Onboarding for donors and supporters

According to the Online Fundraising Scorecard, 37% of non-profits did not send an email within 30 days of a person signing up for emails. Only 44% asked for a donation by email within 90 days.

Let me put this in an approximate pie chart:

online supporter pie chart

We’ve seen this week that getting the second gift (or lack thereof) is where there is the greatest retention leak – people who donate once and don’t get enough out of the experience to donate again. Online donors, in particular, are the most fickle and least likely to retain.

This could be because of the medium. But it also could be that over half of all non-profits do engage people right when they express the most interest in the organization – immediately and unequivocally. To demonstrate this, try to remember what email newsletter you signed up for a month ago today.

Chances are, you can’t. Thirty days is a long time to remember you signed up for something, especially if no one reminds you that you did. Replace “the guy” with “the donor” in this quote and you have a pretty good idea of how people think about your organization, at least initially:

Never assume that the guy understands that you and he have a relationship. The guy will not realize this on his own. You have to plant the idea in his brain by constantly making subtle references to it in your everyday conversation, such as:

— “Roger, would you mind passing me a Sweet ‘n’ Low, in as much as we have a relationship?”
— “Wake up, Roger! There’s a prowler in the den and we have a relationship! You and I do, I mean.”
— “Good News, Roger! The gynecologist says we’re going to have our fourth child, which will serve as yet another indication that we have a relationship!”
— “Roger, inasmuch as this plane is crashing and we probably have only about a minute to live, I want you to know that we’ve had a wonderful 53 years of marriage together, which clearly constitutes a relationship.”

Dave Barry, Dave Barry Complete Guide to Guys

You want to strike while the iron is hot – this person cares about your cause now. So you want to set up a welcome series for your donors online. There are some great guides on how to do this and I promise to write one in a future blog post. For now, here are some key tips:

  • Start with a thank you. This person is interested in your organization. They have given you their time and attention. They sound like a pretty cool person who is giving you a fairly valuable thing. This should be rewarded with good manners.
  • After that, if you have a key offer, lead with it. For some, you may be emailing them a temporary membership card. For others, it’s an opportunity to get involved with advocacy. Surveys are also good. Whatever people like to do with your organization online, use it to build their engagement and learn about them.
  • Yes, within the first 30 days. If they donated already, ask them to become a monthly sustainer. In fact, you may want to test whether a sustaining ask works better generally.
  • Test getting them into your mail, telemarketing, and other direct marketing channels. Just because someone started with your organization online doesn’t mean they don’t also have a mailbox and a phone.

This gap of time can be even acuter in the mail. At least with an online donation, you get (or really really should get) an immediate email receipt. With an initial offline gift, there’s the time that it takes the mail to get to the cager (or another person who will open it), the time to deposit the check, print the thank you, batch it, and send it, and the time it takes to get word back to that donor. That alone is pretty bad.

But what happens next is worse: nothing. Let’s say someone makes a donation on January 1st. They may not get into the data pull for a mail piece until March or April, depending on the lead times you have in printing. Picture making your donation, getting a thank you three weeks later, and then radio silence for months afterward. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for retaining that donor or striking while the iron is hot, no?

So instead, create a couple of mail packages that fill that gap that are sent automatically post the initial gift. The same principles apply here as online – things that help you and that your donors like are the perfect here: petitions, member cards, new supporter surveys, etc. You can expect these pieces not only to help your retention rate but also to provide some additional net revenue as well.

Onboarding for donors and supporters

Customizing your direct marketing (aka Dear Mr. Jenny Roberts:)

In addition to looking for that sweet spot somewhere between “that nonprofit doesn’t know me and takes me for granted” and “that nonprofit has clearly been looking through my underwear drawer again,” the most grievous sin you can make in customizing and personalizing is being wrong.  Thus, a disclaimer that these techniques should really only be used when you are confident in the data used to customize.

When looking at your donor’s sweet spot, there is another optimization to be navigated – the cost of additional personalization versus the return.  Like all else that is good and pure of this world, the way to determine this is through testing.  But there is one way to maximize the bang for your customization buck, which is to customize only one side of, or page of, a letter.  If the printer can do most of your mail piece without variable printing your costs come down substantially.

