Special Report: Email Campaigns Finding Cyber Success

March 1, 2002       Jeff Jones      

In one of its first e-philanthropy ventures, Sojourners, a nonprofit Christian ministry that publishes Sojourners magazine, more than doubled its online giving in just three weeks.

Sojourners, based in Washington D.C., raised $16,037 online with a well-timed and compelling email sent in December to 16,000 recipients of its newsletter, SojoMail.

“Within seconds my email box began flooding with notifications,” said Randi Nordeen, director of development for Sojourners.

The quick results, although still a small portion of Sojourners’ $1.3 million budget for total charitable gifts in fiscal year 2002, show the power of an email to drive giving.

But expectations and strategies about what the Internet could do for fundraising have been tempered since the original hype of e-philanthropy.

“It has gone from one of sitting around and waiting for the checks to come in, to integrating the Internet into the overall fundraising strategy,” said Sean Milliken, CEO of MissionFish, a Washington D.C., nonprofit that helps coordinate gifts-in-kind to nonprofits online.

“People’s first expectations were that this was going to change everything.” Milliken likened these thoughts to a nonprofit that puts its name on a tin can, sets it in the middle of Union Station, then waits for people to contribute money.

Successful e-philanthropy takes a more active approach. Emailing is one active communication tool about which Michael Gilbert, founder of The Gilbert Center in Seattle, and champion of email research such as the Nonprofit Email Study, talks extensively.

Gilbert said he believes that email-based asks yield stronger results in terms of time and dollar investments than a more general Web site-based strategy.

“It makes you think about relationships,” Gilbert said. “An email feels less tangible, but it’s more personal.”

In Sojourners’ case, the email ask was filled with facts such as an increase in traffic to its Web site since last September 11 — now 350,000 unique visitors use it each month. The organization’s newsletter subscriber list also grew from zero to 16,000 over two years. This increased wear and tear crashed the server periodically.

Sojourners’ ask smacked of common sense, in essence saying, if you don’t give us money, we can’t give you your weekly SojoMail.

At the bottom of the email was a link to a secure site run by e-Grants.org, a nonprofit e-commerce solutions provider in San Francisco that forwards the funds to an organization on a monthly or quarterly basis, depending on thresholds.

Emailing is also an efficient way to build relationships with members and attract new donors. The Sojourners ask appealed to new donors, who accounted for about 90 percent of the donations, Nordeen estimated.

“If we wanted to continue to grow, we needed money to strengthen our network,” Nordeen said. “People understood that.”

The increase in online giving, which last September 11 sparked at least in part, is affecting other organizations as well.

For example, for the first six months of its 2002 fiscal year, CARE USA, based in Atlanta and one of the largest international relief organizations, already has matched its online giving of $500,000 for the entire 2001 fiscal year, excluding major disaster giving. CARE raised approximately $1 million in total online giving in 2001, including disaster giving.

CharityWeb, a Kensington, Md.-based for-profit company that provides e-commerce services to nonprofits such as CARE, International Relief Committee and Young Life, saw its total online dollar volume for client transactions increase from $1.1 million in 2000 to more than $4 million in 2001. That figure reflects anyone who used the Web site to donate to a nonprofit, register for an event or buy products, said Kurt Hansen, CEO of CharityWeb. CharityWeb makes the donations available to a nonprofit one to five days after the donation is made.

Nonprofits seeking to corral donors to give online have several options.

International Rescue Committee (IRC) saw a dramatic increase, $122,146, in online giving in the first three months of its 2002 fiscal year, compared with the same period in its 2001 fiscal year. Those figures are significantly more than the $19,000 IRC budgeted for online giving.

A more aggressive and consistent email strategy dependent on “hard asks” at the top of emails is one contributing factor, said James Boyle, manager of direct response at IRC.

“In the past we were just using emails as a cultivation process,” Boyle said. “In September 2001, we changed our email strategy. Our policy was to drive people to the Web site and donation page.”

IRC also made a concerted effort to place its Web site in the media and printed its Web address on direct mail pieces. Other adjustments were to use direct mail as a precursor to email asks. It also changed its newsletter to reflect front-page news, a ploy helped partly by the recent influx of Afghanistan coverage, one of the places IRC, an organization that helps refugees of political and religious strife, is stationed.

CARE, a nonprofit with a mission to serve individuals and families in the poorest communities of the world, is making a concerted effort to tie together all of its communications such as emails, Web site, direct mail, public service announcements, and press releases. It’s also undergoing a re-branding, dropping its acronym, to present itself to constituents more cohesively.

“The reason people do emails in nonprofits is to reach out to constituents and to get them to donate,” said Toby Smith, Internet strategist for CARE. “We like to look at it in terms of 360 degrees constituent relationship management. And that entails the coordinating of messages.”

Young Life, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based religious organization dedicated to building relationships with adolescent youth, took the most obvious step to increase online giving in 2001–it added a donation spot on its Web site. Then it placed an ad in an external publication that directed possible donors to its Web site. That ad combined with a usual increase in year-end giving, helped the organization increase its online giving from $20 in October, the first month it made online giving available at its Web site, to $90,000 in December, or 0.5 percent of its total December donations of $18 million.

“The whole giving section, didn’t exist before (last) summer,” said Connilee Walter, Internet manager at Young Life.

“I think that we are clear that the investment we’re making in our Web site is what our staff and donors expect from an organization sensitive to how people are increasingly communicating and doing business,” said Terry Swenson, Young Life director of communications. “We’re dedicated to the fact that this is the way we’ll do business with constituents.”

But abusing email lists when fundraising is a faulty decision.

“Emails can bring in large amounts on a much faster basis than traditional mailing,” said Smith of CARE. “You can get heady if you sent an email and made $20,000. You keep doing it and doing it and you cannibalize your list.”

Despite these promising signs for e-philanthropy, traditional sources remain the primary source of charitable giving. But nonprofits appear to be taking a more proactive angle to online giving.

“I think they’re starting to learn how to use it,” Hansen, of CharityWeb said. “Clients are putting more effort into figuring out how it can be effective. They’re taking more control of online giving this year.”

 

NPT staff writer Jeff Berger also contributed to this story