2015 Digital Fundraising To Do List #2 Get Serious About Email Fundraising

Email Fundraising
Despite all the attention that continues to be devoted to Social Media across the nonprofit world, I don’t know many fundraisers who wouldn’t acknowledge that the primary means of engaging with their donors online is actually through email. Sadly, I also don’t know of many who are really pleased with the fundraising results they receive through their email programmes.

And this underperformance seems to be getting worse not better as time goes-on – as highlighted in last October’s Luminate Online Benchmark Report, which (as reported by Mike Snusz of Blackbaud) showed email appeal volume up over 70% among the 794 nonprofits surveyed, but the all important email appeal conversion rate down by 25%.

So, what is going wrong with Email fundraising? Is it simply that donors don’t like to respond to email appeals?

I don’t think so. From discussions I’ve had with fundraisers all around the world (and from what I see in my own inbox) I think the truth is that very few organisations really take email fundraising seriously. Certainly nothing like as seriously as they take their direct mail fundraising.

It may be because email programmes are not run by fundraisers; or because of problems integrating offline and online donor data; or simply because low results have led to ever lower expectations. But what I see time and again is that email fundraising programmes are being run with none of the direct marketing rigour that even the most junior direct mail fundraiser would recognise as DM101.

In a channel where the potential exists to offer content-rich, personally-targeted digital engagement and asks, most fundraisers still send one size fits all email appeals and e-newsletters with no sophisticated segmentation and minimal testing – and just accept the resulting dismal income returns.

To be honest, I can’t think of any other direct response channel which is so badly under-used by fundraisers.

So, that’s why I’ve put Getting Serious About Email Fundraising as second in my 2015 Digital Fundraising To Do List (just behind Fixing your Conversion Rate Optimisation).

I’d encourage anyone involved in online fundraising to invest some quality time thinking through how they might improve their use of this key digital channel by applying some good-old offline direct mail techniques.

To help kick-start your thinking, here’s a list of common email marketing mistakes from my old agency colleague Jeff Brooks over in Seattle. Alternately, seek-out the keenest direct mail fundraiser you can find and ask them what old school direct marketing nous they can share to help improve your email programme.


Haiti one year on – the view from an online donor’s doormat

A year ago this month, along with millions of others world-wide, I donated online in response to the terrible earthquake that hit Haiti. However, rather than chose a single charity out of the wide range running appeals I decided to give £20 to each of the UK’s ten leading relief and development organisations to see just how the experience of being an online donor varied across the different brands.

And vary it certainly did. In some cases I was treated to truly engaging online updates on the way my donation was being used (particularly well done UNICEF and Oxfam), plus some fun and interesting new opportunities to engage (nice one ActionAid – for both your PoverTee day and Happy Bubble stuff!)

However, in other cases I’ve ended-up on the receiving-end of a seemingly endless series of direct mailings that might, at a push, appeal to my mum but frankly don’t do anything for me. I honestly don’t need a cardboard bookmark, or an Easter card, or a diary. I certainly didn’t need the twelve mailpacks that one charity has now sent me in less than twelve months – I’ll not say who you are, to spare your blushes, but you’re big and you should know better than just bunging a £20 online emergency donor into every cash appeal going!

To help illustrate the range of donor programmes I’ve ended-up on the receiving-end of, I’ve summarised the year’s online and offline communications in the following simple chart. It’s anonymised, but somewhere in there are each of the following: Oxfam, British Red Cross, Save the Children, Christian Aid, World Vision UK, Action Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD, UNICEF UK, and Plan International:

Now it’s not that I expect only to be communicated with online. Just because I subscribe to nice, fast broadband doesn’t mean that I’ve nailed-up my letterbox, and a few of the mailings I received were actually well targeted and effective. Like the three I’ve been sent by UNICEF: two about Haiti and one other emergency appeal. But I have to admit that I find few things more annoying than seeing a big A4 colour supporter magazine lying on my doormat, especially when it’s stuffed with irrelevant cross-sell materials like mail order catalogues. Having grown used to watching videos of the work I’ve helped fund and then clicking through to read the latest news in the project leader’s blog, an expensive looking magazine really doesn’t make me feel good about my donation – and don’t get me started on those raffle tickets!

Anyway, this is not intended to be a rant against charity mailings. I know first-hand just how wonderfully effective direct mail can be – when sent to the right people. I also know just how frustratingly ineffective email can be when you’re trying to generate donations – even from people who have started by donating to you online. However, what my experience over the last year has clearly highlighted is the vast difference in ways that ten charities, all essentially offering me much the same opportunity to change the world for the better, have chosen to develop a relationship following my first online donation.

