Resources Hub » Blog » The Nonprofit’s Guide to Email Automation for Better Fundraising

This is a guest post from Rootid.

The need to increase fundraising revenue is a constant in the nonprofit world. Year after year, nonprofit development and marketing teams are under pressure to increase donor dollars while keeping administrative overhead low.

Marketing automation technologies for nonprofits are increasingly becoming the solution to address these challenges, while also addressing the needs of your donors. In this post, we will provide a blueprint on how to get started with a marketing automation series that will increase donor retention and build long-term relationships with new donors.

The donor retention challenge

According to an AFP study in 2016, nonprofits retained only 46% of their donors. This statistic is staggering, but perhaps not surprising to those that work in the fundraising industry.

With limited staff resources, time and technical expertise, nonprofits often struggle to build lasting emotional bonds with new donors. As a result, development teams can often spend time and money building donor acquisition campaigns to replace the 54% of donors that leave each year.

In fact, just a modest increase in donor retention rates has dramatic effects on the ability to increase fundraising dollars over time.

So, how can we keep donors around longer?

Bloomerang, a donor management software provider, released a survey recently that showed 53% of donors reported bad donor communications as the primary reason they stopped supporting nonprofits.

This further illuminates the idea, that providing donors with timely and customized content to keep them informed and engaged can stem the tide of donors abandoning nonprofits.

It just so happens that this is where email marketing automation thrives.

What is email marketing automation and how does it improve donor retention?

It sounds fancy, but email marketing automation is a simple tool that allows nonprofits to release a series of emails based on constituent behavior and/or a period of time.

Once a constituent takes an action, like making a first gift, an email marketing automation campaign can be triggered to send a series of emails over a prescribed period of time. More importantly, fundraisers can deliver content based on the donor’s interests and behaviors.

Why would you want to do that?

When a donor gives a first gift, it the most fragile part of their relationship with your organization. If you cannot build a relationship during this period that secures a second gift, your organization often never recovers the initial investment you made to acquire that donor.

In other words, building a strong relationship with new donors at the beginning is directly correlated to your ability to increase your fundraising revenue over time.

In the nonprofit world, this initial donor onboarding process is often referred to as a donor engagement series or donor welcome series.

An effective donor welcome series achieve five things:

  1. Immediately says “thank you”
  2. Reaffirms the donor’s choice to support your organization and orient them about what they can expect from the relationship
  3. Gains trust and permission to continue ongoing communications
  4. Learns the donors’ passions and preferences so you can customize communications going forward
  5. Moves the donor through the engagement pipeline with another ask

These five goals can be achieved in a number of different ways, and with any number of emails.

There are plenty of donor welcome series that are 10, 20, or even 30 emails long. But, the welcome series laid out below uses just five simple emails to help you get started. Over time you can add and refine the email content in this welcome series, but this will help you get started.

Nonprofit email automation

The donor welcome series blueprint

Email #1: Say thank-you immediately.

Send this email immediately after a donation is given. In addition to showing your gratitude, take the time to orient your new donor to your mission and set expectations.

Tell the donor how often they should expect to hear from you, and if they want to get in touch with a human give them information on how to do that. Let them know how they can change their communications preferences if they desire.

Next, provide them with a vision for your mission. You do not want to go into detail at this point, but people want to know that an organization is moving forward with a vision. It’s likely that your vision is what attracted them to your organization in the first place. Reinforce their initial attraction to that vision.

Lastly, this email is best if sent using your executive director’s name and role in the “From” field. This will personalize the communication, and give it additional importance.

If possible, provide a link to a video thank you message from an executive director that lays out the broader vision for the organization.

Email #2: Let’s talk impact.

A day or two after the first email, send out your second email. This email should focus on the problem that your organization addresses and how your organization is uniquely positioned to make an impact.

Think about this email like an elevator pitch to the donor. Build on the historical context of your impact to date, and how you will address the vision for your nonprofit moving forward.

If you’ve ever heard of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle framework, you know that humans are biologically wired to connect to the “why,” and will later connect to the “how.”

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle framework

Why does this matter?

Donors will connect with your mission because they believe that the problem you are addressing fundamentally alters our communities and world. If you can build alignment around this belief, then research shows that donor is more likely believe in that way in which you address these problems.

A great content format to deliver this information is an explainer video. You may have seen these before. An explainer video tends to be 2–3 minute video that explains a problem, then talks about how you are addressing it.  It breaks complex problems into digestible information.

Email #3: Get to know your donors.

This email should be sent three-five days after the second email. Its purpose is to learn more about what this individual donor cares about. There are a few reasons we want to get to know them better.

First, most nonprofit communications professionals would probably say they do not survey their donors enough.

Asking a donor what they care about and why they are engaged with your organization is a great way to show that you care. It shows respect.

It also has the added benefit of giving you information that can help tailor your communications to them going forward.

What should you be trying to figure out at this point?

Most importantly, we want to find out what motivates your donor. If you run several programs that address different areas, it’s important to know which program motivates them the most. If you only run one program, then try to figure out what it is about that program that motivates them the most.

Other information that you can learn in addition to this is a bonus, but these motivational drivers are a must.

If possible, try to limit the number of questions you ask to less than three. You want these donors to feel engaged and cared for, but not burdened by a massive survey.

