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?

From the Internet of Things to Video Moxy

I have the great privilege of hosting the xPotomac Conference every year with Patrick Ashamalla and Shonali Burke. We just published video recordings of our 2014 sessions, including our keynotes, on YouTube. You can see the whole channel here.

Here are each of the sessions:

KEYNOTE: Robert Scoble on The Age of Context



Find out more about Robert Scoble at facebook.com/RobertScoble.

Lauren Vargas, Digital Media in a Regulated Environment


Find out more about Lauren at rootreport.com/about/.

Toby Bloomberg, Broadcast and Print Media Adoption of Digital

Learn more about Toby here: about.me/TobyBloomberg.

Peter Corbett, The Internet of Things

Find out more about Peter at istrategylabs.com.

Danielle Brigida and Allyson Kapin, Disrupting Social Change

Find out more about Danielle at https://twitter.com/starfocus and Allyson at womenwhotech.com.

KEYNOTE: Jim Long, The Wild World of Video


Learn more about Jim at vergenewmedia.com.

Give to the Max

After five months of planning and hard work, Give to the Max Day is here. Today, 1300 Washington area nonprofits will be fundraising, and experimenting with social media tools in a collective training exercise and contest. More than $140,000 in awards are available.

If you are interested in a capacity building oriented contest, check out the site. You will see a wide variety of creative tactics and approaches to winning, all using social media tools.

Please browse the participating nonprofits and donate or share about your favorites. If you live in the Greater Washington Area, this is your chance as an individual to make a statement to the country about our region’s compassion. We are expecting tens of thousands of citizens to donate and spread the word.

K Street Taken by @Give2Max

The event is part of Digital Capital Week or DCWEEK, the current festival bringing together the region’s designers, developers, entrepreneurs, technologists and social innovators. In fact, we are holding a rally tonight to close out Give to the Max Day. The rally is also the after party for the DCWEEK Keynotes at the Warner Theater. Please join us!

Finally, a special word of thanks to organizing partner Razoo for allowing me to serve as general manager of the event. It’s been a real fun and meaningful experience, from flash mobs to training hundreds of nonprofits on how to be more successful online. Today will be a great day!

Coalition Marketing for the Common Good

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Just as individual web site owners use affiliate marketing, small and large companies and nonprofits are engaging in teams — coalition marketing — to reach common stakeholder groups. Modern Internet tools have made coalition marketing incredibly simple. It’s easy as setting up a web site and providing the common offering or cobranding.

Coalitions take several forms. Often joint marketing initiatives are fielded where both or a group of brands are co-promoted (almost like a large summer music festival with multiple headliners). For example, consider how your grocery store may be affiliating with a gas company to provide loyalty programs. Also consider how Zoetica and RAD Campaign co-market the Nonprofit 2.0 Conference.

Another form is traditional channel sales, where a brand builds a great product or service and the other markets it to its customers. Cause marketing relationships take this form, with the nonprofit offering the service and the consumer facing business selling it as part of a package to its customers. And of course, many parts of the technology industry are driven off the channel model.

In fact, if you consider the Google-Motorola acquisition this week and the issue of patents, Google acquired one of its Android coalition partners to protect itself from lawsuits. The intellectual property had become too distributed. In marketing “Droids,” Google was both using Motorola as a channel partner and co-marketing within a coalition.

Given how companies and nonprofits increasingly fill niches, and customers need more than just one product or service type, this trend of partnering will continue. There simply isn’t enough individual brand capital to grow in a desired fashion. Teaming provides the collective might needed to succeed in broad marketing initiatives. This is particularly true of smaller players competing with large established companies. So partners who naturally operate in the same space, but don’t necessarily compete head on will start gravitating towards each other naturally.

There are strengths and weakness to coalitions. Some considerations for partnering are mutual benefit to both organizations without costing or sacrificing too much capital on one side or another. When business relationships become lopsided, they tend to disintegrate or become one-off opportunities. In addition, trial deals are helpful, too, to see if the chemistry works between brands.

Obvious Bonds Are Needed

An Enemy of the People
Image by Shehal

Finally, a word on authenticity. Consumers are not stupid (see forthcoming Journal of Consumer Research article), and they know when a brand is faking it, or partners with another entity that seems out of sorts with its core mission. This is almost always true with cause marketing and the marriage between corporation and nonprofit. There needs to be obvious synergies.

But it is also true of corporate partnerships, too. The primary criticism of Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility is the unnatural tie forged with an Internet company owning a mobile phone manufacturer. The stretch is too much. Similarly, if Warner Brothers were to suddenly co-market Bugs Bunny with Playboy, there would be obvious issues in spite of the common rabbit icons.