So, from this unexpectedly diverse donor experience I’ve distilled a few key thoughts that anyone responsible for managing emergency online donor supporter journeys might just like to consider before the next disaster comes along:

  • Don’t immediately assume that emergency donors are particularly interested in your work beyond the emergency they’re responding to. They might be, or might grow to be over time. But in the first instance keep the focus of your communications on what you know to be their area of interest and only then see if you can get them to reveal what else they may be interested in hearing about. You might test emergency postal appeals, but don’t just mark them down for every mailing going in the vain hope that you might hit lucky. You just end-up looking wasteful and reducing the likelihood of them responding even when another emergency comes along
  • Do offer online donors the opportunity to receive their Supporter Updates or Newsletters electronically – and extend the same offer in every printed copy you send. It’ll save you print and postage and the engagement and response options are so much richer online anyway. However, I wouldn’t advise offering the opportunity to opt out of all postal communications – as well timed and targeted mail appeals can still work, even with hardened onliners like me
  • Do remember that many online donors are very willing to further their relationship with an organisation through some form of simple click-to-campaign advocacy action. But Don’t just hand over your emergency donors to your Campaigning team without ensuring that they have the opportunity to indicate whether they are interested in campaigning and/or opt-out of things they’re not interested in. One organisation in particular (again no name, but not the same as the bulk mailer chastised earlier) has an especially active Campaigns team who seem to delight in sending me emails about all sorts of things they are clearly very enthusiastic about – but who have never once stopped to ask me if I’m interested in what they do
  • Do consider how you might learn more about online donors at the point of their first gift and then use this information to guide their subsequent communications. Not necessarily through asking too many questions at the point of donation (although a strategically selected few might be useful) but simply through using your website tracking data more effectively. For example, one organisation I know has found that donors coming to them through Bing have a better repeat donation and upgrade profile than those from Google (I’m guessing because those who stick with Bing as the default on their IE browsers are perhaps older/less tech-savvy than the norm?)

Now, after an ‘interesting’ year on the receiving end of all of these donor communications I think it’s time for me to make a few calls – or preferably send a few emails – and see if I can get myself off some of these direct mail lists. It’ll certainly reduce the amount of recycling I have to do.

Great results from email fundraising appeal by Ecojustice Canada


With so much buzz these days focusing on Facebook fundraising and Twitter campaigning, it’s nice to hear of a good-old email campaign delivering great results for a nonprofit – in this case for Ecojustice Canada (pointed-out to me by old friend and former colleague Lynne Boardman, now at Harvey McKinnon Associates in Vancouver).

Born out of a desire to help protect an endangered community of Canadian west coast killer whales, the appeal highlighted their plight by explaining that only 83 of the whales remained and asked supporters to take action on their behalf by becoming one of the first 83 people to give a gift to the Honour an Orca Campaign. In return for a donation of $50 or more the donor would not only be supporting a lawsuit to help protect the remaining 83 but they, or a nominated friend or loved one, would also receive a holiday season card and set of wildlife postcards.

The appeal was emailed to just 4,900 supporters and other contacts but returned over 160 donations – beating the 83 target within three days – with an average gift of over $90, raising some $15,000 in total and helping make 2008 the best year yet for Ecojustice’s online fundraising programme. Not only that, they also received a great response to a direct mail campaign sent at the same time, assuaging fears that increased online income might cannibalize offline donations.

Looking at the email, I was reminded of the old direct mail appeal checklist that I often used to use when both briefing and reviewing fundraising appeals for clients:

  1. Need – do you clearly explain the need you want to address?
  2. Solution – do you offer a specific soution to that need?
  3. Cost – what is it that the donor can do to help deliver that solution?
  4. Urgency – why should they respond now and not later (or not at all)?
  5. Donor Context – why is this appeal particularly relevant to this donor?
  6. Donor Benefit – what does the donor receive if they respond to your appeal?

The idea is that unless you can answer each of the questions, then there is something important missing – and this goes for email as well as snail-mail appeals.

The Ecojustice campaign ticks every one of the boxes – with a very real need; a specific response to that need which required donations to make it happen; urgency based around both the plight of the whales and the timing of the law case; the context of this being a unique Canadian whale community; and the benefit of the holiday tribute card as well as knowing that you’ve done something specific to help protect the whales. All this was presented through a simple but well thought through email, that included links to the latest information on missing whales and details of the landmark lawsuit against the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Job done!

Thanks to Deanna Bayne of Ecojustice Canada for letting me share some of the details of her appeal as a guide for anyone looking to develop their own email fundraising in the future.