Americans Unite for Causes
In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 account of his travels in the new nation, he noted that:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only have they commercial and industrial associations in which they take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give celebrations, to found seminaries, to build inns, raise churches, distribute books, send missionaries; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.”
Almost two centuries later, millions of Americans contribute over $260 billion to more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations. Millions more sign petitions on various causes or attend local meetings to show support or opposition to issues. The nonprofit sector represents roughly five percent of the U.S. economy, and employs about 14 million people.
A Unique Partnership with the Postal Service
Congress recognizes the civic importance of these organizations, and requires the Postal Service to provide a substantial discount to nonprofit mailers. Last year, this discount represented about $820 million, helping nonprofits mail more than 10 billion pieces to current and prospective donors.
From Philanthropists to the Average American
For much of American history large charitable works were funded as they had been in Europe – donations based on the whims and views of wealthy institutions, individuals and families. Just as the nation grew in so many ways following the Second World War, so did charitable outreach. Charities had used mail as a fundraising tool by sending out letters and appeals for specific needs. The application of direct mail as a fundraising tool by groups such as the March of Dimes and the National Easter Seal Society helped pave the way for a new focus on fundraising.
The Technology of Direct Mail Transformed the Non-Profit Sector
The 1960s brought the ZIP Code (and its ability to help select target groups) and the computer. Both would have a major impact on non-profit fundraising. The 1960 and 1970s were years of rising popular consciousness over a number of issues, including civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the environment. Many non-profits harnessed the power of ZIP Codes and computers. New groups (Greenpeace, World Wildlife, and the National Organization for Women) found supporters and funds. Existing groups (Sierra Club, the ACLU, the American Conservative Union and The League of Women Voters) dramatically increased their membership and support thanks to new direct mail techniques.
The Nonprofit Sector has Grown
The nonprofit sector in the United States has grew explosively from the 1980s to early 2000s. It quadrupled in the 1980’s, doubled in the 1990’s and again in early 2000’s. Estimates vary from $50 billion to $155 billion on just how much money is raised each year using direct mail.
Direct Mail is Favored Over Other Media
Just as they jumped on the ZIP Code and computer bandwagons, most nonprofits have been quick to take advantage of the digital world. But it is estimated that digital efforts generate only about 1/8th of the funds brought in by direct mail. Direct mail can be more carefully targeted than digital-only media, and the results of different direct mail strategies can be tested and refined quickly and inexpensively. Modern printing methods help to ensure the quick development and distribution of mailing campaigns. Mail continues to be a familiar, trusted channel, that creates relationships resulting in repeat donations. It is also a reflective medium, one that offers individuals the opportunity to carefully consider an offer without the pressure and demands of an immediate response. It is also less likely to get lost in the clutter of daily e-mails and other distractions.
Civic and Community Values
Americans expect to be contacted on issues of the day, and they are often willing to express their support or opposition to those issues through their donations or personal participation. Mail is a major channel for civic and community involvement, from local churches and parent-student-teacher associations, to city, state and national governments It has become Americans’ primary voting booth in some states and communities, even as it continues to deliver absentee ballots from military personnel serving abroad and others who need that service. The medium that allowed rebellious colonists to exchange ideas before the American Revolution continues to serve the nation in new ways.