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Feb 13, 2014 | Insights

Adventures in Email Fundraising

As nonprofits look for new ways to raise money in the digital age, email fundraising is beginning to stand out as a compelling option. Many of the larger and nationally active nonprofits already use this approach to save money and reach broader constituencies. Can it work as well for small and mid-sized organizations?

Nonprofit organizations of all sizes increasingly use email to create contact points with constituents, and many have moved to online newsletters and e-blasts about events and new happenings as ways of keeping in touch. Email fundraising seems to be the logical extension of such communication, but many nonprofits are finding that last step difficult – even if they already have the tools in place.

If you are already using email communication tools and are equipped to receive online donations through your website, email fundraising is an easy step forward. Taking the plunge into online fundraising can effectively complement your direct mail campaigns – all it takes is a little planning and the willingness to try. For a better sense of what’s involved, let’s look at two organizations and their first attempts at email fundraising.

The White Mountain School: Basic Email Fundraising Strategy

The White Mountain School (WMS) in Bethlehem, N.H., is a small college-preparatory boarding school with a focus on sustainability studies and connecting students to the outdoors. Founded in 1886 as the all-girls St. Mary’s School in Concord, N.H., the school moved to its White Mountains location in the 1930s and became St. Mary’s in the Mountains. The school turned co-ed in the 1970s, and now serves 100 students in grades 9 through 12. Known for its challenging academic program, WMS is predominantly tuition-driven, and raises the majority of supplemental funding through an annual campaign, a wish list and a small endowment.

This spring, as the school was ending its annual fund campaign, it received a fund-raising email from a similarly sized independent boarding school in Wyoming. The email included a video and an ask for support. The WMS development staff were inspired by the quality of the video to try incorporating an email campaign into their annual fund drive.

The school was already using Constant Contact to communicate with alumni, parents and other supporters through monthly newsletters with soft asks included. Why not use the same list to encourage donations? Staff created a slide show highlighting students and the campus, and used YouTube to overlay music composed and played by a student and a voice track in which a parent talks about the school and asks for support. This video was posted to the school’s website, and the email campaign circulated the link.

The email campaign goal was wrapped into the school’s $300,000 yearly annual fund goal, and also included the general goal of increasing the school’s online mailing list. Donors accessed an account through the school’s website and made donations through PayPal. The email campaign consisted of three emails to the WMS list of 1,300 addresses, 750 of which belonged to alumni – some of the school’s best prospects. Staff banked on the power of the video, so each email was kept extremely simple, with minimal text and a big link to the video page. The first email simply said:

That email had an open rate of 32 percent, and a click-through rate of 51 percent – well above industry averages provided by Constant Contact of 20 percent and 12.3 percent, respectively. These encouraging results clearly achieved the first goal of the emails: to drive traffic to the site and get constituents to watch the video. The second and third emails followed a similar format, directing constituents to the video, but also included one-sentence updates on the campaign’s progress, and information about contacting the development office. These subsequent emails saw lower rates more consistent with industry standards, likely attributable to the similar format and messaging to the first email.

As a result of the email campaign, the White Mountain School saw an increase in online donations, and believes the emails also caused an increase in standard mail donations, which still made up the majority of campaign donations. The WMS says it exceeded annual fund goals for the fiscal year through direct mail, phone bank and the new email appeal, and plans to add the email campaign as a part of the overall development plan for the next year.

Feedback from constituents was very positive. They were glad to have their school communicating via the Internet, and enjoyed the video. The campaign successfully directed traffic back to the school’s website and produced an increase in donations and augmented the school’s online mailing list. Overall, the development office (consisting of two staff members) spent 15 to 20 hours total on the project, including creating the video, and considers the project a success.

Julie Yates, the school’s director of alumnae/i relations, gives this advice to other organizations considering such a campaign: “Don’t be afraid to try. You can make something that looks good without much expertise.”

Julie also recommends working in collaboration with other departments at your nonprofit – if you have a marketing staff, use their expertise to help craft your message, or if another department has been collecting images, use them instead of creating new ones and duplicating tasks.

Perhaps most importantly, Julie also suggests setting multiple goals for your campaign. WMS’s campaign goals were to raise money and grow the school’s email list. By focusing on the “friend-raising” element of the campaign, the task of crafting the perfect email became less daunting. Plus, the school now has a video that is not only perfect for fundraising, but that can be used as a constituent recruitment tool and an admissions piece.

The United Way of Western Conn.: Social Media Extravaganza

With a main office located in Danbury, the United Way of Western Connecticut (UWWC) is one of 15 United Ways in the state, raising between $5 million and $7 million a year from its workplace giving campaign. While UWWC has been able to maintain its workplace giving success during the current economic crisis, the organizations it supports began to worry as community need worsened. As these nonprofit organizations worked to provide services to all who needed them, costs increased beyond their capacity to meet them. If the local nonprofits were to continue providing essential services, they would need additional help from the United Way.

In response, UWWC decided to launch a separate campaign in the spring to directly support the increased needs of its community. Called the “Take Five to Give 5” campaign, all money raised would go directly to local nonprofit organizations. Because Take Five to Give 5 was designed to raise money above and beyond the funds the United Way typically raised from the workplace campaign, staff realized they needed to take a completely different approach to fundraising.

As a result, the organization went in the direction of a full online fund-raising campaign, not only to raise urgently needed dollars, but also to learn lessons about best practices in electronic relationship building and e-giving. The majority of funding for Take Five to Give 5 was to be pushed through interactive media such as email, Facebook, Twitter and blogs, and would be supplemented by print media and radio.

