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


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


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


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


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 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


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


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?

My 2015 Narcissism Update (Because It Can’t Be About You)

I’ve been thinking about narcissism lately. You might believe it is because of Kim Kardashian’s epic oily butt shot, which certainly returned the queen of selfies to the position of top ranked Internet narcissist. Or perhaps the cause is last week’s incredible amount of Uber posts from social media experts turned management consultants.

But, in reality online narcissism is the primary thread in my next novel after The War to Persevere, which focuses on social media influencers (see, this really was about me).

The Atlantic noted earlier this year that whenever online narcissism is researched, the studies always seem to revolve around social media. There is a strong correlation between high frequency of social media use and narcissism.

That doesn’t mean every active online personality is a narcissist. Only the ones who need an audience to fulfill their self esteem.

I have questions and theories about online narcissism. Can you catch narcissism from others? Meaning can you fall in love with your own [perceived] digital awesomeness? Is narcissistic behavior something that can be learned through peer communities>

It does appear to happen. I’ve seen it myself.

Profile Pics and Praise

Image by Cade Martin.

A narcissist thinks that awesome profile pic makes them look like their true sexy self, but in reality the pic is often just a thin veil. It is the digital pool of water to worship oneself in. We know these images are just overrated bits and bytes.

One can come to drink online praise and believe it. The hype defies reality, but when one sees it in words it is easy to believe. Likes and faves trigger a dopamine release, literally changing the mind .

Online narcissism is a bit like a drug addiction. It masks low self esteem. So in theory you crave more attention, and more, and more. Narcissists need approval. And the only way to placate the low self esteem beast is to engage more.

Social media fulfilled narcissism can leave you bankrupt. I have seen it, I have felt it.

You leave the social media likefest wanting a new drug. Like all self esteem stop-gaps, it doesn’t do the trick for me. In the end, if I want to feel good about myself then I must do esteemable things. It seems trite and simple, but in fact this is the only path, at least for me.

How many of our youth know about the dangers of online narcissism? How many will have to find out the hard way, succumbing to the dopamine rush?

Our very culture breeds narcissism. It is on the rise, and all of us will deal with the personality defects of the self-centered and their incessant drive for attention and fame. The worst will do anything to succeed, including throwing their peers under the bus.

Better change that hawt profile pic.

What do you think?

More Evidence that Visuals Far Outpace Text

Digiday surveyed attendees of its Agency Innovation Camp about how visual native ads stack up against text based native ads (hat tip: Richard Binhammer). More often than not, attendees favored visuals by 75 percent or more.

The below infographic states attendees opinions about native advertising environments.The survey does not have enough of a sample to be scientifically valid (80 attendees), but it does fall in line with general trends in the movement towards a visual Internet.


The evidence continues to mount. As a strategist if you don’t include at least a hybrid visual/text approach to your content creation, then it’s fair to expect mediocre results. The argument that higher quality written content will still survive may be true for a select few properties, but the margin for success will continue to narrow.

Whether it’s photography, graphics or video, every piece of content today must communicate visually. The visual cannot be bolted on to content as an afterthought.

The purpose of said content — from an ad to a highly detailed piece of content that is text driven — must include visuals that are intentional in purpose. Visuals convey the meaning of said communication clearly and consiely, much quicker than the words do.

Text in many ways works with the visual to tell the richer story. Many won’t read all of the text. In fact, if someone is reading content on a smartphone, it’s likely they won’t get beyond the first paragraph. But the words are there in a transmedia sense for those who want to go further down the proverbial rabbit hole.

What do you think?

What I Learned at the Dog Park

Since we brought Michelle home, she has proven to be a high octane dog who needs some running time. Being the first one up at the Livingston household, I am often chaperone her to the local dog park. I see some amazing parallels at the dog park to the good and bad of online social networks.

My dog park consists of about 250 people. Everyone says hi to each other, and we learn a little about each other’s lives.

I often smoke a cigar in a corner and blog, or work on my iPad. This used to be my writing time, and I don’t want to give that up. As a result, I tend to a bit more of an observer than a central figure at the dog park.

Once you get below the initial niceties, you see a bit of some of the same issues you do online. There are cliques. Some people gossip incessantly about others. Others judge you. And others will tell you how to live your life.

I remember once I was sitting on my bench working and a fellow came in. Michelle walked over and started playing with his dog. A third gentlemen says, “There goes Michelle” to the newcomer, who responds, “I always hate that dog.” Then he realizes I heard him, and proceeds to talk quietly, avoiding me the rest of the morning. A week later he almost ran me over in his BMW speeding into the park.

Hmmm, this reminds me of a few bloggers I know.

In another case, one of the clique queen bees noticed Soleil had a red mark on her arm. She tells Caitlin (who was the chaperone that day) it may be some horrible disease carried by dogs, and insists that she leave for the Minute Clinic that moment, lest our little girl suffer terribly. A scared Caitlin rushes to the clinic to learn the verdict: Spider bite.

The next time we are at the park, said queen bee asks me in overly concerned tones about Soleil, and the offers some really unnecessary motherly platitudes of worry, and moves on. Another dog owner saddles up to me and proceeds to tell me all the ills of the clique leader.

All of these mini incidents (and others) are the same as the ills online. Misinformation, back stabbing, gossip, nastiness, etc. Yet, I still like going to the dog park. Because there are some great people here, too. I have some fantastic conversations with some surprisingly accomplished and humble people. It’s generally a nice place to go.

This is especially when I choose to simply ignore the very human failings of this small K-9 social network. In some cases, I know what to expect from folks so I limit my interactions with them, just like I do with similar types online.

The lesson is that people are people.

The wrongs of online communities are no different than the less visible ones of the real world. Wherever you go there you are, and the roles are often the same, regardless of physical or virtual context.

Perhaps the one difference is a perception of permanence online thanks to the everlasting digital record of things said and done. But even these can be learned from, allowing for personal growth.

In the end, online tribulations are good. We see ourselves. We realize who we are good and bad, and how we contribute to the positive and negative. And we can choose to participate in either, and possibly develop stronger relationships from it.

Like it or not, this is who we are.

What do you think?

Featured image by Natasha Ruzyinski.

Is Existing Online a Quest of Loneliness or Giving?

Image by Den Den

Do you sense a lack of clear meaning in this online rat race? On one hand, existence stands in its purest form, reasons to be online, missions of the niche! Then we dilute existence with digital records of ice cream trips, Nike Fuel runs, and manufactured savoir faire.

Self determination now exists at its ultimate zenith, coupled with a bizarre sense loneliness.

YouTube star Jenna Marbles reflected recently in a NY Times article that with all of her online fame and popularity and friends, she finds herself in an odd state of loneliness. We have many boys and girls trapped in their own online bubbles now.

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