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Giving Up, Contacts Down For Online Philanthropy

By Patrick Sullivan - March 27, 2013

Fundraising continues its upward climb online but email as an engagement tool is starting to cool off.

Click-through rates for fundraising emails fell 27 percent overall in 2012 to 0.42 percent, and advocacy and newsletter email click-through rates both fell by 14 percent, to 3.7 percent for advocacy and 1.7 percent for newsletters. Click-through rates for all emails declined by 22 percent overall to 1.7 percent.

Those are some results from the 2013 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study, released on Wednesday by M+R Strategic Services in Washington, D.C., and the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), based in Portland, Ore. The benchmarking study, now in its seventh year, surveyed 55 nonprofit organizations broken into five categories: environmental, health, international, rights, and wildlife and animal welfare organizations. The study analyzed the results of 1.6 billion email messages, 7.3 million advocacy actions and $438 million in online donations.

Online fundraising, however, is up by 21 percent compared to 2012. Four of the five categories saw double-digit increases in online revenue, with only International organizations showing a decrease (of 12 percent). Environmental organizations led the way, with a 34 percent jump, followed by wildlife organizations with 23 percent, health organizations at 13 percent, and rights organizations with 11 percent.

Additionally, the number of online gifts is up by 20 percent. Environmental once again showed the largest increase with 28 percent, followed by health at 22 percent, wildlife at 19 percent and rights at 12 percent. International organizations showed a 14 percent decline in the number of online gifts.

The large decline in fundraising email click-through rates was also partially responsible for a drop in fundraising response rates, according to the authors of the survey. Fundraising response rates overall were down 21 percent compared to 2011, to 0.07 percent. The drop was largely driven by the environmental fundraising response rate decline of 18 percent to 0.06 percent and the wildlife response rate decline of 21 percent, to 0.09 percent.

The study’s authors contend that this follows a long-term trend of falling response rates, as they note that fundraising response rates have never risen in the seven years this study has been produced. It may be driven, said author Will Valverde of M+R, “by the usual practice many nonprofits have of keeping everyone on the file in a way they might not do it in direct mail.” Valverde believes that nonprofits too often keep unresponsive email address on file, and continuing to send messages to those addresses will bring down response rates overall.

“We often try to drill down a little below the top line response rate. Looking at current donors acquired in the last two or three years, what’s their response rate?” said Valverde. “For this study, we were not able to get down to that granularity, but we encourage nonprofits to do so (for themselves).”

The drastic decline in fundraising click-through rates was largely driven by international and rights organizations, which fell by 40 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Both rates now sit at 0.35 percent for 2012. Health fundraising click-through rates declined by 10 percent to 0.13 percent, and wildlife fell to 0.71 percent, a loss of 3 percent. Environmental click-through rates actually increased 14 percent, to 0.60 percent.

“Without a major humanitarian crisis featuring prominently in the media — other than Hurricane Sandy, which was primarily a domestic disaster — International groups may have encountered greater challenges in motivating donors,” wrote the authors.

Valverde said that advocacy rates might have also been affected by the 2012 election. “The election sucks up some of the oxygen,” he said. “Another thing that goes on in an election year is that Congress does less, and less controversial stuff. It gives nonprofits who rely on legislative action to drive advocacy campaigns less to work with.”

Health and international organizations had the lowest click-through rates for newsletters, at 0.8 percent and 0.7 percent. Environmental newsletters had the highest rate at 2.9 percent, followed by wildlife organizations’ newsletters at 2.1 percent. Due to a low sample, click-through information for rights organizations was not included in the study. The authors believe that the higher-performing subsectors may “focus more heavily on driving online actions,” they wrote. “A straight news update without a strong call to action is likely to drive fewer clicks — even if it meets goals for education and cultivation.”

Advocacy response rates, unlike fundraising response rates, held fairly steady this year; overall, the average rate was 3.5 percent, characterized by the authors as a “relatively modest” decline. Environmental organizations once again had the highest rate at 4.7 percent, followed by wildlife at 3.3 percent, rights at 2.9 percent, health at 2.3 percent and finally international at 1.9 percent.

Though fundraising click-through and response rates might be down, Valverde notes that email accounts for just one-third of online fundraising. Donations “could be coming through the website or other online streams,” he said. Additionally, email lists are growing; although the click-through and response rates are down, more people are getting fundraising emails, which Valverde said also accounts for the increase in online fundraising.

Finally, monthly giving is on the rise; across all sectors, monthly giving is up by 43 percent, compared to the 21 percent of overall online giving. “The rapid increase in monthly giving is an exciting development and bodes well over the long term,” said Valverde.

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