The number of direct mail items sent by charities fell last year for the first time since Royal Mail began collecting statistics on the sector.
Annual statistics collated by the service showed the number of mailings grew steadily from 340 million items in 2004, when it started recording data on different sectors, to 412 million in 2007. But the number dropped by 0.7 per cent last year to 409 million, according to figures given to Third Sector.
David Burrows, head of fundraising at marketing firm TDA, said current levels of direct mail were not sustainable. "It is getting less cost-effective to do big donor recruitment campaigns," he said. "There comes a point when charities have to change their strategies if they aren't seeing a return on investment."
Many organisations had moved to door-to-door or face-to-face recruitment because it was more effective, he said.
Stephen Dodds, head of planning at marketing firm DMS, questioned whether moving away from direct mail was a good long-term move.
"There is a danger that pulling out is a knee-jerk reaction to perceived fears," he said. "People assume the recession means people don't want to give to charity, so they stop asking - that's a mistake."
Dodds said it was also increasingly difficult to acquire the details of new people, which led to greater reliance on other charities' lapsed donors. "Direct mail has become a downward spiral because you are targeting the same people who have been heavily targeted by other charities," he said.
Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, said: "It is good quality direct mail that is important for the sector, not quantity."
It might be the case that charities were increasingly using other firms to send their mail, he added.
A spokesman for Royal Mail said there had been a decline in overall direct mailing since a peak in 2005.
RISE AND FALL
Royal Mail's figures on direct mail sent by charities
2004 340 million items
2005 368 million, an increase of 8.2 per cent
2006 402.5 million, an increase of 9.4 per cent
2007 412 million, an increase of 2.4 per cent
2008 409 million, a decrease of 0.7 per cent