I’ve written a lot of direct response mailings. Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, I generated appeals and collateral for medical agencies, political parties, advocacy groups, social service, religious and international aid groups.

Today, I get a lot of mail. I’m eager to receive it. I never ask to be taken off a list, and I open everything – just to see what’s being done. And of course much of what’s being done is done by telephone and online. So as time allows, I click on the links. And I’ll stay on the telephone with a canvasser as long as possible to see what kind of script they’re using. I embrace it all.

Lately I’ve wondered how well direct response sets the stage for a lifetime of giving – for being the initial step that opens a path to the kind of high donor satisfaction and loyalty that leads to sustained annual giving, or even to major gifts and successful campaigns.

So we decided to try an experiment in “white mail” -- so called for a donation that may come in a plain envelope, an unsolicited gift that just arrives, and can’t be tied to any specific campaign or appeal.

Last week I mailed personal cheques to eight charities in Canada, and made four on-line gifts. Each gift was for $100.

We ruled out any charity KMA, or my partners or I have ever supported. No clients, past or present are included. We wanted to be sure recipients have capacity to process gifts on their own so we ruled out any who use Canada Helps as their gift portal.

Distribution of the donations:


  • Eight provinces: NS, NB, PQ, ON, MB, SK, AB, BC
  • Three truly national charities
  • One international charity with a strong Canadian entity 


  • Two in the arts
  • One public university
  • One hospital
  • One each focused on: women’s needs, homelessness, children, and the environment
  • Two faith-based 

What do those first gifts set in motion? How specific will the thank-you be? When will I be contacted again? What kind of engagement is offered? Will there be a second-gift strategy from the recipients? What information will be provided? For those sent by regular mail, will I be nudged towards online interactions?

We will track how people respond to these unsolicited gifts and what follows in the weeks and months to come. I’ll be reporting on what I observe as a result of these gifts.  

This is no scientific test – just curiosity at work. And for now we are not revealing the names of the charities. They didn’t volunteer, the choice is completely arbitrary, and I’m interested in the patterns, not in critiquing particular groups. (Perhaps when this topic has run its course (in four months? six? 12?), I may indulge in a “best of” report.

Until then, welcome to the white mail experiment. Watch this space for updates.

--Larry Matthews