The Digital Avenger: Or How I Learned to Love Print Again

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I was sad to hear about the recent passing of Stan Lee, the creator of superheroes like Spiderman, the X-Men and the Avengers. Unlike his predecessors, Lee created more complex heroes that had human flaws. His heroes often grapple with these challenges even as they perform heroic feats to save the world.

To me, this sounds like many nonprofit professionals I know. Below, I write about one of my own early career mistakes in communications, and how I learned to team up with thoughtful and well-informed colleagues in the fundraising department.

You can say that I’ve always had ink in my veins.

I grew up in my parent’s print shop and small town newspaper in the Midwest. There, I learned to read by proofing the newspaper each week and played with all the fancy papers my parents sold for weddings and graduations.

So, when it came time to pick a major in college, I made the obvious choice. Journalist!

Digital coming of age

But that was the early 1990s, and even then it was clear that newspapers were struggling. 

After a few months as a print reporter, I got a job at CNN and learned everything I could about TV news. 

Even so, the job felt hollow after a few years. After September 11, I wanted to do something more meaningful. So I took a job that would change everything: my first PR job with a nonprofit.

Being a nonprofit communicator really suited me. I felt my job had purpose, and I enjoyed the challenge of telling stories that moved people to care and take action. 

Campaign against print

But I wanted to see these stories in digital outlets, not print, because it was far easier to track their return on investment. Plus, I was tired of finding boxes of undelivered reports under my desk when I took a new comms job. 

As I moved up the nonprofit ladder, I started a one-woman campaign against print.

If there was no proof of ROI, I destroyed it and sometimes recreated it in digital and social forms. Print newsletters. Annual reports. Press kits of all kinds. I transformed them all to 1s and 0s. 

Most of my print avenging was just. And if it wasn’t, there usually wasn’t anyone around in the fundraising department to tell me something different. On average, development directors stay in their jobs just 18-24 months.

Then I met Terri Shoemaker, my partner here at Abeja Solutions. She’s the rare kind of fundraiser who always knows the numbers, and can spot a witty turn of phrase when she sees it. 

Plus, she shares my love of superheroes and there’s rarely a Marvel movie that we don’t see on opening weekend.

Just the kind of partner I needed to stay sane in the wacky nonprofit world.   

Learning to love print again

It was Terri that turned me from my digital avenging. She showed me that print still plays a critical role in the nonprofit world.   

Here are a few statistics that every nonprofit communicator needs to know:

And here’s the real kicker. Response rates to direct (print) mail are still nearly 88 times higher than email on average. And so far, social media is even weaker than email. 

Sure, the ROI on email is higher – it’s free or nearly free to hit send those emails. But who wants to be spammed with 66 EMAILS per nonprofit? Not me!

So as much as I want digital to be a powerful force for fundraising good, it just isn’t … yet. That is, not on its own. You still need carefully constructed, printed appeals to get a reaction from donors. There’s evidence that even millennials prefer print letters – though they’re more likely to go online to make their donations.

Integrate for better results

Which brings us to the best part: Campaigns that integrate digital and print tactics have a huge multiplier effect. It’s like when superheroes combine forces.

On its own, emails to a house file have a .06% average response rate. It’s a sidekick. Alone, direct mail to a house file averages 5.3%. That earns a cape.

But when this dynamic duo gets together, average response rates soar to as much as 27%. Add in web and see those numbers rise even higher. That means more money to fund programs and make meaningful change happen. 

If you want to see your mission succeed, then you have to make sure that print and digital team up. 

It might not be easy at first. In small organizations it means more work for one person. In big ones, silos are a huge problem. Cue the training montage. 

But if your nonprofit needs more budget to produce more change in the world, then it’s time to assemble this powerful team. Get print and digital together – to fight by your side.

Laura Ingalls Fuqua is co-founder of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising marketing firm in Phoenix, Arizona. A recovering journalist, Laura has worked over 20 years as a professional communicator in both the nonprofit and corporate sectors.