Some marketers will tell you authenticity does not exist, that customers don’t want it. While this may be true for your worst individual personality defects, customers have expectations of behavior and delivery for a corporate brand. Note the difference. Frankly, personal identities that have evolved into real going concerns online need to adjust to this reality, too. When a brand is in place — regardless if it is named after a person — people have expectations of what the brand stands for, and the product/service that they will receive.

When you supersede those brand expectations in a partnering stretch to make money or paint a better brand image, customers balk. This rejection takes the form of less or no sales! It is important to be mindful in your marketing actions, and to be true to your brand’s core identity. That is authenticity, and practicing conscious awareness in business. Choose your partners well.

Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

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Social media continues to impact businesses and nonprofits in unforeseen ways. Perhaps the greatest trend of the moment is the fusion of corporate and philanthropic interests, which in turn is producing growing pains and change. It’s likely that the requirements of online transparency will demand a new era of authenticity in corporate community investment efforts.

This trend results from demands for better corporate citizenship and community participation, transparency digressions, and frankly, very public cause marketing and corporate social responsibility programs that have exposed weaknesses in the social media realms.

It’s a problem that keeps coming up, and won’t go away. This will force organizations and companies to become much more mindful about how they invest in their communities.

This discussion is one that I’ve been having piecemeal with many people, in and outside of Zoetica, from cohorts Kami Huyse and Beth Kanter to change-minded folks like Alex Bornkessel, Allyson Kapin, Dan Morrison and Amy Sample Ward. I want to thank each of them for our ongoing dialogue, and directly or indirectly helping synthesize this post. My purpose in publishing this is soliciting feedback to evolve this authenticity theory. Please sound off.

The Current Authenticity Situation

DC Central Kitchen - Indique Heights Teaches

Indique Heights Owner and Chef K.N. Vinod Teaches at DC Central Kitchen

Many companies blur the lines now between cause marketing and corporate social responsibility, which in turn creates problems. One is not the other, but unfortunately, the current business environment will likely continue blurring the definitions rather than adhering to form. In that sense, this reminds me of the personal brand vs. reputation debate.

Ninety percent of companies cannot discern the difference between cause marketing and corporate social responsibility. Altruism often fails or is not thought out. In reality, most companies think, “Yeah, we’ll give some money to charity,” and let their executives figure out which ones. In the social media world, now they just outsource it to their communities (in both good and bad ways).

We must accept this level of understanding and approach CSR/cause marketing in a manner that raises the general level of ethics at play. In either case, social media continues exposing weaknesses in cause marketing, which will force such initiatives to become more CSR-oriented.

Moving forward, regardless of purpose, companies need to become much more authentic in their community investments. Authenticity means instead of simply throwing money at a cause or contest, they would directly address their missions, or the problems directly/indirectly created by their business. A third category — family — would be the causes that impact their employees, such as healthcare.

By being much more mindful in their cause initiatives, companies become better community citizens. And frankly, their online communities of interest will start demanding it.

Three Forms of Authenticity in Community Investment

Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

Mindful authenticity in corporate community investment manifests itself in three ways:

Mission: Every company tries to market something. In doing so they have a mission and a product or service that fulfills a need. As such, authenticity dictates that the company invest in a community in a manner that relates to their core competency and also their marketing initiatives.

This is much more important for cause marketing initiatives. For example, if a company’s mission is information technology oriented, then literacy and education are obvious investments. So is poverty, and ensuring that the digital divide gets conquered. But investing everything the company had in cancer research makes no sense as an IT company’s strategic investment. It would for a healthcare oriented company.

Problem: In life we all create wreckage, both directly and indirectly. Some do less, some do more. In the environmental sense, every person has a carbon footprint. Thus it’s safe to say every company impacts the community in some negative ways.

Authenticity here dictates acknowledgment of impact, and actions to address the damage. For example, Exxon Mobile may want to make a greater investment in green energy than a trifle $100 million investment. Or instead of allocating $20 million for Pepsi Refresh, Pepsi would take a few million dollars to support causes addressing obesity issues as well as investing in reusable container technologies.

Family: Right now I would classify 90 percent of corporate community investments in this category, and that’s a mistake. Many of the crowd-sourced contest initiatives go wayward in this sense, too… Why? Because most of the investments are not thought-out and represent haphazard donations. They don’t acknowledge the corporate mission or the problems the company creates.

That being said, we all have or are employees. Companies represent big families, and in that sense it’s right to take a portion of donatable funds, and invest in real human issues like autism research or homelessness.

The right formula of mission, problem and family needs to be weighed intelligently by each organization. But that’s where the growth comes. Because blindly investing in family causes, or solely focusing on mission based initiatives causes an organization to stray from its community. Given today’s social media environment, at some point a cry will come for more balanced investment approaches.

What do you think about authenticity in corporate social responsibility?