Depending on your CRM or Email Service Provider (ex. CampaignMonitor), there are a number of different ways to collect your donors preferences and connect them back to your Donor Relationship Management (CRM) database.

Here are are a few popular ways:

  1. Surveys – Send your donor to a survey on Google Forms, or SurveyMonkey and collect responses that can be automatically imported into your CRM.
  2. Update Their Record in Your Email Service Provider – Send the donor to an email sign-up form that has questions about their motivations. Once the form is submitted, with their emails address it will update their record in the Email Service Provider.
  3. Use Click Behavior – Many Email Service Providers, like Campaign Monitor, can tag a donor record based on the link that they clicked in an email you send them. So, if you send them an email with links to several articles that focus on several different topics, we can tag their profile with their interests based on the links they click in that email.

Once you have recorded the donors’ interests, you can use that data to send them content that specifically addresses their individual motivations. This process is often referred to as donor segmentation.

By segmenting your new donors, your development team can leverage this data in the future to tailor communications to these individuals in following campaigns.

This donor welcome series will automatically segment donors for you. That’s powerful stuff!

Email #4: The power of storytelling

The fourth email is sent five-seven days after the third email. Its purpose is to deliver a story about your work that is customized based on the results from the last email.

Storytelling is a powerful tool in donor cultivation. In the second email, we talked more globally about the problems that your organization is addressing. A story frames that larger problem in a way that individuals can connect with at an emotional level.

The story should highlight how the larger problem affects individuals, communities or specific locations. In other words, it grounds the larger problem in something that is tangible for the donor.

If you have not written an impact story like this before, research the Hero’s Journey. It will help deliver a more powerful message that compels individuals to take action.

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Most importantly, make sure that this story addresses the specific topic that we learned motivates the donor in the previous email.

For instance, if you have a program at your nonprofit that that addresses homelessness, and you know your donor is passionate about this topic, tell a story about homelessness and how your nonprofit is addressing it.

Lastly, if you can deliver this story in video format, it allows you to tell the story more visually, and create a bigger impact.

Email #5: Move the donor through the engagement pipeline.

The final email should be sent five-seven days after the fourth email. This final email is designed to “make the ask,” or move the individual through the engagement pipeline and build a stronger relationship.

Many people immediately think about asking for more money when they hear “making the ask.” For some nonprofits that may be appropriate.  However, there are a lot of ways to move donors closer to your organization without giving money.

In fact, the best ask provides value to the donor. What do we mean by that?

When cultivating a relationship—personal, professional, or while fundraising—it’s tempting to focus on what you can get from the other individual. Instead, you are more likely to build long-term relationships if you focus on what you can provide to the other person. This is no different when cultivating donors.

Often, when you provide value to someone, that goodwill comes back in full.

With that concept in mind, what value does your nonprofit provide to donors?

Here are some common ways that organizations deliver value:

  1. Access to research data
  2. VIP Access to people, events or places
  3. Thought leadership on a particular topic
  4. Industry frameworks and resources
  5. Technical assistance and training
  6. Access to a community of like-minded people
  7. Access to a community of professional peers
  8. Acceptance to a community of “doers” who share a common interest

There are a number of different ways that nonprofits provide value to donors. Focus on what you can give to help build that relationship stronger.

So, how do you make the ask?

All too often we see asks like “Follow us on Facebook.”

Where is the value proposition in this ask? What’s in it for the user?

When making the ask, frame the ask in a way that delivers value and provides context. Again, focus on what we learned about the donor in our third email when making the ask.

How about this instead?

“Watch our executive director’s most recent interview on Facebook with the leader of homelessness research and how they are addressing the problem across the United States. While you are there, make sure to follow us so you don’t miss our weekly interviews with other industry leaders.”

See how this ask provides value? If you were a donor that cares about understanding industry trends, this offer would be too good to pass up.

How to measure the success of your welcome series

As marketers, it is critical to measure and analyze the results from your work. By measuring your work, even your failures have value and will help you continuously improve your campaign performance.

Being a data-driven nonprofit can be challenging if you have not made it a priority, but getting started with data-driven marketing is easier than you might think. More importantly, leveraging data to make decisions is crucial to the success of your organization over the long-run.

Ultimately, the success of your donor welcome series is defined by your organization’s ability to retain donors. We recommend tracking donors that have experienced this welcomes series in cohorts.

As you refine your welcome series over time, you can compare cohorts to see which version of the welcome series retains more donors.

At a more granular level, you should track each email within your welcome series so you can test email subject lines and email content to track open and click-through rates. If specific emails are not performing well, try testing new content, or changing the email order, timeline or sequencing.

Remember that marketing is a constant experiment that we are tracking to continue to improve the results.

Wrap up

The success of your organization’s individual donor fundraising program is directly linked to your capability to retain donors and build relationships over time while overcoming the reality of limited staff bandwidth.

Marketing automation has completely changed our capabilities to deliver timely, customized content that makes donors feel connected to your mission and respected by your organization. By establishing a close connection to those donors early on in your relationship, donors will remain engaged and invested in the work that you are doing so you can continue to grow your mission’s impact.

Andrew is the co-founder and Chief Impact Officer at Rootid Nonprofit Communications.

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This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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