Mercy Ships – Direct Mail Acquisition Testing

Case study: Mercy Ships’ acquisition testing unveils cost-effective ways to grow a donor file


The challenge

Acquiring new donors is imperative when nonprofits want to grow, but it can be too costly if the wrong groups of people are mailed or if creative that neglects to stimulate response is used. Mercy Ships came to Russ Reid wanting to expand their donor file by improving their acquisition efforts, and they challenged us to find an affordable way to raise response rate and average gift.

Russ Reid solution

We came up with a series of tests to run against Mercy Ships’ existing acquisition package.

The existing control package featured a roll-fold carrier, but it was expensive to produce since it required handwork to insert the letter, buckslip and reply envelope.

  1. Existing control with lapsed copy – We mailed a special message with a group of lapsed donors to save money on lists and reactivate people who we know care about Mercy Ships’ work.
  2. Existing control with increased dollar handles – This test aimed to, at minimum, maintain the response rate while driving up the average gift.
  3. Revised control – We revamped the control package with a new, but similar creative treatment. This package still had a roll-fold carrier, but we redesigned it to work in an in-line process—thus saving production dollars.
  4. New creative with a child bounceback – This package had a traditional outer envelope, and included a “Get Well” bounceback for a child.
  5. New creative with a child bounceback and increased dollar handles – This tested the new creative with the same dollar handle test running on the control package.

Existing control


New Creative


Of the four tests, the revised control not only saved money in the production process, but also brought in a 24.2% higher response rate and 3.56% higher average gift. The bounceback increased the response rate by 2.6%, but the average gift fell 1.08% lower. The bounceback dollar handle test had an 11.5% lower response rate than the control package, but the average gift was 27% higher. The dollar handle test on the existing control package brought in a .065% higher average gift, but the response rate fell by 18.6%.*

With the help of this mailing, Mercy Ships was able to raise their reactivation rate by 5%. That year, Mercy Ships acquired 124% more donors than the previous, increasing their donor file by 90%. Their total income from acquisition rose 269%, which helped raise their overall fundraising income by 67%.

*Test results are based on 90-day results, and are all relative to the control package’s results.


  • The revised control performed well in every aspect. Russ Reid will continue running acquisition tests throughout the year to find the optimal package, in order to continue increasing Mercy Ships’ net revenue, response rate and average gift.
  • To achieve greater net revenue in the next test, we will be employing an exchange list strategy to lower the acquisition costs even further.