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Optimizing Direct Mail Campaigns

The Ten Commandments of Data Management

Understanding how data is used -- for merge/purge operations, laser printing of personalized letters, ink jetting of outside envelopes and post office regulations -- is extremely important to successful mail delivery.

Here are ten rules for effective data management:

1. Line Length: Each line should have no more than FIFTY (50) characters. Eliminating middle initials can often save a few characters. If there is a couple with different last names, you may need to list each of their names on separate lines.

2. Address Lines: If you are going to use a window envelope, a donor's address should contain no more than four lines. If names and addresses in a list extend beyond four lines, eliminate the title field. Keep in mind that there is barcode over the name, making only four lines available for name and address. If you must use five line addresses, you will find that the font used will be very small.

3. Field Format: When preparing a file that you are either merging with or purging from other lists, or using for a personalized letter, each prefix, first name, last name, suffix, street address, city, state, and zip code must be in separate fields. Use one case - either all caps or title case - and not a mix of each, for these fields' capitalization.

4. Duplicates: Remove as many duplicates as possible. Regardless of how clean you feel your database is, it is essential to examine your file for duplication just before each mailing. MF&A has developed a unique software program that can identify to a fine degree suspected dupes in your file. This process (called a "Near Dupe" report) has allowed clients to save money and eliminate donor irritation by reviewing the entire file for duplication. Not all donors identified as suspected dupes are true duplicates, such as two sisters living at the same address who are both donors. We ask the client to review the report and determine those who need to remain on the file. MF&A charges a nominal fee for clients for this service if the file contains less than 10,000 names. Larger files are charged accordingly.

5. Salutations: While we can convert for personalization a file sent to us that contains prefixes (ie - Mr. or Ms.), the client should identify how they would like to address their donors. The method for addressing a donor depends on how well the signatory knows the donor. A salutation may read "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Johnson" or "Dear Peggy and Mark," but should never read "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Mark Johnson." If you want to use first names, but the first name and middle initial are in the same field, then the salutation will be "Dear Susan A." This example demonstrates the importance of separating such information into different fields.

6. Gender: For donors where gender is not specified or uncertain (such as when an initial is used), you may use the gender neutral salutation of "Dear Friend." However, we strongly recommend that you send these donors letters asking how they would like to be addressed. You can do so in the acknowledgement letter; include postage paid envelopes for the answers' return or ask them to respond by phone or email.

7. Consistency: Maintaining consistency is one of the most important aspects of data entry. Make sure that data entry personnel, whether staff or volunteers, are entering data in the same way and with a high level of care.

8. Address Changes: After receiving new address information, enter the changes as soon as possible. Making such changes in a timely manner will save on postage in the next mailing. If there is no forwarding address for the donor and they have given your organization a gift of $25 or more, the cost of calling Information or searching the Internet for new addresses will be less than remailing. However, Internet searches are not always accurate, particularly for residential addresses.

9. Donor Removal: Many clients ask about what to do with responses from individuals from the prospect lists where the person asks to be removed from the list or a family member indicates that the individual is deceased. While you cannot remove the names from a list that has been rented, you can build your own list (using a spreadsheet for example) with the names, addresses, and list codes of the donors requesting removal. If you use the list again in your next prospect mailing, then you can match your removal list to the prospect list. As list information is proprietary, you should not, under any circumstances, reveal the source list that generated the donor's name.

10. Donor Reponses: Be very cognizant of who signed the check or made the actual gift. We have seen donors stop giving when the wrong person is identified in successive mailings. For example, the wife wrote the check but the thank you letter or follow-up appeals only went to the husband. Also, make notes on the donor file of any information the donor writes on their reply slip such as "Our daughter was treated at your hospital" or "We adopted our dog through your shelter."


Treat your donor file as a source of precious financial support for your organization. The larger a donor file becomes the harder it is to maintain a high degree of accuracy. Sometimes it is beneficial to print out your database and review it in totality. You will be surprised at what the database contains and how many corrections need to be made.

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