The entire United Way staff involved itself in campaign planning, with leadership from the CEO and the development and marketing departments, which decided a $250,000 goal would be large enough to inspire donors and challenge them to donate to the highest levels of their capacities. Centered around a new website, the campaign would involve 3 calls to action:

  • Give: make a donation today
  • Advocate: tell five friends about the campaign
  • Volunteer: hand out the United Way’s FamilyWize discount prescription card to anyone lacking insurance

Fund-raising emails were sent using Constant Contact, and online donations were accepted using a custom donation page routed through the organization’s own merchant account.

The donation functionality centered around an e-card option that let constituents send personalized electronic greeting cards to friends and family through the Take Five to Give 5 website. E-cards were created through the open source website content management system Plone, and worked in 3 ways.

First, donors could give in honor of someone, timed to coincide with a special occasion such as a birthday, wedding or Father’s Day to encourage donations as gifts.

Second, they could ask recipients for donations in their own honor, in lieu of a birthday or graduation present, for example. Or, they could send an “FYI” that they’d donated, asking recipients to do the same.

To support the e-card fund-raising piece, staff posted inspirational elements including a short video on the website, as well as a blog series written by elected officials from the local community, posts on Twitter and Facebook, a radio campaign, and articles in local print media.

In addition, a series of 4 emails sent through Constant Contact to the United Way’s list of approximately 1,800 constituents were central to marketing the campaign. The first email introduced the campaign and included a direct ask, a link to the website and a personal story about the hardships of a specific family.

Subsequent emails touched on the sentiments of coinciding holidays. A Father’s Day email highlighted a father’s story, and a Fourth of July email highlighted a local kindergarten class’s penny drive for the campaign, calling the students “Little Heroes” and including a list of individuals who had already donated. The email campaign boasted an open rate of 19 percent, and a click-through rate of 20 percent, proving highly effective at directing traffic to the website.

To expand its reach, the staff relied upon the Advocate element of the mission, asking recipients and website visitors to tell 5 friends about the campaign. Emails all included a forward-to-a-friend option, which achieved a 0.5 percent forward rate, while the e-card fund-raising approach directly incorporated a tell-a-friend fund-raising model into its format. United Way staff “seeded” the campaign with board members, staff and key volunteers, each of whom sent out e-cards and information about the campaign to their contact lists.

Additionally, as a way to reach more donors, a local list-management company donated its services to append email addresses to the organization’s existing donor database, adding hundreds of new email addresses for existing donor records for which the UWWC didn’t have email information. The company performed an initial screening to see if recipients would be amenable to receiving emails from the United Way, and those who opted in were sent the Take Five to Give 5 emails.

Interestingly, this list triggered a Constant Contact timeout due to a high rate of spam reports and opt-outs. Constant Contact contacted the United Way and identified the problem as a series of spam-sensitive words in the email. Despite this challenge, marketing staff said the appending process was helpful in expanding email reach with interested individuals.

The campaign brought on 160 new donors, and raised $52,000 to support those in need in western Connecticut. Additionally, distribution of the FamilyWize card saved people in the community an estimated $35,000. Despite the large focus on online media, only 55 percent of campaign donations came online. Constituent feedback was extremely positive. Supporters were happy to see technology so deeply incorporated into the campaign, and were thrilled with the United Way’s current, savvy response to the immediate needs of the community.

Because of the success, staff is discussing plans to use a similar format again next spring, and is currently incorporating an email element to the organization’s end of year campaign.

It was not trivial to support the campaign, however. Interactive Media Director David Deschenes, who ran the campaign, estimates he spent approximately 200 hours to manage all the moving parts. Based on this experience, David gives the following advice to organizations planning similar campaigns:

  • Support and buy-in from senior management is crucial. Ensure that your CEO and top management supports online fundraising and will communicate it properly to key partners in the community, board and staff.
  • In addition to the money raised, other end results from the campaign are important for engagement practices going forward, including adding new donors, new members on social networking sites and additional volunteers.
  • Branding and message is important. Design a recognizable logo around the campaign that can be used across websites, print materials and social networking sites. A simple tagline that runs throughout the campaign can help build recognition and make it easy for people to remember and spread the word.
  • Collaborate with partners in your community to “cross-pollinate.” Work with newspapers to run regular Op-Eds during the campaign, and suggest donated ad space. Try and get your linked campaign logo and message added to local websites, including those of newspapers, radio stations, universities and other non-competing nonprofits, for example.
  • Decide what data you’ll collect ahead of time, and ensure the technology you’re using is capable of compiling what you need. Plan for regular reporting during the campaign, decide how the data will be used, and try to balance planning with a little “just do it” vision.
  • Keep content for the campaign fresh, and keep building your online presence in-between campaigns. Increasing your online member base between fund-raising campaigns raises the odds that each campaign going forward can be bigger and better.

Wrapping it Up

Both the United Way of Western Connecticut and the White Mountain School tried their hands at email fundraising, and each found it to be worthwhile. What’s stopping your nonprofit organization from trying a similar campaign? The sky is the limit in terms of how you design it and what you hope to accomplish. But even simple campaigns will increase both your potential donor base and your bottom line. Remember, you don’t need to be a technology guru – or have one on staff – to run a successful email fund-raising campaign. You just need a few basic tools, a little planning, buy-in from key staff and volunteers, and a willingness to give it a try.