Balancing paper and prospects

This rant on paper waste is a part of
Blog Action Day 2009 | Climate Change

Image Credit: striatic

Many people that I work with know me to be obsessive about using less paper. First I reduce, then I reuse, then, at last, I recycle.

This carries over beyond my work life and into my personal life. I’m one of those people that calls my service providers to be removed from solicitation lists (did you know you can even get the paper inserts taken out of your credit card statements, even if you can’t get bills online?). I’d love to get zero mail (confession: birthday cards are still OK;).

This carries over beyond my work life and into my philanthropic life. I donate online.

I’ve worked in fund development before. I know that it’s important to meet donor preferences.

But this rule seems to breakdown when it comes to reducing paper.

Exhibit A

  • I donated to at least 5 different organizations last year. All of them I donated online with.
  • Of those five, four of them followed up with print material – direct mail, invitations, newsletters, etc.
  • Of those four, I emailed each of them asking them to remove me from their (paper) mail lists, though I added that I was happy to receive any information by email.
  • Of those four, NONE have sent me any email. I actually had to email two of them after getting paper mail an additional time. I have received no further solicitations from any of them otherwise.
  • Of those original five, only one continues to connect with me via email. Very intermittently – nothing to be considered spam. I also have found out about their campaigns via Twitter and Facebook. I have followed their campaigns’ success online.  And surprise, they’re the one I donate the most to and have begun to donate most regularly to.

It (figuratively) breaks my heart to see nonprofits not getting it. Traditional ways of communicating with donors (ie mail) are still important for connecting with traditional donors. But “new” ways of communicating with donors (though “new” is debatable – the web has been used commonly for over a decade) are important to connect with and retain new donors AND cut down on paper.

Reduce and prosper?

Nonprofits should play their part in reducing waste (in both paper and the cost for stamps) by – at the very least – respecting the methods donors have gone out of their way to request to be solicited.

Read on:


  1. I agree! So many organizations are clinging to paper-based fundraising and outreach, and to be honest I can’t imagine why. Maybe I need to take off my millennial hat for a minute and picture a nonprofit where hand-stuffing envelopes is the time-tested, comfort-bubble norm and online CRMs are alien. But it’s not just these kind of small shops–I had CARE call me yesterday to ask for a donation, and I said I’d received an email already, so I’d donate online. Still, the phone banker said he’d send me a snail mail donation form. I asked him not to. He said he would anyway. When it arrives, I will recycle it…along with the one already sitting in my mail pile. I understand protocol, but protocol at the expense of common sense and the environment?

  2. I really wish it were entirely about the habits of non-profits. Without having the time to read the attached article (direct mail isn’t dying), direct mail is an incredibly effective tool. Few non-profits have embraced online giving, and even fewer do it well.

    The charity I work with right now has had outstanding growth in online donations, roughly 40% growth per year sustained over several years. Comparatively it is still less than 1/10th of total donations, most of which come from direct mail.

    It’ll take a generation for things to completely change. For a generation to die, and another to begin making significant contributions.

    One thing I read out of Exhibit A is the enormous pressure on non-profits to coordinate the offline and online communications of the org, and then match them to each and every donor/constituent. Imagine 50,000 donor preferences being maintained from phone conversations, email requests, direct mail requests, in person conversations, etc, matched against monthly newsletters, campaign appeals, online newsletters, yada yada yada. When it comes to non-profits, the question becomes, “whose job is that?”

  3. I agree, it would be so much more efficient for non profits to communicate via email or the internet. Most people would deem paper mail as ‘junk’ mail, and just throw it out, without bothering to read and see what it says on the paper. On the other hand, if non profits sent out monthly emails or something along those lines to peoples personal emails, with their consent of course, I believe they may be more prone to read it.

    Peggy ~

  4. I did my undergrad thesis on what types of communication( primarly paper) NPO’s use. Never thought about how it can be a green issue to send out all those papers, as in my thesis I mentioned that one would want to send everything possible out to all possible donor channels. Although I’m not in favor of this now, for many older folks, they still need paper. I think we will gradually phase out of paper though

  5. @Elizabeth – I knew I wasn’t the only one! I actually received second paper mail from a 3rd of the 4 organizations today. Recycle bin 1 – Organization 0.

    @Peggy – Yes, I agree email can be more efficient, but it’s important to not that paper mail still works. Orgs get substantial individual donations from direct paper mail because they are meeting those donors’ interests.

    @kristenej – All channels? Wowzers! Do you mean communication methods or target audiences? Definitely don’t want to annoy donors (though, again, some donors like a lot of contact, so it depends on preferences). I agree, many ‘older folks’ and many folks in general, still prefer paper. Things will change over time.

    @Benjamin – Yes, I agree that direct mail is going to stick around for a while still. It’s used because it works. It’s tried, tested and true for many organizations, whereas direct e-mail – not so much.

    However, the while the complexities you speak about regarding donor solicitation preferences (email vs. mail vs. phone; direct mail/invitations/newsletters; etc) is true, it is also true that VERY robust CRMs exist that can capture this information fairly well. I have worked the back end of Raiser’s Edge, and it can do this sort of work, especially if good database planning is done before hand. Many orgs (like Volunteer Vancouver) allow members to manage their own email preferences. Even for VERY small organizations, Excel can do this well (not that I condone the use of Excel for an overall CRM, as much as I love Excel).

    So if a fund development department isn’t/can’t/won’t keep track of and meet donor communication preferences, I wonder: 1) Has the org not invested time to strategize around financial sustainability? 2) What else is the org doing ineffectively, and how much other waste is being created? 3) Which other stakeholders is the org not listening to?

    As well-intentioned as the org may be, good intentions through a great mission statement are not enough.

    Phew! Thanks for all the great comments!

  6. @Trina- Ideally, I hoped that npos would use all channels to get the world out, even if those fliers become crumbs by the side of the road. (or at least go into a recycle bin for areas that have them).

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