Of course, these additional costs are nearly non-existent online or on the phones, where your customization is limited only by your imagination, the time you want to invest in creating different versions, and whether your telemarketers will rise up and overthrow you if you have a different script for every call.  I say this last only partly jokingly, in that some experienced callers will use the script with which they are comfortable rather than the script they are asked to use.  Thus, online can have the purest, cheapest testing, so please, please, please test your online asks.

Here are some simple customizations that I have seen increase response rate to the point that they more than paid for themselves:

  • Name: Duh. Infants as young as five months old selectively listen for their own name and this is fully developed by 13 months.  From then until up to 120 years later, we listen, watch for, and seek out our own name.  That name is very, very infrequently Current Resident or Friend.
  • Donation history: If someone has been a long-term donor, it’s great to recognize this. You want to do this casually, as in “You’ve stood for an end to feline boredom for over a decade.  Will you join us again when we need you most”, not as in “Since you joined EFB 13 years and three months ago,” as that gets creepy. If you have something like a member card or supporter club, acknowledging that someone has been “member since 2001” will usually lift response.There is a special version of this that is also very effective – playing back to people that they contributed to the same campaign last year, e.g., “you had your gift matched last year; now is another opportunity to double your impact on adult-onset flatulence.”  Here, you are reminding the person that they are the type of good person that donates to things like the thing they are reading or hearing.
  • Mission area: If you know how someone came into the organization or what they care about, it’s vitally important to play that back to them. Animal organizations, in particular, customize their messages to cat people and to dog people, knowing that each has their own reasons for supporting the cause.
  • Location: I saw a .5% percentage point increase in response rate when someone knew that the story we were using happened right in their state. Of course, this can require 50 different versions, so perhaps you’ll want to start with more easily variabilized copy.  Even easier is to reference the city and/or state in the copy without specifying the story.
  • Contribution level: This is partly for the donor or potential donor. You don’t want to insult someone who would normally donate $20 by asking them for $1000, nor a $1000 for $20.  I once received an acquisition piece from my local Boy Scout organization that asked for $250 as the lowest donation level.  On an acquisition piece.  With no return envelope.  Needless to say, while I was not helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, or obedient, I was thrifty.  This is also for your benefit.  You want to maximize the donation(s) from a donor, gradually increasing their giving over time as their trust in and love for you grows.  That process can be undermine by asking for the wrong gift at the wrong time.

In fact, there is an entire art to ask strings, one that we will cover tomorrow.

Customizing your direct marketing (aka Dear Mr. Jenny Roberts:)

Sending your first email

Now you have an email client. And I have a print version of what I’d like to send. I can just put it in a PDF and attach it, right?

No. An effective email is not:

  • An attached PDF. PDFs limit interactivity and frequently exceed attachment limitations on emails, which limit deliverability.
  • An email asking someone to click to go to your newsletter online. Every click you add adds friction to the process and increases the likelihood that people will abandon your newsletter, especially when you don’t have the space to explain what you want them to do.
  • An email asking someone to download your PDF newsletter. All of the disadvantages of a PDF with the additional friction of an added click.

This brings up the question of what it is. A good email is:

  • About the person receiving it. “I” is bad. “You” is good. Me Tarzan. You Jane. Seriously, though, you want to be talking to donors, volunteers, and other supporters what they are doing through you. You are the tool that good people use to do good things. You should brag about yourself about as much as an Allen wrench brags about those Hemnes dressers it made.“We” is controversial. My perspective on it is that it depends on the use of “we.” If “we” is your nonprofit, it’s bad. If “we” is the community of people dedicated to making a cause come to pass, and you can clearly delineate it as such (this is hard to do), it can be good. “We” in the sense of Queen Victoria expressing her lack of amusement: awesome.
  • About a discrete topic. Frequently, email newsletters try to be all things to all people, instead of telling a compelling story.
  • About an interesting topic. This sounds like it would be self-evident, but you would be amazed about email newsletters that talk about the check presentation that just happened or the award from the local Chamber of Commerce the nonprofit received. Most bad topics fail the first test of whether they are about the person receiving it, but some other bad ones are about the person receiving it, but forget that that person is a person and thus is both self-interested and not immortal (thus not having ultimate time to read your newsletter).
  • Equipped with what you want people to do. You do not want to wind up your audience and not have them know what they are supposed to do with their new information.

