Fundraising: To Email or Not to Email

Smartphone II

To email or not to email, that is the question of the modern fundraiser.

I understand the email quandary. We want to reach our customers and very important friends, and make sure they know about our fundraiser (or any other initiative). At the same time, we don’t want to alienate our contacts with spammy solicitations.

Several years ago, I worked with a nonprofit on their hopeful $30-$50,000 fundraiser. In the beginning, we were all in agreement on the importance of building a strong email list and accessing partner networks to get the word out. Focusing on an exciting initiative, the effort would seek to activate and engage in a first time giving event for this sector of the nonprofit. At that time, this would have been unique.

But then the corporate messaging initiatives began to take precedence. Protocol mattered more than engagement. Using the list and partners’ lists for the fundraiser came into question. Concerns arose about antagonizing people with the fundraiser. The nonprofit already emailed the list frequently with its various news items and corporate partner initiatives.

Social media, a single relatively benign email, and content would need to carry the effort. Needless to say, things didn’t fare as well as we had originally hoped. The fundraiser sputtered and bumbled its way across the $10,000 mark. The Fundraising Wall began at the outset.

Social and Blog Content Usually Can’t Carry the Weight Alone

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One truth about online fundraisers: It is very, very hard to succeed with social media and blog content alone. I would say it is almost impossible UNLESS you have a super engaged community. Frankly, you need multiple tactics, an integrated strategy (the subject of my last business book Marketing in the Round), but of all the tactics email is almost a must have for a successful fundraiser. .

An email list really is an extension of a super engaged community, too. I would argue that an exhausted email list that sees mass opt-outs during a fundraiser reflects a larger problem. Perhaps the organization uses its email list as a mechanism to simply ask and get rather than to provide value.

There is a reverse to that equation. If people are subscribed to your organization’s list and all they receive is valuable information, but are unwilling to receive an email from you about an important initiative, then perhaps they are not really a part of your community. They just like free information.

This may have to do with the list that they are opting into. Was it clear that they will receive occasional offers (e.g. solicitations) from you? It may be worth segmenting people that complain about solicitations into a different list.

Also, let’s be honest with ourselves, do people just find our solicitations to be spammy and boring? If your email is a blatant request to give you money for something they may not want, then maybe your quandary is well justified. You may get a few backers or donations. You will also piss off a lot of people, too, particularly if you continuously make obvious uninteresting overtures with your email community.

Figure It Out or Hit the Wall

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There are two critical aspects to the email problem: Content and community. There are many resources that can help you create a stronger content initiative with the actual email. Is the email copy entertaining and useful to the list member. Or do they just feel like you are talking about yourself and asking for something?

Then there are the community members, the people who have subscribed to your list. Frankly, if you are concerned about a dead or dying list, then maybe it’s time to get honest about the state of your email program. Email represents a relationship tool. People who have had enough of your organization’s email, probably don’t belong on the list anymore. Would you email a friend who kept complaining about your jokes?

While invigorating your list with better content, consider a new opt-in prompt for people who have not opened one of your emails in six months. This inactive list campaign may take more than one communication, but if you are not getting a response, my recommendation is to cull them. In my mind, they have indicated through inaction that the email communications aren’t working for them. Let them go.

Focus on stronger content, more value, higher open rates, and better interaction with your email community. Figure it out before your online fundraiser, or you will hit the Fundraising Wall.

There are many other components to a successful online fundraiser, including online advertising, influencer activation (your influencers, not those big wig celebrities!), PR, live events and more. But without email as a basic fundamental outreach, you may be dooming yourself to a lesser fundraising effort.

The Fundraising Wall

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Have you ever run a big online fundraiser and found the effort lagging somewhere in the middle? I call this the fundraising wall, much like “bonking” or a runner’s wall in the midst of a marathon.

The fundraising wall is pretty normal in my experience having run or been a part of more than $200 million worth of nonprofit and for-business online fundraisers, most recently with Meyer-Optik’s $683,000 Kickstarter for its Trioplan 50 lens. Almost every single fundraiser lags in the middle, and that’s increased as online fundraisers have become more mature and people — e.g. donors or backers — are no longer fascinated by the novelty of Uncle Joe, a hip start-up, their nonprofit, or their community foundation’s online fundraiser.

