Consortium Direct Mail – Lessons Learned

Consortium Direct Mail – Lessons Learned

5 May 2020


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


WARNING: This post contains geek material.


Last Fall (seems like another lifetime), I coordinated a direct mail collaboration between five conservation organizations – three land trusts and two river groups. The collaboration featured a collective rental of Nature Conservancy (TNC) and National Audubon Society (NAS) mailing lists. All five organizations used a common mail house, very similar mailing packages, and a common mailing date.

The purpose of the mailing was new member recruitment. Each organization mailed to the TNC and NAS lists from specific zip codes that did not overlap with each other. Three also mailed to their “house” list – names they had collected from volunteers and event patrons, or lapsed members. And two also mailed to a prospecting list from DonorSearch.

My hypothesis going in was that we would have better results by collaborating – more responses costing less money – than we would have been able to achieve individually. That hypothesis was based on two assumptions:

  • that collectively we would be able to rent lists from the two organizations that included names that were more current, and
  • that collectively we would be able to save money on printing, postage, and mailhouse fees.


The first assumption requires a bit more explanation.

When you rent lists from TNC or Audubon, you face minimums of 5,000 or more. This means that you are required to pay for 5,000 names, even if you can’t use that many. And most land trusts operate within service territories that are MUCH too small to have 5,000 TNC members in them.

Further, both TNC and NAS rent their lists based on currency – people who have given money in the past 36 months, 24 months, 18 months, and 12 months. The more current donors are more likely to respond to recruitment messages from similar organizations – at least in theory.

So, by renting as a group – as a consortium – not only were we hoping to rent 5,000 names or more, but we were also hoping to rent names from one of the more current lists. In fact, we were able to rent names from the 18-month lists from both organizations. (Even with five organizations, we were unable to meet the minimums from the 12-month lists.)


Here’s what happened:


In the aggregate, the TNC list had a 0.60% response and the NAS list a 0.88% response. In both cases, I was looking for at least a 0.65% and hoping for better than that.

That was in the aggregate. The specific organizations had wildly different experiences. One organization got nearly 2.0% from both lists and one got less than 0.20%. Using 0.65% as a definition of success, just three of the five organizations had a successful experience.

Why? – it’s a good question. In one case, the organization was mailing to a much larger region than it had normally – which fit both its mission and the nature of the project it was featuring. In the other, the organization did not have a history of direct mail recruitment.

So, in both cases, the mailing was being received by potential members for the first time. Like all such efforts, it may take more than once to achieve better results.

Regardless, the list quality was helpful. Being able to mail to TNC and NAS lists was helpful to begin with and being able to mail to each organization’s more current donors was even better. With only one exception, the rented lists performed as well as or better than the house lists.

That said, any of the five organizations could have rented TNC and NAS lists on their own. For example, one of the organizations used about 1,000 names from a combination of both lists. They could have rented both lists independently (10,000 names) and simply not used the other 9,000. The added cost for them would have been $1,000 and might have been worth it. Clearly this calculus improves as the organization is able to use more names.



There was no savings at the mailhouse.

Using a single mailhouse and mailing on or about the same date was an important feature of the experiment, because TNC and NAS would not send their names to the organizations themselves. The whole idea was to treat the five different mailings as one larger mailing.

It worked for the list rental. It did not work for the mailhouse.

In fact, the mailhouse ended up treating each organization as a separate mailing altogether. The five mailing packages were designed to be similar enough to be able to create efficiencies at the mailhouse – #10 window envelopes, four-page letters, similar sized response cards and slim jims, and so on.

And it didn’t work.

Differences in logo placements, type face, color schemes, and so on meant that extra work had to be done to make the individual pieces “fit” into the standard.



In sum, here are my takeaways:

  • It was well worth the experiment. We learned a lot, and I am grateful for the five organizations that took the flier with me to make it happen.
  • The collective rental of the lists worked as advertised. One could argue that each of the organizations could have rented on their own, but collectively, it did work. And it’s probably worth doing again. If more organizations were involved, eventually using the 12-month list would be feasible.
  • Once the lists were at the mailhouse, each mailing should be considered separately. There is no point in forcing the packages to conform to some specific standard. In fact, we could also make the case that the presentation in the mail may have contributed to the lower responses two of the five organizations experienced. More work needs to be done in that regard.



We will continue to monitor how these new members give over the next five years and report at that point on the five-year ROI. More information on that next week.


Are you experimenting? I’d love to hear your results. We can and should all learn from each other.


Cheers, and have a great week!




PS: Happy Cinco de Mayo!



Photo by Pexels from Pixabay



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1 Comment
  • Heidi Habeger
    Posted at 09:43h, 05 May

    Thank you so much for sharing the results of this experiment. We haven’t purchased lists for many years and planned to do so this spring, but have postponed those plans because of covid. We too are hoping for a 0.65 or better response rate and not sure that will happen in this current climate. Since something resembling “normal” is a ways off, I’m thinking we’ll go ahead and try a mailing this summer. Tapping into how it felt to get outside even when the world was in chaos will be a powerful reminder that we need to have protected places to connect with nature. What are your thoughts on timing? Also, Angela from WCV gave me her list broker in NY, so I can purchase less than the 5k min.