Is Email a Top Fundraising Strategy?

Galas, direct mail, crowdfunding, peer-to-peer events, email campaigns . . . there are so many fundraising initiatives to choose from as we start planning for 2017! So what is the most efficient and effective tactic? What is going to bring in the broadest base of support in 2017 for our nonprofit organizations?

According to the 2016 M+R Benchmarks study, one might consider robust email campaigns as the best bet for 2017. The study shows email revenue is up by 25% year over year, and that email related gift responses count for about 1/3 of all online fundraising dollars. Furthermore, nSightful claims that email marketing is 40 times more effective than Facebook or Twitter when it comes to gaining new customers. And the bonus, according to author Abby Jarvis, is that email has the highest return on investment of any marketing channel – $40 returned for every dollar spent!

With stats like that, who wouldn’t want to jump right in and plan out an email solicitation strategy right away? And who didn’t just breathe a sigh of relief that email means you don’t have to talk to anyone – right?

Well not so fast. We suggest you remember the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge” from a couple of years back. While people viewed the ice bucket challenge as a tremendously successful social media campaign, really it was a campaign of people giving to people and the magic of peer pressure (and possibly an experiment in the power of narcissism). Bill Gates only dumped a bucket of ice water on his head because Mark Zuckerberg asked him; that same ask coming from an MDA staffer would’ve fallen on deaf ears. It was “peer to peer” fundraising at its best; great fundraising always comes back to great relationships.

Email may be the vehicle – and is certainly one of many impactful mediums in any successful fund development plan – but we can almost guarantee that an email campaign’s success is based on the success of the relationships your organization has cultivated and stewarded. Take these current stats:

  • Volunteers give twice as often to charity as non-volunteers (source: Corporation for National and Community Service);
  • Nearly 1/3 of all online donations are a result of peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns (source: Classy); and
  • The reasons many low-end donors give for a year or two and then lapse are based on a lack of stewardship (source: Blackbaud).

Clearly evidence that you aren’t getting off the hook of still needing to communicate (and in person!) and build ongoing relationships with your prospects and donors.

For more information take a few minutes to Google “email fundraising best practices” right now. You will quickly find most all the articles and research will lead you to the following tactics and actions:

  • Segment your audience
  • Send at the right time
  • Tell a story that makes your reader empathize and connect
  • Be strategic in who sends the email
  • Customize and personalize

How are you going to be able to do any of that if you have not created a relationship with your email recipients? How will you segment based on program interests if you don’t communicate with your email recipient to learn about their program interests? How can you email stories that connect if you don’t know if your recipients are patients, survivors, family members, friends, or just overall charitable people? To make email work best, you still need to get to know your email list.

It is also quite possible that email campaigns are showing a dramatic increase in fundraising results because, quite simply, email lists are growing. It has not been until recent years that organizations have even focused on adding emails into their databases (if they have a database at all). Judith Youngblood, owner of Wist Data Solutions in Louisville, Kentucky (and a partner of Ashley|Rountree and Associates), has found that approximately 70% of all data records she worked with in 2016 were without an email address; and she points out that percentage has improved dramatically in recent years, especially with organizations that incorporate online giving and/or online volunteer sign-ups. According to the M+R Benchmarks study, email list size for their study participants grew by 14% in 2015, and 16% in 2013 and 2014. So email success may be growing just because the lists are growing.

To summarize, an email strategy is a must for 2017, but that strategy must include a focus on email acquisition and personal cultivation and stewardship. As we said we when we analyzed the ice bucket challenge a couple of years ago … development professionals must not lose sight of the basic fundraising principles that people give to people and peer pressure is a big motivator for giving. Technology will continue to make it easier to collect knowledge more effectively and ask and thank more efficiently, but technology can never replace the power of a human connection. It will be your organization’s ability to connect that leads to significant growth with email fundraising campaigns.

By Tammy Moloy, Partner and Senior Consultant at Ashley|Rountree and Associates