Because there are so many fundraisers now, there’s also a great deal of noise, too. These days most fundraisers have a novelty factor of about one to two communications. So when the initial launch euphoria passes, a fundraising wall occurs as companies, individuals and nonprofits try to slog their way through their campaign one email, one social update at a time.

The fundraising wall occurs regardless of the giving event’s length. I’ve had bad hours during almost every giving day, and have seen longer giving events have middle days that make pray you inside that the fundraiser hasn’t stalled out. You experience a great sense of relief when things start moving again.

In the worst case scenario, the fundraiser does stall out. The fundraising wall becomess insurmountable. Invariably, there are reasons. You can look for external ones to blame the failure on, but usually this type of failure comes down to value proposition, strategy and architecture.

Digest the Best Practices, but Don’t Settle for Them

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I first started examining online fundraisers, and giving days back in the 2008-9 timeframe. Peer-to-peer online (or social if you want to be hip) fundraisers were still pretty unorthodox then. Kickstarter for business and personal projects was just getting going in the spring of 2009, and nonprofits were highly skeptical of online donations.

Today, things have changed with how-to resources allocated for fundraisers of all sorts, from the Knight Foundation’s Giving Day Playbook to many books on Amazon.com. Heck, I’ve even contributed to the plethora of resources out there, too, with a few white papers like this Case Foundation giving day report.

Many of these best practices are still useful, in particular with great advice on pre-event communications formats, post-event thank-yous, and crisis communications. But 99% of these resources lack the pragmatic view of someone who has actually run a giving day. They are consultant research-based reports or written to meet an underwriter’s view of best practices, rather than offer the real perspective of hitting the wall.

Walk a mile in my shoes.

You’ll see some missing points.

Following recipes can help you build a perfect textbook online fundraiser that still experiences the Fundraising Wall. That doesn’t mean it won’t be successful, or that you won’t reach your goal. It does mean that you are probably leaving money on the table.

There’s a Day for Everything

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As alluded to earlier, saturation is a huge issue. Go on Twitter most business days of the week, and you will see some nonprofit awareness or giving day trending. Or it might be their week. Or month.

Similarly, on Kickstarter, Indiegogo and a variety of other personal and business fundraising sites, you’ll see new apps, camera equipment, watches, clothing companies, etc. Peer-to-peer backing for art projects happens every day on our social networks.

There’s a day or fundraiser for everything now.

This is the beauty and the curse of online fundraising. The new option to go out and raise your own cash rather than getting a loan or surrendering equity to an angel investor who will surely interfere with your vision is attractive. For nonprofits, there is little choice. Online donations continue to grow year over year while traditional checks and mail donations dwindle.

Consumers — people in our core social networks and communities — are now accustomed to seeing online fundraisers. And they are much quicker to tune them out, especially if you simply deliver a formulaic textbook campaign that offers all the requirements. Even if your fundraiser is super interesting with a compelling topic or item to purchase, you will still experience a lag in these conditions.

Overcoming the wall becomes a central challenge for the capable online fundraiser competing in a crowded market.

Innovate and Entertain

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Just having a fundraiser for a worthy product or cause won’t be enough to carry a campaign end to end. The way to overcome the fundraising wall is through entertaining evolutions in the fundraising narrative.

Interest can be achieved through content, events, surprises, new details, and prizes (that other people care about, not just you). You have to make the fundraiser something worth seeing and experiencing. Whether that’s time-bound tension in attempts to achieve a goal, pop-up events, access to leaders and celebrities, new content featuring customers using your content, or beneficiaries experiencing aid through your cause, find something to make your fundraiser compelling and interesting.

I am working on a small Kickstarter for a photography book project that will launch next week. It features the opening reveal of the project, and of course there will be the close. But I intentionally staged the campaign’s timing to feature a trip that will highlight the book’s raison d’etre in the very middle of the effort.

