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Nonprofit Fundraising: Is Email Your Hero or a Ticking Time Bomb?

fundraising nonprofit Jul 16, 2020


In the landscape of digital fundraising, email is a central figure. The success of your email fundraising program is a classic case of nature versus nurture. If you nurture your email program, giving it attention and care, i.e. email hygiene, then you’ll watch it flourish. If you let nature take its course without the nurture piece, then you’re sitting on a ticking time bomb that will completely destroy your email marketing and fundraising program. Sound extreme? It’s not. Let’s take a look at how email can be a ticking time bomb, then examine how to keep this from happening by making email your hero.

 How Email Becomes A Ticking Time Bomb

Let’s break down what it means for email to be a ticking time bomb and how it can literally destroy your email marketing and fundraising. Google (Gmail), Yahoo, and other internet service providers (ISPs) have become quite sophisticated over the years. Though SPAM can still get through, the job of the ISP is to put the emails in your inbox that 1) appear to be something you are interested in, 2) are from senders you agreed to receive email from, and 3) come from reputable senders.

Every email that your organization sends out is designed to hit the inbox of your subscribers, many of which may be donors. Let’s say you send an email to 10,000 subscribers.

(TICK) With no data hygiene, you will likely notice a decrease in your email open and click rates over time.

(TICK) As your open rates decrease, ISP algorithms will begin to identify your emails as not one that your subscribers are interested in. After all, if your subscribers were interested, wouldn’t open rates increase or remain steady?

(TICK) As a result, more of your emails may start landing in the Bulk Items, SPAM, or Promotions folder instead of the Inbox.

(TICK) In addition, the IP address from which your emails are sent, which you may or may not have control over, will begin to appear as less credible to ISPs and risk becoming blacklisted.

(TICK) This is what I call landing in “email jail.” It’s easy to get into and hard to get out of.

(BOOM) As ISPs start to put your emails in other folders instead of the Inbox, or if you get blacklisted as a sender, email fundraising can come to a screeching halt.

Real-life scenario: Using our example, let’s assume your email list size of 10,000 normally returns $2,500 in donations each time you send an email to your subscriber base. If you do this each month, then that’s $30,000 a year. As your emails start landing outside of the Inbox, your open rates take a nosedive. In a short period of time, your $30,000 a year can dwindle to $0 per year….even though you’re expending the same effort to write, design, and send emails.

Here’s what you need to understand: this is not a hypothetical scenario, I’ve seen it happen first hand with an organization. The lack of email hygiene literally wiped out email fundraising and it took over a year to re-establish. Even the best email program can become a time bomb if left unattended.

 Let’s not let this happen to your organization. Instead, let’s create a Hero out of your email efforts.

How to Create Email as Your Hero

  • Email Acquisition Philosophy of “Quality Over Quantity” – Gone are the days of trying to get as many emails as possible to beef up your email database, regardless of where or how you get them. This will work against you because tactics to acquire mass amounts of email addresses often weigh your email file down with inactive subscribers.
  • Put Yourself in the Subscriber’s Shoes – From the way in which you acquire an email address to the way you communicate to your subscribers in email, you should always approach it from the subscriber’s standpoint. For example, if you were the subscriber, WHY would you subscribe to your organization’s emails? Because you put a form on your homepage that says “sign up for our email list?” That’s pretty cold. How about, “Get stories of hope and impact delivered to your inbox?” As a subscriber, that lets me know what’s in it for me. When you send an email, send it like you’re talking one-on-one to the individual subscriber, not to a group of people. Don’t you pay more attention to emails when organizations treat you like a person and not a group?
  • Email Welcome Series for New Subscribers - There are a few goals of an email welcome series. One is to set expectations for your new email subscribers. Another is to weed out subscribers that don’t really want to be on your list. I’d recommend a bullet point in your first welcome email to say something like, “If you didn’t mean to sign up for this list, you can unsubscribe at any time,” and link this to your unsubscribe page. Remember, we want people on our list that want to be on our list. The feeling has to be mutual, otherwise you have dead weight on your email file that will come back to bite you.
  • Target Your Email Subscribers With Online Ads – As a marketer, one of the great things that has come about in recent years is the ability to target your email subscribers with online ads on social media and across the web. This increases the value of an email address and makes email more heroic. This ability to extend the reach of an email address beyond the inbox can significantly improve ROI in other marketing channels.
  • Email List Maintenance (Hygiene) – At a minimum, your organization should perform some type of email list hygiene at least once a year. I’d recommend doing it quarterly or every 6 months. At a basic level, this means removing any emails from your list that not opened your emails, flagged your email as SPAM, or requested to be removed from your email list. Some email platforms make this easy, while others don’t. You may need to use a third-party data company that can cleanse your list for you. Even though you remove emails, I’d still consider keeping a list of those removed emails that you can still use in an overall email list to target with online ads.

 Why This Is Important

Let’s look at some “math” behind why this is important:

High Quality Email List = Higher Open Rates = More Clicks = Better Reputation = Landing in the Inbox = More Revenue for Your Organization

 It all starts with the quality of your email list. But what if it’s too late for your organization? What if you’re already in “email jail?” I’ll address that topic in my next post.

To learn more about email for nonprofits or digital fundraising, join my online community, Fundraisers Unite! The community features templates, resources, monthly trainings, weekly office hours and more for nonprofit fundraisers. Join now.

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