Category Archives: Direct Mail Case Studies

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Second Harvest Heartland – Cultivation mailings improved response

Maximizing income via renewal

The challenge

Second Harvest Heartland had been producing their cultivation pieces with a local creative agency. Their appeals generated high average gift amounts, but they struggled to improve upon their low response rates. So how did we improve the percent response and return on investment of their cultivation mailings?

Russ Reid solution

We conducted a split test against Second Harvest Heartland’s control cultivation strategy in September 2012 to effectively measure performance head to head.

We applied a custom segmentation strategy based on each donor’s recency, frequency and monetary gift history to maximize both response rate and average gift, and customized the ask strategy based on each donor’s unique giving behavior.

A simple yet eye‐catching 4” x 8” package featured a brightly‐colored envelope and Thanksgiving graphics. The copy was short and briefly explained how the donor’s gift would touch lives within their community over the Thanksgiving season.

SHH edm case study


As a result, the percent response for the test package was more than double that of the control mailing. The revenue per mailing was over 50% higher and the return on investment was nearly three times higher than that of the control. Additionally, the return on investment was nearly three times higher than that of the control mailing.

In the end, after a back‐test in April 2013 to validate the results, Second Harvest Heartland decided to partner with Russ Reid to produce their cultivation mailings moving forward.

To learn how Russ Reid can help your Food Bank grow beyond, please contact Andrew Olsen (CFRE, Vice President).

View a downloadable PDF of this case study.


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.

World Vision – Hungry in America

World Vision – Hungry in America

Submitted by Russ Reid



Recipients: 15,000

Response Rate: 7 percent

Total Cost: $27,343

Income Generated: $140,635

Average Gift: $47.50

Cost to Raise a Dollar: $0.19

If you care about children in Africa, Asia and the poorest, harshest places on the planet, call World Vision,” wrote Russ Reid’s Tamara Wolf. “But if you have a concern for Americans who suffer from hunger, homelessness and all the consequences of poverty, you are most certainly going to contact your local Rescue Mission or Food Bank.”

The challenge then for World Vision was how to engage donors and gain their support for the organization’s work here in the United States — basically to re-educate donors about the scope of the work that World Vision does.

“This campaign had to have more than a clutter- busting look and feel,” Wolf wrote. “It had to reverse perceptions about World Vision itself. On one hand, it needed to be clearly aligned with who this organization is and their driving mission. On the other hand, it had to destroy the assumption that World Vision is so globally focused that they are not the best choice for American aid.”

While the package focuses on Family Food Kits that, for $16, provide a family of five with three nutritious meals, and it includes a card to sign and return for a family receiving the donor’s gift, our judges were most impressed with the quality storytelling and compelling images — not to mention the dark and dirty red, white and blue color palette that was at the same time patriotic and somewhat unsettling.

The stories presented paint sad and disturbing pictures that are held together by “one thread of hope.” And that is World Vision’s decades of experience in bringing food and hope to needy people throughout the world. The copy first broke down donors’ hesitation to depend on World Vision’s global expertise to feed people in the United States and then used that same experience as a reason to support it — a fundraising coup d’état that turned an overwhelming weakness into a powerful strength.

Wolf wrote that previous efforts to convert dedicated children-of-the-world donors to supporters of an all-American problem had “flat-out failed.”

Among other great response statistics, Wolf pointed out, “For this client, an acceptable baseline return on investment is a 4:1 income-to-cost ratio, or $4 brought in for every $1 invested. [This package] started with that exact return, but then the returns began to escalate: 6.3 to 1 and finally 23.6 to 1 in the ‘No Child in America Should Go to Bed Hungry’ package.”

To view a downloadable PDF of this case study, click here.


World Vision – Back to School Bounceback “Flight”

Submitted by Russ Reid


Recipients: 525,000

Response rate: 24 percent

Total cost: $410,000

Income generated: $3,084,047

Average gift: $24.48

What can we say? Some packages just take off, making response rates soar and flying higher than even their creators could imagine. In most cases, those sky-high accolades are just metaphorical.

Not so with our 2011 Package of the Year. This sustainer upgrade effort from Russ Reid on behalf of World Vision U.S. is engaging, colorful and just plain fun. Plus, it looks deceptively simple: Birds, planes, kites and other flying things float across the colorful outer envelope, practically begging the recipient to open it. The banner at the bottom that says, “Inside: A cool paper airplane for sponsored children,” doesn’t hurt either. Inside, the letter and reply device are moving and concise … and then you see it – a thick trifold on glossy, heavy stock with fun facts about birds, butterflies and flying machines on back of a happy-looking paper airplane cutout that is meant to be signed and sent to the recipient’s sponsored child along with a handwritten note from the donor. In an amazing display of personalization, assembly and other instructions appear in both the donor’s and child’s native languages.

But looks really can be deceiving. According to Tamara Wolf of Russ Reid, sending out a “paper” airplane in a direct-mail package was no easy task- mainly because paper airplanes need extra weight (in the form of an additional plastic component or even a simple paper clip} in the nose to actually fly. We all know what extra weight can do to costs. To remedy that conundrum, the cutout parts for the plane include extra punch-out strips that are folded to add the extra weight for the plane without adding much extra weight in the package. Pretty clever.

