Cutting through the Noise: how much mail and e-mail do donors believe they receive from non-profit organizations, and how much of it do they actually read?

The average American charitable donor reports receiving about eight mailings and ten e-mails from non-profit organizations in a typical week. A majority of these communications come from organizations they don’t financially support.

Consumer insights company Grey Matter Research and research panel Opinions4Good (Op4G) partnered on The Donor Mindset Study, a series of research reports about American charitable donors. The latest in the series (The Donor Mindset Study VII: Cutting through the Noise) explores how much mail and e-mail donors report receiving from charities, as well as what proportion they actually read (all or in part).

The weekly averages, as reported by donors, look like this:

  • 3.6 pieces of mail from organizations they financially support
  • 4.2 pieces of mail from organizations they do not financially support
  • 4.2 e-mails from organizations they financially support
  • 5.7 e-mails from organizations they do not financially support

That’s a total of 17.7 messages from charities each week; 920 per year, or 2.5 every day just between mail and e-mail (not including social media, text, advertising, or other forms of communication).

On average, donors estimate that 54% of the mail and 58% of the e-mails they receive from charities come from organizations they don’t support (commonly referred to as “prospecting”).

Who gets the most communication from charities?

  • People who identify with a religious group report receiving 24% more than atheists, agnostics, and those who have no religious identification
  • Men report receiving 26% more than women
  • Higher-income households ($70,000 or more) report receiving 30% more than lower-income households
  • Larger donors ($500 or more given in the past 12 months) report receiving 37% more than others
  • Political liberals report receiving 38% more than conservatives
  • Donors under age 50 report receiving a whopping 77% more than older donors

The study also asked donors to estimate how many mail and e-mail messages from charities they read each week – not necessarily the whole thing, but at least part. It should be heartening to charitable organizations to learn that donors report reading quite a bit of the communication they get. On average, about 78% of what they receive from charities they financially support gets at least a little attention, along with about 58% of prospecting communications.

Few donors discard everything they get without reading it – only 7% do this with all the mail they receive from the organizations they support, and 25% do this with all the prospecting mail they get. The numbers for e-mail are strikingly similar (of course, they don’t take into consideration the e-mails donors never see because they’re caught in spam filters or sent to e-mail addresses donors rarely or never check).

Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, notes that these estimates may not be exact counts of how many messages donors receive and/or read, but donor perceptions are still critical. “In scores of studies we’ve done with individual organizations, donors often like to complain about the ‘overwhelming’ amount of fundraising mail and e-mail they get. It’s almost like a badge of honor to complain about the ‘waste’ and about how much the poor donor has to wade through,” Sellers commented. “But when we ask them to give thoughtful, numeric estimates of what they’re actually getting, a very different story emerges. They do receive quite a bit, but their physical and digital inboxes are not exactly overflowing. And most importantly, they’re not just tossing it all without reading it, so there’s relatively little actual waste to all these mailings and e-mails.”

Sellers noted that the study’s findings represent both good and bad news for charities. “It’s good news because on average, there’s about a three-in-four chance your donors are reading what you send them, and about a six-in-ten chance that your prospects don’t just toss your stuff without a glance. So your message usually has an opportunity to be seen, even if very briefly” he noted. “It’s bad news because, of course, they’re also seeing what everyone else sends, which means there’s a lot of noise for you to cut through – hence the title of the report. So the question is: what’s going to make your communication something donors will read more of and maybe respond to, when they’re averaging 17 others that same week?” he asks.

The full study examines these donor perceptions more in-depth, with considerable detail. Please e-mail for a free copy of the full report.

About Grey Matter Research:
Grey Matter Research is a marketing research and consumer insights company located in Phoenix, Arizona. Grey Matter has extensive experience with research related to non-profit organizations, with numerous donor-supported organizations as clients. Grey Matter works directly with donor-supported organizations and in partnership with the fundraising, branding, and marketing services agencies that support them.

About Op4G:
Philanthropic online market research panel Op4G invites its panel members to participate in paid online research surveys, and then requires they donate a portion of their incentives – at least 25% and up to 100% – back to one of its 400-plus member non-profit organizations. Op4G’s unique approach to recruiting yields a highly engaged group of quality people who, as respondents, are dedicated to helping market research clients fulfill information needs. Since beginning client delivery in June 2011, panel members have donated over $425,000 to Op4G’s growing number of non-profit partners. Op4G is headquartered in Portsmouth, NH and operates globally.


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