When Bad Things Happen to Good Annual Fund Mailings


As I opened my mail one day before the holidays, I came across an annual fund letter from one of the nonprofits that I support. Since I had talked to the development person who worked on it during its production, I opened it with anticipation. I wanted to see how it had turned out!

As I read it, that anticipation turned to disbelief. The letter had a gapping error; it asked if my husband and I “would consider a gift of IL.” The mail merge confused the state field and the ask amount field. Whoops!  And to add insult to injury, the pledge card’s printing left parts of it illegible.

I know this organization and the designer. They would never let something like this go through. I sent pictures of the offending pieces to the development person to let her know what happened. Because the letters had already gone out, we brainstormed damage control.

From this experience comes a few tips to try to prevent a similar printing nightmare from befalling your annual fund appeals and how to recover if it does.

  1. Ask for references. Find out who the printer has worked with before, then ask prior customers about their experiences. Printers will give you the names of people who like their work, so also ask around in your networks and find out what experiences other development professionals have had with this printer.

  2. Proof. Proof. Then Proof Again. Ask your printer to run you proofs of the letter and review them carefully. Continue to require proofs until the quality meets your satisfaction. The printer works for you… so don’t feel bad about asking them for the quality that accurately reflects your organization.

  3. Review the donor list you send to the mail house to make sure you have everything spelled correctly and all the fields in the right spot. They will download what you send so make sure you send them quality!

  4. If you mail merge – and you should – ask to see a copy of the merged letter as well to make sure they have all of the merged fields correct. Continue to ask for copies until you feel confident in the quality of the final letters. 

  5. Mail yourself a letter – or two. It may cost you 49¢ to mail each one (and the cost of printing), but seeing firsthand what your donors receive and when they receive it can allow you to sleep better at night OR head off a problem if one occurs.

If, in spite of following these five tips, you find yourself in the situation of a poor print job, follow up with the printer to fix the problem.

  1. Tell the printer about the problem immediately. They want to do good work and, if they want to keep your business, will want to work with you to make things better. They can’t fix what they don’t know.

  2. Show them samples of the problems so they can see first hand what you mean by “poor print quality” or that “the blues don’t match.”

  3. Ask them to reprint and remail the job – at no cost to you. Depending on the type of mailing, you may find it advantageous to simply reprint and resend. This mailing went out early enough that I suggested that they unapologically send it again in a few weeks. Most donors won’t know the difference.

  4. Ask for a refund or for them to donate the cost of the project back to your organization. You should not have to pay for substandard work, and they should honor that request if they want to keep your business.

I don’t suggest calling it to the donor’s attention with a note on the letter or such. As I said, most won’t even notice. As much as I hate to say it, your average donor does not read these letters or, if they do, they don’t read them very carefully.

This organization ended up meeting its goal for the mailing, with funds raised on par with prior years but some donors mentioned they had not received the mailing, including a $500 donor who did not renew. So, all in all, the problems did not seem to have a major negative impact on the organization, but that’s not a chance you want to take!

More importantly, they have a new print house.