Building a Mailing List from the Ground Up

Dear Kim,

We have just received nonprofit status for our theater company. What is the best way to build a mailing list for donations outside of the obvious (friends, relatives)?
—The Name of the Game

Dear Name,

There are a lot of ways to build a mailing list and the obvious should not be overlooked. Since you seem to have that under control, here are some more suggestions:

1) Capture the name and address of every person who comes to any of your performances. Many theaters miss an opportunity for donations from their single-ticket buyers. Have a mailing list sign-up sheet at the door, and insert a form into the program that people can fill out and drop in a box on their way out.

2) Make sure there’s a link on your website where people can send you their U.S. mail address, as well, of course, as a way to make donations on-line.

3) Ask restaurants near your theater to have a drawing every so often for two free tickets to the theater. They place a large glass container near the cash register with a description of the drawing, inviting people to drop their business cards in the container. Once a month or so a winner is picked. You can simply add people to your list who enter the drawing, or, if you want to be a little more focused, ask people to put an “X” on their business card if they do not want to be added to your mailing list.

4) Rent or trade mailing lists with other arts groups in your vicinity.

5) Ask your donors for the names of other people who might be interested in being donors and ask your subscribers for other possible subscribers. You can solicit these names through a special mailing once a year that basically says, “Dear Friend, Who are your friends?” Provide a space for people to write in three or four names and include a box that says, “I would rather give people information about the theater myself. Please send me ___ packets of information.”

Be sure to keep your list “clean” — that is, know why each name is being entered into the database and, if no donation has been made after a few attempts, take the person off your list. It is always useful to know your “fulfillment cost” — how much it costs you to keep a person on your mailing list. Generally that cost is $3-$10 a year for each person on your list. If you are carrying 500 people who have never given you any money, you are spending anywhere from $1,500-$5,000 per year on them. A small list of active and current donors is far more valuable than a large list of a hodgepodge of people. When you first start an organization, building the list is a big challenge, but soon managing it will be the challenge.