If you are just starting out, try a few different types of emails to see what resonates with your audience. A few to try:

  • Thank you emails, whether it’s for donating or volunteering or simply being an email subscriber. People generally complain as much about being thanked too often as they hate being too handsome or too rich. Or so I’m told by handsome and rich people.
  • Urgent! Email is the perfect medium to get out timely communications. I’ll talk about ways to take advantage of this with things like matching gifts, but an urgent email is usually a good one.
  • Other ways to support. You will eventually be asking for money by email and if you are doing it right, you will be doing it often. To lay the groundwork for this, be sure to mix in other ways to support your organization that don’t involve a credit card. This can be volunteering, advocating, telling friends about something important, taking a pledge, giving your more information about their preferences, engaging in a cause-related marketing campaign and more.
  • The inside scoop. People love to get exclusive information, to feel like they are inside the velvet rope. One great example of this was chronicled in The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe’s account of the 2008 Obama campaign. In it, he reveals that offering people the opportunity to get the VP pick texted to them increased their mobile subscribers by 1500%. It can work for you too.

These learnings can be the background for your entire direct marketing campaign. Now is the time to find your voice and the issues that work for you, before it costs a lot of money to get that message out.

These are the basics. Now, you need a list. We’ll start that discussion tomorrow.

Sending your first email

Setting up your outbound emails

Surely, you can test email marketing by going into Outlook or Gmail and hitting send right?

No, you can’t.

And don't call me Shirley

There are a few reasons for this:

  • Putting a bunch of people in the To: line of an email gives everyone’s email address to everyone else. This will royally tick off everyone who is on the list, making your list smaller and far angrier at you. And let the fates help you if someone decides to reply to all.
  • You’ll just put them in the BCC line instead? Both every email system worth its salt and AOL will recognize your message as spam, putting it in email purgatory with emails like online scams, pictures of (redacted), and (really really redacted) that you won’t be able to get out of your mind.
  • You can’t effectively customize emails. The loveliest sound to all of us, from the age of two-ish on, is the sound of our own name. Not having a name in an email isn’t a cardinal sin, but it is a venal one.
  • You can’t test and you can’t effectively report results. This is a cardinal sin. The commandments say “Thou shalt test,” and implied within that is being able to measure the results of said test.You may argue that it isn’t actually a commandment, but it will be at least as helpful to you in your career as anything that anyone says about donkey-coveting.
  • Your emails will look bad. This is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Ugly can often convert well. Let me rephrase: your emails will not look like you intend them to. That is the deal-breaker.

So you want some email software to help automate your sending. The things you are looking for are:

  • Quality reporting, including open rates, click-through rates, click-through rates on each link, unsubscribe rates, and (ideally) conversions. If you can’t measure conversions through your email reporting, you can set up different forms for each email and measure it on the back end.
  • Ideally, you want to be able to address people by name as discussed above. Also, you’d like to be able to customize other information. I’ve seen double-digit response rate increases just through simple state customization like “help reduce childhood cancer rates in XXStateXX.”
  • Mobile adaptivity. We’ll talk more about this in coming months, but if you had to choose whether something will look good on mobile or on desktop, you might choose mobile. Fortunately, you shouldn’t have to choose.
  • Form management. Your email provider should ideally have forms that allow people to sign up that automatically go into your email database. This moves people through your system easily and makes your life a lot easier.
  • Managing unsubscribes, email preferences, etc. Same reason.

If you absolutely must have free, you might want to look at Vertical Response, which gives you 10,000 emails per month free, and MailChimp, which gives you 12,000/month. Please post your comments in the, you know, comments section on either system.  I’m starting up with MailChimp, so if you would like to test the user experience for receiving newsletters, you can sign up at right. (hint hint)

However, I strongly urge you to look into email providers that you may pay for, in that it’s really nice to have an email system that ties into your larger database, is part of a true CRM system, or can be part of a larger marketing platform. Take a look at user ratings of different email systems (and different types of systems). This does bode well for MailChimp, which was highly reviewed for small and medium enterprises.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about actual email content.

Setting up your outbound emails