This will provide a compelling reason to share about the project. Since the subject is of national interest here in the United States, I imagine it will not only be compelling to my closest friends, but people in general. I hope folks are entertained.

Upon return and the fundraiser’s short close, there will be new content and initial takes on the final product. People will get to experience a reasonable preview of their book. Overall, I believe this structure will overcome the fundraising wall.

It’s thinking through the staging of an online fundraiser that can help you overcome what are very normal obstacles. More importantly, you will increase your overall yield.

What do you think?

How Razoo Became a Mobile Platform

Mobile

The following is a narrative version of my 15 minute speech at the 2012 Innogive Conference today.

Last Spring those of us at Razoo began analyzing mobile web solutions. There was a big debate because traffic was in the low single digits, but partly as a result of reading Chuck Martin’s Third Screen, we decided to offer a web based mobile version of the web site and donation platform, and an iPhone app for fundraisers.

The Third Screen showed that almost every company or organization that goes mobile sees a surge in mobile traffic usually above 10%. This 10% rule was illustrated over and over again with case studies. We launched mobile at the end of 3Q, 2011, and just as the book indicated, the results have been amazing:
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1,886,434 Ways the Long Tail Beat Klout

Last Wednesday’s Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington netted $2,034,434, including 17,838 donations totaling $1,886,434. The online giving contest benefited 1200 nonprofits. As the general manager of the event, this kind of impact makes me profoundly grateful, and many thanks have already been sent to the donors, nonprofits and partners involved. Give to the Max Day also provided yet another example of how big social media names don’t necessarily translate into great social performance.

On the contrary, the majority of winners in Give to the Max Day Grand Awards were not the big nonprofit brands with sizable influencers locally. It was the little guys, the Little Lights Urban Ministries (Klout Score: 10) and For Love of Children, Inc. (Klout Score: 37) that won most donors and most donations, respectively.

If people were betting on popular nonprofit brands and influencers with big Klout scores to win the day, they would have lost a lot of money. While some participated and performed well, they didn’t take the grand prizes. In the end it was the long tail of small voices that drove the event’s leaderboards, and overall donation flow.

That’s not to say that big brands and influencers can’t succeed. As revealed in the PayPal Research paper, Effectiveness of Celebrity Spokespeople in Social Fundraisers, the secret formula for success in social media is not the most “influence” or size of account, rather it is engaged community, authenticity and a willingness to work. Any online brand can demonstrate that kind of investment and energy.

Frank Warren Book Signing

Two award winners were big influencers, and showed that kind of passion. The first was PostSecret‘s Frank Warren (Klout Score: 69), who won the Care2 Individual Fundraiser Award with his IMAlive fundraiser, which in turn triggered a third place finish for Most Donors for the Kristin Brooks Hope Center. Frank was very engaged in the weeks leading up to the event, asking questions about how to do well. Further, he is authentically passionate about this cause with a long history of fundraising and personal reasons to be engaged.

The second influential example is the fine performance of the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Though you couldn’t necessarily tell by a Klout Score of 49, the Corcoran is one of Washington’s premier institutions in the Arts Community. The Corcoran went all out with its ArtReach campaign, using a matching grant, emails and social media to invigorate its core. The result? A total of 438 donors and $55,189 in donations, good enough for third place in most dollars raised, and fourth place for most donors.

In the end, it’s not Klout or some other social media ranking that creates a success. It’s the passion and drive of the voices behind the effort.

Congratulations to all of the nonprofits who experimented, and learned more about online fundraising this past Wednesday (and the months leading up to it). Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington was a fun contest, and it’s an enjoyable exercise to break down what made a winning campaign. But the real winners in this day were you, the almost 18,000 citizens who supported you, and the region as a whole.

Mark Horvath on Punish Geoff Fundraiser Impact

Mark Horvath sent this video last night to thank all of the people who donated to and shared The Punish Geoff Fundraiser. Thank you to the 30 donors who have made $2055, and a significant impact on InvisiblePeople‘s drive across the country. Every dollar counts against a matching grant offered by the Pierce Family Foundation.

