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Increasing open rates through international direct mail

International direct mail can be efficient and effective, as Richard Pordes illustrates


During the course of my work in international appeals, I’ve identified at least three types of international mail campaign that can be relatively easily implemented and that add value to the donor relationship. They include mailings to countries that do not have an adequate direct response infrastructure; ‘from the field’ appeals that increase credibility; and ‘thank you-please’ mailings from a project that show donors we care.


Turning Japanese

As happens so often in our profession, I fell into international fundraising through a series of unanticipated events.

It was the summer of 1992, and I had been sent by UNICEF on a study trip to Japan, Hong Kong and Korea. My boss wanted me to find out whether Western-style direct mail appeals could work in Asian countries.
My first stop was Tokyo, where I was at once assured by the head of the local UNICEF organisation that Western direct mail appeals would never work in Japan, despite it being a highly productive new market, because Japanese people would never respond to a “letter begging for money”. UNICEF Japan assumed that in addition to cultural factors, postage rates were far too high to permit successful mail appeals. Moreover, mailing lists were unobtainable and no direct mail expertise existed in Japan.

I would have accepted that, had I not soon afterwards met an independent Japanese catalogue marketing expert based in Chicago, Reizo Yoshida. “Don’t worry”, he assured me. “I’ll speak to my friends, and get you all the mailing lists you need. Also, don’t be discouraged by our high domestic postage rates: just post your appeal letters from UNICEF headquarters in New York.” To my surprise, I found that posting a letter from New York to Japan cost only ¥25 (yen, which works out as around 20p). The same letter, when mailed from Tokyo to Osaka cost ¥80 (65p).

That December, we mailed 100,000 packages from New York to homes all over Japan. Included was the alumni list from the Japanese Naval Academy (Mr Yoshida’s alma mater); the membership list of the Tokyo Rotary Club; a customer list from an upscale Japanese catalogue house; and the frequent flyer list from Japan Airlines.

When we tallied the responses, we couldn’t believe the numbers. The appeal had generated a 12 per cent response and an average donation of over ¥6,000 (£50). The return on investment was better than 7:1.

That first appeal led to many others. Over the next seven years, thanks to international mailings, UNICEF Japan’s annual income grew from US$25m to $200m. Today, UNICEF Japan is by far UNICEF’s largest non-governmental contributor. The lesson? Don’t ever accept “it won’t work here!”


From Russia with love

International mail can be a blessing when you are trying to raise funds in a market without any direct mail infrastructure, such as Russia.

I first went to Moscow in 2004. The period when the oligarchs had ravaged the country’s natural resources had just ended, and people were outraged by the concentration of wealth among the country’s elite. Nevertheless a middle class with limited amounts of disposable income was emerging.

On the one hand, people were willing to support charities that took care of those left behind. Charities protecting children were among the beneficiaries of this trend. UNICEF had been supporting a number of projects for abandoned and abused street children, funded mainly by donations from the west.

On the other hand, raising funds in Russia presented special challenges. After years of communism, people expected the government to take care of disadvantaged sectors of the population. People asked: “Why should I contribute? The government should take care of this!”

In addition, there was virtually no direct marketing infrastructure. Although mailing lists were available, there were no experienced printers or letter shops, no bulk postage discounts, and both the banks and the post office were believed to be unreliable.

Through partners in other countries, we found a Russian direct marketing agency that had conducted credit card mail offers for western companies such as American Express, Citibank and Shell. The agency quickly helped us piece together a first mail campaign, providing industry mailing lists (magazine subscribers, department store customers, mail order buyers and TV shoppers), translating English fundraising copy into Russian and setting up bank accounts to receive contributions.

When everything was ready, layouts and mailing lists were emailed to our printer in the USA and DM packs mailed to Russia. For many Russian donors, this might well have been the first time they ever received a letter from America!

Soon, contributions began flowing in. Not a flood, but a good solid showing – proving to us that direct mail fundraising could work in a country that had never before experienced such an appeal. International mail made possible an activity we probably would never have attempted had we been restricted to only acting locally.


East to west

Many donors want to feel ‘in touch’ with the beneficiaries they are supporting. Real stories told by field workers move them to action.

In early 2011 my company was approached by a British charity that supports blind people in developing countries including India. They wanted us to help them conduct a mailing from India, where they supported a number of clinics performing cataract operations on children and the elderly.

Our client developed an emotionally compelling package comprising a four-page letter from their Indian regional director asking the reader to support cataract operations for children in India. In the package, the director inserted a note, written in Hindi and English, from a community health worker at a local hospital, expressing urgent concern about “the high number of children in the area who will remain needlessly blind” without appropriate help.

This time we printed and letter-shopped in India – the country has several printers able to produce a quality DM pack. Live stamps showing pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa were applied to an envelope, itself adorned with red and blue air mail markings. The theory was that donors would be intrigued by a letter coming from a distant country, thereby helping us achieve that all-important maximum ‘open rate’.

The results satisfied everyone. The Indian pack beat the UK-printed and UK-mailed control pack by more than 30 per cent – clear evidence that appeals from overseas have a far greater impact than local ones.

Since the cost of the India pack was higher than the control, overall ROI was approximately the same. But a new test, using a lower ‘printed matter’ postage rate is in the works. We are confident it will beat the control pack in terms of ROI as well as response.

Haitian revolution

In the winter of 2011 a German children’s charity approached us wanting to send a thank you letter to their donors who had contributed to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. This was to be a ‘first anniversary thank you-please’ appeal, thanking donors for their support, while reminding them that much work still needed to be done.

Everyone told us that it would be completely impossible to mail from a country that was still totally devastated. The main post office in Port-au-Prince had been flattened and was now set up in tents and temporary pre-fabs. Printers were almost non-existent and most services were run by foreign aid agencies or by parallel companies in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

This gave us a clue as to how to solve the problem.

We printed and produced the mail pack in the USA, trucked it to Miami and then airfreighted it to Santo Domingo. There, the post office accepted the shipment as their own mail and posted it to Germany. The entire contents of the mail pack, though signed by the head of the charity’s Haitian office, and bearing the charity’s Haitian sender address, never actually touched the shores of Haiti. But to each recipient of the appeal, this was an appeal letter from the charity’s field director in Port-au-Prince.



Response to the appeal was overwhelming and higher than any previous appeal this charity had ever sent to their in-house donors. Once again, using international mail succeeded where local mail might have been less effective.


Richard Pordes is an international fundraising consultant


This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 22, October 2012

International mail: the costs issue

International direct mail costs need not be prohibitive. Some years ago members of the Universal Postal Union agreed to permit developing countries to mail letters to industrialised countries at a discounted rate. As a result, postage from developing countries to industrialised countries can be very inexpensive. A personalised letter weighing less than 20 grams can be sent internationally from India to the UK for ₹25 (Rupees, worth around 22p) and a ‘Dear friend’ letter can be mailed for ₹15 (13p), using an air mail printed matter designation.

Countries receiving such mail have the right to limit the quantities of discounted mail that they will accept at any given time. Post offices occasionally block lottery and other types of commercial mail sent from a developing country simply to take advantage of cheaper postage rates. But most post offices are willing to accept large charity mailings because they have a genuine and limited purpose.

Remember: donors want as much as possible of their contribution going to the stated cause and as little as possible to administration and fundraising expenses for the organisation. A good international appeal letter explains why the mail is coming from overseas.

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