418 emails – a study

It’s helpful to look at the big email picture from time to time — across a span of time and an entire segment of our nonprofit industry — to gain a perspective of what’s working, and what standard behavior looks like.

Way back in 2010, Amergent made gifts to 33 cancer centers around the United States, using a newly invented email address. We made online gifts of $25, and sent $20 checks in the same donor’s name. We documented the donor experience, and since then, we’ve been tracking what each of these institutions have sent us, both online and in the mail.

It’s time to look at the first ten months of 2014, and report on what we’ve found, and what we like. An update report in January will provide a view of year-end 2014 e-communications, which we hope will be more intense than the pattern we witnessed so far.

It appears that 2014 is little different from 2011. Many of the cancer centers sent us about the same number of emails this year that they did for the same period in the 12 months right after our gift. Some have still not started to use email as a means of communicating with donors… even those who give online!

inbox-emptyOf the 33 institutions to whom we made gifts, eleven (exactly one-third) sent us not a single email all year. These institutions have sent us virtually  no email since our gift (one, a household name institution, didn’t even send us a thank-you email to acknowledge our gift!).

Of those who “bothered” to send us any, another third (10) sent us about one a month – barely enough so we don’t forget about them, but at least they’re in the game.  Only six cancer centers sent us two or more per month. The runaway leader is Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who has been in the forefront of digital communications among cancer centers since our first gift in 2010. Between “The Jimmy Fund”, DFCI and its many events, we received 107 email messages between New Year’s Day and Halloween – almost three per week!

Over the next few days, I’ll be presenting further analysis of these 418 email messages, including highlights of the most inspiring messages and best subject lines. If you work for a cancer center, contact me so we can discuss your organization’s messages in detail, privately.


Annual fund donors lead to major gifts

Wealth overlays alone do not generate major gifts!

At #NACCDOPAN, the conference of the National Association of Cancer Center Development Officers, Michael  Hibler of Johns Hopkins’ Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, and Cindy McGirk of Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center talked about ways to use data to enhance the major and planned giving efforts of their institutions.

Cindy exploded the myth that you can take your annual fund donors, overlay a wealth screening tool, and then stop mailing and calling the top-ranked donors, turning them over to a major gifts officer. First, wealth screening alone does not indicate the propensity to make major gifts. Second, abandoning traditional annual fund contacts via mail, phone, and email leads of course to fewer gifts.

What works, according to Michael, is a more complicated analysis that includes wealth ratings but that also includes data from their own donor database, including the longevity of giving, number of gifts, and other data.

Indeed, we at Amergent have run complicated regression analyses that search for factors that correlate between donor data and major or planned gift donors. In other words, if a piece of data tends to be much more common among planned or major gift donors than it is in the general donor population, that donor looks more like a planned gift donor, and that donor would rank higher on the list. Common data elements that correlate to planned giving status include the length of the donor relationship and the number of gifts given. The size of the gifts do not matter much.

Interestingly, there is a high inverse relationship between the gap between first and second gifts and the propensity to be a planned gift donor. In other words, the shorter the time between a donor’s first and second gift, even if both were made 20 years ago, the more likely they are to be a planned gift donor. So, if you want to help grow your population of planned giving prospects over the next ten or more years, thank new donors quickly, cultivate them, and get them to make a second gift quickly.

How do Michael and Cindy use these major and planned gift indicators? One way is to run wealth screening in almost real-time against newly admitted patients (who did not opt out of such communications). When a high-propensity patient is admitted, the major gift officers talk to the patient’s doctor, and ask them to “listen for cues” that indicate an interest in giving. Partnerships with physicians is key to identifying good prospects to visit.

How are you using your data?

Great stories are fundraising gold

Athletic wear company Nike is great at telling stories. One features an 80-year-old man who runs 17 miles a day. He says, “Friends ask me how I keep my teeth from chattering in the really cold weather. It’s simple: I leave ‘em in my locker!”

The point is so clear it doesn’t need to be said: If this old man can run 17 miles every day, why can’t you? And, Nike will provide the clothes and sneakers to do it.

We need to tell our stories, too. Just as creatively and just as succinctly.

I recently had the chance to tour a nonprofit cancer research center. I met a young researcher newly arrived from Finland. He spoke articulately in heavily accented English about how he has adapted some robotics technology to slice cells into ultra-thin portions so that more tests can be done and much more quickly than in the past. The doctor in charge of the lab said that last week, this young man ran more tests than had ever been run in the entire history of the lab up to that point.

This story is powerful to those who are touched by cancer. It says that progress is being made in a very measurable way. It shows what I call bite-sized progress – progress people can understand, appreciate and help to fund.

Giving $100 to cure cancer feels a lot like fighting the National Debt by saving $100 in Medicare costs. It feels like no progress at all. But giving $100 to help fund the laboratory where they have dramatically increased the speed of tests on cancer cells… that’s tangible evidence of progress!

Your nonprofit has great stories to tell, too. Get past the memos and sanitized grant requests, and talk to the young people in the lab, the volunteers reading to patients, the healthcare providers who celebrate their patients’ recoveries.

Take a video camera and record them in their workplace. Capture their energy. Explain, in layman’s terms, how they are making bite-sized progress. Then tell those stories in words, pictures and video, in the mail, on YouTube, Facebook and email. Explain how the donor’s $100 will fund measurable progress. Help the donors to feel that they’re making a difference. That’s all they want!

Do you have a good story? Tell us about it here!

Year-end digital roundup

As I reported New Year’s week, only about half of healthcare organizations to whom I’ve donated online have sent me even one email during the most important fund-raising week of the year. The final tally from the 30 cancer institutes to whom online donations were made in the last few years? 17 different institutions sent a total of 37 emails between December 26 and 31.

Of the seven children’s hospitals to whom I’ve donated in the past few months, only two sent an email. However, two others, to whom I did not donate but whose email newsletters I received each sent three messages during that time.

I was impressed by Partners in Health, an $88 Million Boston-area international health organization, that sent four email messages to me during this week, three of which came on New Year’s Eve! I can imagine many organizations cringing at that level of contact, so I reached out to Charles Howes, PIH’s Manager of Annual Giving and Digital Engagement for some feedback.

While they exceeded their goal for the campaign, they carefully monitored reaction from supporters — email open rate, action rate, and unsubscribe rate — and they saw no discouraging data from their campaign. So, it raised more money, but it didn’t turn off more supporters.

One thing to carefully monitor in an intense email campaign is the unsubscribe rate. It often hovers around 0.5% but can spike if people feel they are getting too many, or irrelevant, messages.

We have never approached anything near a one percent unsubscribe,” says Charles. “The sky is not the limit in regard to number of emails, but we have found we can sparingly send more than one email per day during key moments of a campaign.”

One tip from Charles: If someone gives to the first email in a campaign, they do not receive follow-up emails for that campaign. While this might leave some money on the table, it also likely prevents donor feeling they’re getting hammered.

I also asked Charles about the role of social media during an email campaign. “While social media plays a complementary role from a messaging perspective, it is not a large revenue driver,” says Charles, who reports that $14 in revenue comes from email for every dollar resulting from social media. “Increasingly, we find it important to analyze a single channel in the context of all channels (web, direct mail, email, search, etc.).”

How was your year-end? What did you learn?

Join Us at the Integrated Marketing Virtual Conference for Non-Profits


It’s free and online – no travel necessary! Register here.