BUT WAIT. We’re not done yet.

There’s still two days left, and one punishment left to accomplish… Making me walk in front of Congress wearing a sandwich board that says “I wrote two social media books, PLEASE hire me!” We’re roughly $1100 away, less than what you collectively contributed Thursday and Friday of last week.

There are three things you can do:

1) Please Donate

2) Realize Your Impact

If you want to see InvisiblePeople.tv’s work, simply watch this movie trailer (coming out in 2012). It is incredible how Mark is raising the visibility of homelessness. You can help continue this fantastic project!

3) Have Fun

The Geoff Punishments will be metered out next week. We’ll have a lot of fun with it, promise! Stay tuned for details.

Most importantly, thank you for your support.

Applying Social Storytelling to Strategic Online Fundraising

Donors

This is a preview of tomorrow’s Millennial Donors Summit presentation on “Connecting with Social Media” at 11:30. There is still time to register for the telesummit! Join us!

The fundamental skill of social is applying traditional relationship development savoir faire in the media. Meaning, the tools are the tools, but the actual interaction between people should be the focus for those seeking to cultivate donors. Your communication must convey a compelling story and a means for the donor to participate.

From this year’s Millennial Donors report: “Like last year, millennials said they gave most often as a result of personal, traditional giving requests, with popular technologies such as online and email giving coming in at lower percentages. However, the respondents also suggested that they prefer to give primarily through online tools. The message here? They might give more often through personal asks because many organizations have not caught up with technological giving options.”

Here’s another juicy tidbit: “65% want to know how [their dollars] makes a difference.” Further, “84% of millennials said they are most likely to donate when they fully trust an organization, and 90% said they would stop giving if they do not trust an organization.”

Trust is the basic currency of human relationships, and online is no different. Most are worried on how to rock Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr and other tools. Technical proficiency is important, but it comes with practice over a period of weeks. Ironically, the most common mistake nonprofits make with social is to treat it like another medium, and simply publish solicitations and marketing.

Instead focus on how to interact with people and compel them to 1) believe in you and your cause; 2) invest in you (via donation, advocacy or other means); and 3) sustain that relationship so that it has a chance to be more than a transaction. Understanding how your community interacts online will determine the tools. How you use the tools is the issue.

Connecting with Millennial Donors via Social Media

This requires compelling storytelling and interactions within social. As the study says, 85% of millennials pointed to a compelling mission or cause as the primary reason for donating. The report offers some additional insights on how to cultivate trust: “1. Friends or family endorsement 2. Report financial condition 3. Opportunities to meet leadership.” These are intrinsic elements to good storytelling for content and interactions. But there is more.

Compelling storytelling requires a a few story elements. A recent phone conversation with Network for Good’s Katya Andresen crystallized the fundraising “perfect storm:” An authentic tie between the person asking for the donation and the cause; a truly engaged community; and an impassioned ask as opposed to a posted request.

The authenticity angle is critical. You can’t just ask someone to give based on stats and the nonprofit’s mission. Instead, show people why you care, why it is important to you, and why you believe they should care. How has this issue impacted your life? As a nonprofit find a person to tell this story as opposed to communicating from the ivory tower.

With the community, this is the basic blocking and tackling of social. You can’t turn the lights on and simply ask for money. Participation and interaction for months and years prior to fundraising creates a strong community, one that is tied to the personality or organization. When relationships are in place — a result of mutual investment of time and value — the community responds.

Lastly, you can’t just drop a link and ask people to donate. Make it a drive, a series of compelling asks. Show them ways to donate and participate. Try to make them feel like heroes, and their donations are making a difference. Keep them updated on the drive.

As noted in the report, a critical aspect is to sustain the relationship after the donation. Donors want to be informed about how their investment made an impact. These people believed in you, now tell them what you are doing with their investment. One more statistic from the study to back this up: 79% of donors want continued outreach to include updates on programs and services.

Case studies will be included in the Milliennial Donors Summit presentation. A follow up to the Summit will be posted on the Inspiring Generosity blog.