white mail: don’t ignore it

White mail. Is it the proverbial elephant in your fundraising room? Is it something that is so big everyone in your ministry can see it but no one knows what to do about it? You cannot afford to ignore this elephant. So don’t.

Our definition: White mail is passive income from unknown sources.

Why is it a problem for so many ministries?

Because it’s often the most convenient place to record income. And out of well-meaning desire to get income quickly entered, it can become the biggest catch-all bucket of income for a ministry.

And that’s the problem.

cannot tell them apartBecause what exactly did you do to get that income? Peer into that bucket…how can you tell one donation dollar apart from another. You can’t.

And if all the dollars look the same, how can you possibly know what you did to get a donor to give to you? How can you tell if one dollar cost more to get than another dollar (ROI)? You cannot do it.

At Oneicity, we’re not big fans of telling you what you should do. But (that hasn’t stopped us before)…
1. You should ALWAYS be trying to decrease the income allocated to white mail
2. You should NEVER be satisfied with the proportion of your white mail compared to overall income

As a ministry, you want to know the specific source of all your income…you want to know what you are doing to motivate your donors to respond.

We can always make strategic decisions about specific fundraising strategies if we are accurately capturing the source of each and every gift. But since white mail is passive or reactive, we can make no strategic decisions about it.

You want to focus on spending your income in areas where you KNOW you can make a difference. White mail is hiding that from you.

So what can you do?

1. Figure out what percentage of your income is being allocated to white mail.
If white mail is 33% or more of your total income, you KNOW you’ve got a problem. If it’s lower, you may or may not have a problem. That depends upon your organization. Just remember, the lower the percentage, the better.

2. Check your internal definition of white mail.
Is it truly “white”–that is income from an unknown source?
Is your definition consistently applied and understood across the organization (from Development Director to Data Entry Clerk)?

3. Do a gift entry audit.
Take a day, a week, even a month — whatever it takes — and evaluate your mail compared to the data entry reports. What was input as white mail? Do you see a batch of mail that should have been allocated to a direct strategy? If you see one of your printed return envelopes, IT’S NOT WHITE MAIL. Something you did motivated that donor to send in a gift.

4. Start coding your return envelopes for everything you put in the mail.
Even something primitive like printing “A” for appeals, “N” for newsletters, “R” for receipt return, “P” for monthly pledge return is better than nothing. (A good coding logic is another topic for another blog post.)

5. Get outside help.
When you are stuck and don’t know what else to do, get an outside perspective. Someone who is objective might spot something you cannot see because you are too close to it.

Now is the time more than ever to understand your income and create strategies from what you know works.

Tell us about white mail in your ministry. Is it bigger than you want it to be? Do you have any ideas why? Have you taken steps to reduce it?

Kris Hoots
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credits: DMahendra)

Kris Hoots

Kris Hoots

5 thoughts on “white mail: don’t ignore it”

  1. Funny how “white mail” is so much less exciting to people, yet there are probably 10X as many orgs that could implement what you’re suggesting which would pay big dividends quickly. But this whole white mail thing is much less exciting than social media.

    1. No kidding! I have had two conversations in the past month with ministries that have too much income allocated to white mail. And therefore response to other strategies is down. They don’t know what is working and what is not. White mail is not glamorous like viral video or social media but it’s at least something we can immediately do something about.

  2. “If you see one of your printed return envelopes, IT’S NOT WHITE MAIL. Something you did motivated that donor to send in a gift.”

    This is true. “something” motivated that donor. Are we any further ahead? Until we know what motivated that donor, we still don’t know what appeal worked.

    1. @Sue Thanks for your comment. One way to help ensure appeal or newsletter dollars are properly tracked is to print a unique code on the reply envelope. This way if a donor does not include the response device, but does use the reply envelope, you can at least note that. Otherwise you can be certain you are underreporting your appeals or newsletters. This unique code puts us a little bit further ahead, wouldn’t you say?

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