750 to making $1,950.

The point is: we can make these decisions before investing a single dollar in this appeal.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Average Gift & Response Rate

We want to drill down on the two datapoints that make the previous direct mail posting a nice, easy formula. The first is average gift size. The second is response rate.


Finding your average gift is easy: look at your most recent year-end direct mail. Add together all the money raised from that mailer and divide by the number of gifts made. This is a rough estimate.

But, you know how you always get a $5,000 gift from a donor who met with your CEO two weeks before and just dropped her check in your direct mail envelope? That gift probably isn't representative of your direct mail program. Sometimes, it's easy to know which gifts to exclude, but often, it's not.

When you know which really big and really small gifts to exclude, just do that.

When you don't, do this:

  • Find your average gift by adding up all the revenue raised and dividing by the number of gifts. This is your average gift.
  • Next, figure out the standard deviation (an Excel formula will do this for you).
  • Then, start at your average gift and add your standard deviation to your average. Add it again. Stop. Exclude any gifts above that amount.
  • Then, take your average and subtract your standard deviation from the average. Subtract it again. Stop. Exclude any gifts below that amount.

These extra steps stabilize your average gift by removing that $5,000 gift and that $1 gift from the mix. It gives you an average of the most common contributions you receive (roughly 95% of all donations).


Response rate is the total number of donors who gave to your year-end appeal divided by the total number of people who received your year-end appeal.

If you're new to your organization, use industry standards as proxies to estimate your response rate.

For instance, a prospect or acquisition mailing has a .7% response rate (or 7 people out of every 1,000 mailed will give).

For a loyal donor mailing, 2% is a typical response rate (or 2 out of every 100 mailed will give).

If your mailing is a mix of donors and prospects, use 1.5% as a response rate.

We'll dig deeper with more sophisticated forecasting tools in a future article, but these proxies will get you started.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Measuring Direct Mail Effectiveness

Too often, we don't transfer the tools we use in one type of fundraising activity to another. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than when we plan a direct mail appeal.

When we plan an event, we know exactly how much our fixed costs are (e.g. facility rentals), variable costs (e.g. per meal or per invitation cost) and the minimum number of guests required for the event to break even.

Why not use these same metrics in direct mail?

In direct mail, these metrics have a greater impact because you can forecast the success of the campaign before you spend a single dollar.

One critical metric in direct mail, that's often overlooked, is what's the minimum number of people who need to receive this mailing so the nonprofit can raise more money than the cost of the mailer.

This is called the Break Even Quantity (BEQ).

For events, the Break Even Quantity is calculated by subtracting fixed costs (audio visual, facility rentals, awards) from sponsorships. Then, subtract your variable costs (meals and invitations) from your variable revenue (ticket sales).

Your calculation looks like this:


BEQ = Break Even Quantity; minimum number of people who must attend your gala before you make money
SPON = Sponsorship Revenue
FC = Fixed Costs
REV = Variable Revenue
VC = Variable Costs

To convert this formula from events to direct mail, you need to make three changes:

  1. Take out sponsorship (SPON)
  2. Change "Revenue" to "Average Gift" (AG)
  3. Multiply AG by your "Response Rate" (RR), which gives you "revenue per unit mailed"

Your new calculation:


BEQ = Break Even Quantity; total number of people who must receive your appeal
FC = Fixed Costs; this may include staff time
AG = Average Gift; total revenue raised divided by total number of donors who will give
RR = Response Rate; what % of donors who receive your direct mail will give
VC = Variable Costs (e.g. postage, printing)


Table 1

Sample Nonprofit



Fixed Costs:

Mail set-up




Total Fixed Cost


Variable Costs





Reply envelopes




Variable Cost


Average Gift


Response Rate (2%)





Table 1 shows that Sample Nonprofit is doing a direct mail and they have 10,000 constituents (donors and prospects) in their database.

They looked at previous direct mail campaigns to forecast for this campaign:

  • A 2% response rate;

  • Average gift of $75;

  • Fixed Costs and Variable Costs, based on vendor estimates.

*Plugging this information into the above calculation, their breakeven quantity (BEQ) is 7,500.

Because the number of constituents (donors and prospects) in their database (10,000) is greater than their BEQ (7,500), this will be a successful mailer.