The Situation: In the spring of 2004, Postal Service managers sought to do something that they thought would clarify regulations about the distinctions between First Class Mail and Standard Mail. They were trying to create a “bright line” between highly personalized mail that would be required to be sent at the much higher First Class rates and more standardized solicitations that could qualify for lower Standard mail pricing. In April 2004, the Postal Service issued a proposed rule in the Federal Register that would have required the “exclusive purpose” of the personal information in a Standard Mail piece be to solicit a sale or contribution. While this might have worked for commercial companies selling credit cards or other products, it would have been disastrous for the entire nonprofit sector that historically combined requests for contributions with other programmatic purposes such as education and advocacy. In fact, both the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Better Business Bureau enforce standards that require nonprofits to combine program and solicitation purposes in most of their Standard mailings. Forcing these types of mailings to be sent First Class would have been catastrophic for the missions of most nonprofits.
The Solution: The nonprofit community is very fortunate to have the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers on the lookout for issues like these new postal regulations when they come up. The Alliance launched a three pronged attack on the proposed rule.
First, its executive director was immediately and persistently “in the face” of the relevant managers at Postal Service headquarters. He succeeded not only in meeting with and explaining the unique impact of the new rule on nonprofits to the managers working on the project, but also in having the issue elevated to their vice president and executive vice president.
Second, the Alliance spread the word among nonprofit mailers and stimulated them to send over 400 official comment letters to the USPS, all with consistent but personalized messages, which was a record number of comments on a postal Federal Register notice.
Third, the Alliance engaged its expert and experienced legal counsel to research and advocate for nonprofits, including a court challenge if necessary. Faced with legal evidence provided by the Alliance counsel that nonprofits were by previous regulation permitted to include a broad range of personal information in Standard Mail, the Postal Service decided to specifically carve out an exception for nonprofits in the new rule. In particular, the Postal Service clarified that the “term ‘solicitation for a donation’ encompasses a request for any monetary or nonmonetary support for a nonprofit purpose of the mailer,” including a “request that the addressee read literature enclosed in the mailpiece” or “complete and mail an opinions survey, feedback or evaluation form…”
The end result was that the Postal Service went forward with its clarification between the personalized contents of First Class Mail versus Standard Mail in a way that preserves to this day the ability of nonprofits to raise funds and advance their missions in a very cost-effective manner.