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Bells & Whistles

By Justin Perkins - July 1, 2014

One of the biggest challenges of defining a smart digital fundraising strategy is to know where to start. The shiny new toys are abundant and tempting to chase as the digital landscape is evolving quickly.

Despite the constant game of whack-a-mole with new technologies, though, there are a lot of data and predictable tools at our fingertips to help us prioritize what channel works for what purpose.

There’s really no need to reinvent the wheel for your core digital strategy for the next five years. Focus 90 percent of your resources on what predictably works and save 10 percent for occasional experimentation in new channels. Focus on the “main arteries” of growth, and the most predictable, proven channels for the end game you’re trying to achieve.

In other words, build the list. Boring old email marketing still rules the day for predicting your future success.

It’s often too late to build the list when the big moment, crisis, or opportunity comes. There have been so many missed opportunities for brands to really take off due to lack of planning and getting caught flat-footed when the moment strikes. This is driven by being too conservative and investing too heavily in the wrong channels, (i.e. hoping a New York Times ad will save the day and everyone will visit your website), or shutting down long-term, methodical, scalable growth programs.

Email still drives the most significant portion of online fundraising. Methodical, constant, email-based growth is the spearhead of the most successful digital and multi-channel fundraising strategies. Most nonprofits have a long way to go to maximize the potential of their email programs, and spread their resources or over-invest in less lucrative channels.

Social media, for example, is important, but only if done efficiently and at the right time, and not at the expense of more proven channels. Social media really falls into the more intangible realm of broader awareness and brand-building when you really dig into the data. Go to for more.

Brand-building is important. Why stop there when you can brand-build and own the list? And, do you have enough long-term faith in another company hosting all of your constituents versus owning the contacts in your own email database with permission to send them email directly? Which is riskier? Own your list and have it on the servers of a trusted constituent relationship management service so your most valuable digital asset (valued roughly at $10/ email you own) is safe.

Here are some ideas for developing a focused and successful digital (and multi-channel) fundraising program.

1. Understand the size of your target market, and come up with realistic goals for gaining market share (mind share) of your key audience. At a minimum, understand how many people are in your geographic target, and then drill down on the specifics of cause, gender, and behavior.

For example, if your organization works on poverty alleviation in Africa and you’re aiming to fundraise in the U.S., you should figure out what subset of the 300 million U.S. citizens would be receptive to your cause. Start by looking at your internal metrics and demographics — who are you already capturing organically — and then extrapolate to understand how big of a market remains to capture. Compare your list size and market saturation with other similar organizations that are at the top of your category. That 10-minute exercise will help you understand what success would look like. Find the marketing channels where the greatest concentration of that archetype can be recruited most efficiently.

2. Look before you leap. Study industry benchmarks to get a sense of what’s in the realm of possible. (Hint: Tell your board that growing a 1 million person list with a $20,000 budget and one intern is impossible.) The key metrics (Key Performance Indicators) to understand are average gift, conversion rates, frequency of emailing, growth rates, and percentage of revenue that are driven by email, traffic, social, mobile, etc.

3. For online acquisition, first max out your email program. Can you guess where your target donors spend most of their day, and give most frequently? It’s when they’re in the inbox at work. How many 40 to 70-year-old working professionals do you know spending more time on Facebook than in the inbox?

Email more than you think you need to because it’s noisy out there. Ask only four times a year, and you might as well not bother.

Building Facebook and then converting to email is generally more expensive and harder than paid acquisition from a targeted community. Flip the equation, and leverage email to conquer social. The lifetime value of an email address is worth about $10 to an organization over four years. The return on investment (ROI) for paid acquisition can be 200 percent to 400 percent if best practices are followed. Social acquisition to email can be more than five times the cost, and about 10 percent as effective.

4. Leverage email as the spearhead for your multi-channel brand building and direct response. The email record is the golden ticket for appending both offline (mailing address and phones) and social data. Email acquisition versus traditional direct mail list rentals can yield about three to four times the lifetime value because online donors will also give offline at about 10 times the rate of the older demographic of direct mail donors who give online. Payback timelines for email acquisition are now one to three years whereas breakeven on direct mail acquisition can be longer.

Plus, owning an email address is a renewable resource. A one-shot rental of a list is not as valuable, typically, in the long-term. It’s also worth noting that many nonprofits have success with email cultivation followed with telemarketing for a direct fundraising ask.

5. Find a way to integrate constituent-centered story-telling into your messaging. Talk about yourself all the time. Be wonky. Brag about your brand — at your peril. Instead, engage your grassroots base as heroes and brand advocates, and amplify your message through a word of mouth megaphone.

Ditch the time-and-resource-intensive newsletter that no one really clicks, and repackage only your most compelling content into bite-sized, single action emails. Don’t send email blasts to many. Write copy that speaks to that one individual reading the email. Do you have a good story? Tell it all in a long form email sometimes. Half of your subscribers now read email on smart phones. The user experience of clicking from email to web on a smart phone stinks, so give people a compelling story to read all in the email. Inspire. Mix it up.

Advocacy campaigns as a story line are the easiest way to engage and cultivate donors. Petitions give you a forum with a built-in antagonist and give your constituents public recognition for joining your army of good people and heroes. Your brand is the mentor-guide providing an opportunity for activists to do good and feel good about doing good. Activists — someone who has taken action on your behalf — are often seven times more likely to donate. NPT

Justin Perkins is senior director of brand engagement with Care2 and is founder of Care2’s digital marketing advice blog His email is [email protected]


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