The goal of the package, mailed as a back-to-school effort, is to inspire donors to give more and engage with their sponsored children to encourage them to get excited about learning. Gold Awards judge Paul Bobnak called the package “well-executed from start to finish.” He added, “This mailing is powerful because it inspires both child and donor.” -MB

To view a downloadable PDF of this case study, click here.




Best Friends: DM Acquisition & Middle Donor campaigns

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Case study: Best Friends reverts a downward trend and doubles projected revenue with a 540% return on investment

The challenge

When Best Friends Animal Society – the country’s largest sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals – came to Russ Reid in 2004, their 10-year acquisition control package was experiencing significant fatigue. No test treatments had outperformed the control, and response was starting to decline. Drastically. Their file growth was nearly flat.

Additionally, they needed help developing a previously untapped middle donor audience to help fuel that essential tier of the donor pyramid.

Russ Reid solution

Given the challenge at hand, our goals were clear:

  • Goal #1: Grow the file. Dramatically.
  • Goal #2: Target the highest-quality donors for future mid-level upgrades

To achieve Goal #1, we decided to keep the same offer, as it was fairly strong: Sponsor a dog or cat for $17. Provide food, shelter, vet care, and a loving home. $25 pays for sponsorship – plus Best Friends Magazine. After reviewing the data and donor file history, we also decided to target maintaining the average gift at $25+.

From an audience perspective, we looked at previous list-level results and applied our proprietary approach to list selection and strategy, including lists from causes that showed a high propensity to animal welfare causes.

Creative, we identified that we needed to express Best Friends’ brand and personality in a way that would better reflect their mission, so we structured a 4-way test as follows:

  1. Improved control package
  2. Premium-driven/story-driven package
  3. Tangible involvement device
  4. Dimensional involvement device

All 4 tests beat the control in response and ROI. The winning package was the one with the tangible involvement device. It motivated the highest average gift at $26; moreover, it increased response over the control by 12.25 times.

Now with a winning package, we moved on to tackle Goal #2: developing an untapped middle donor audience.

With a healthy new file of focused donors, we employed segment-level data and modeling strategies to select a group of 38,000 prospects with strong potential to move up the ladder into monthly giving and larger gifts.

Using a three-part mailing, one featuring a DVD with the lovable faces and heartwarming stories of special-needs animals, we doubled the projected revenue with a 22% response, an average gift of over $270 (against a goal of $120) and a 540% return on investment.


Direct mail acquisition:

  • All 4 tests beat the control in response and ROI.
  • The winning package motivated at $26 average gift.
  • The winning package increased response over the control by 12.25 times.
  • Ongoing testing yielded the same results, but reduced cost per donor by $2.
  • Ongoing testing yielded a new seasonal co-control with holiday labels.

Middle donor development:

  • Doubled projected revenue with a 22% response
  • Achieved average gift of $270 – beating projections by 125%
  • Achieved a 540% ROI

Additionally, Russ Reid continued to evolve and expand Best Friends’ fundraising with a powerful planned giving kit, further middle donor success, and a move into television. So even as donors were developed into higher-value partners, a steady stream of larger gift-givers continued to feed and grow the program.

To view a downloadable PDF of this case study, click here.


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Operation Smile – Direct Mail Acquisition Campaign

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Operation Smile direct mail acquisition: a cost-effective, 4-color package beats the control by 25%

The challenge

For years, Operation Smile had been using the same two-color acquisition control package with good results—but not good enough, in our view. Our challenge was to develop a new creative approach that would beat the old control and fit the organization’s very tight budget.

Russ Reid solution

A simple, inexpensive, yet compelling 6 x 9 four-color package presented the tearful face of a child in pain on the outside, and unfolded the stunning after-surgery story of that same child inside. The prospective donor was able to read about the amazing genesis of Operation Smile, and the subsequent 25-year impact they’ve had on children born with facial deformities. This way, donors could understand how their gift would impact the life of a child.


We got even more than we hoped for, as this package was a tremendous success that:

  • Increased the core list audience by 25%
  • Inspired one donor to send a check for $10,000 as a first-time gift
  • Received great feedback from Operation Smile’s in-country medical volunteers and international mission teams

World Vision – Direct Mail Cultivation Campaign

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World Vision direct mail cultivation: A new voice, new format and new spin on an old offer deliver breakthrough results

The challenge

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. In the past few years, response rates to its pharmaceutical gift-in-kind offer had substantially declined. A strong new creative approach was needed to motivate donors and renew their enthusiasm to support programs that provide lifesaving medicines to children in need.

Russ Reid solution

To grab donor attention, we decided to give a powerful twist to this well-established offer. We did so by shifting the primary messaging (deliver donated medicines to children) to attack one specific ailment—infection by worms. To help donors understand the problem and the difference they could make, we created a brand new mailing format that presented the message in a highly emotional manner with a clear communication of the details. The creative strategy was intended to pull the donor into this issue with bold intrigue followed by dramatic news.


Our creative strategy surpassed even our own expectations. This package:

  • Reached the highest response rate in the history of our pharmaceutical offers (more than double the most recent effort)
  • Achieved an average gift of $49.10, the second-highest ever
  • With a new creative voice, set a trend for numerous other high-performing packages
  • Was recognized as a 2007 Silver ECHO Award winner