I recently helped a nonprofit agency migrate its mailing list from a box of index cards to an Access database. While I was working with the staff, I noticed there was no process or policy in place for handling bad addresses. When a letter to a donor or potential donor was returned, the address was simply deleted from the database (that is to say, the card was thrown away).

Like most nonprofit organizations, this agency gets the lion’s share of its funding from private gifts. This week, I’ll tell you why they won’t be throwing away any more returned letters, and how some simple database tweaking may increase total donations.

Deactivate instead of delete
The agency staff assumed that, because a letter was returned, there was no hope of securing the new address. They assumed that they would delete the address from the Access database like they had thrown away index cards.

That’s where I stuck my nose in.

  • First, I reminded the client that donor records and money records are stored in separate tables. If you delete the donor records, you orphan (or must delete) the donation records.
  • Second, I suggested that, instead of deleting the donor record, we enter a code that flags the record as “deactivated” or “invalid or unknown address.”
  • Finally, I assured the client we would use the deactivated flag to exclude those “bad” addresses from future mailings.

Names and numbers on the labels
This tip is a no-brainer for most of you. However, when my client was using index cards to track addresses and donations, they used names to locate the information they needed.

When we moved to Access, I generated a unique customer ID number for each person on the mailing list, and I added that ID number to the mailing label template. That way, when a letter is returned, the data entry clerks can locate the record to be deactivated by entering either the ID number or the name.

Updating for dollars
If you simply give up when a letter to a customer or donor comes back, you may miss an opportunity to inform and solicit new business. Try these low-tech, low-cost ways to keep addresses current:

  • If you publish a newsletter, list some or all of the names of those whose letters were returned. Newsletter readers can help you find current addresses by calling or by filling in a mail-back coupon.
  • Circulate the list of lost friends among the staff in your company, asking for help with address updates.
  • When a letter is returned, call directory assistance and ask for the addressee’s new number and address.

Help with large-scale mailing clients
My client’s mailing list database only contains a few thousand records, and their targeted mailings are relatively small. As they grow, however, they will take a look at the post office’s Return Service Request options.

But what if your company or client needs help reducing costs associated with frequent mass mailings? Read “Consultant saves client money and man-hours by improving mailing process” to learn how a consultant saved $16,000 per month for a company mailing 8,000 invoices per day.

Don’t forget the stamp

Do your duties including maintaining the company mailing list? To share your best (or worst) mailing experience, please post a note below or write to Jeff.