Innovation. Integration. Immediacy = Online Success for HRC
In 2004, when President Bush was preparing for a press conference to address the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would define marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman and take the power to allow or disallow gay and lesbian marriages out of the hands of the states, the Human Rights Campaign was on his tail.
HRC, the country’s largest nonprofit that advocates the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, was ready with an e-mail that would drop as soon as the press conference ended. When it did, the impact was immediate and astounding: 400,000 responses that brought in $600,000 overnight to fight the president’s proposal.
Flexibility and quick reflexes have been the hallmarks of HRC’s development strategy, which has garnered some of the most significant numbers for online fundraising and support that the nonprofit sector has seen since Donate Now buttons became de rigueur on organization Web sites.
Dane Grams and Ann Crowley, HRC’s respective online strategy director and membership director, have become something of a dynamic duo when it comes to online fundraising — not to mention the darlings of the conference circuit. They talk enthusiastically about the organization’s strategies both online and off, but they’re quick to agree that much of HRC’s fund- and friendraising success — along with its political victories — is the result of being at the right place at the right time.
“Some of our biggest successes have come about from making the most of opportunities,” Crowley says. “We have a direct-marketing plan; we know step by step what we’ll be doing in the next fiscal year — but our absolute biggest successes have come about from finding out that XYZ is going to happen and asking, ‘What are we going to do about that?’
“We’ll continue to take advantage of these things that come out,” she adds. “We don’t know what the next opportunity will be, but we’re going to make the most of it when it shows its face.”
Even though the area of GLBT advocacy is rife with opportunities to rally the public, HRC’s success is about much more than just well-leveraged serendipity. In fact, whether you’re talking about direct-response marketing, street canvassing, monthly giving conversions or the all-important channel integration equation, if there’s something that a cutting-edge nonprofit should be doing, then HRC probably is doing it, and doing it really, really well.
On the streets
While popular in other parts of the world, street and door-to-door fundraising haven’t yet hit their stride in the U.S. But HRC has been honing the art of face-to-face fundraising for more than a decade.
“For a long time, like many nonprofits that have been around as long as we have, we acquired most of our donors the typical way — through direct mail and telemarketing,” Grams says. “As our online endeavors grew, acquisition online has grown proportionately. But the biggest source of acquisition for HRC remains street and door-to-door canvassing. [We have] representatives knocking on doors in certain neighborhoods or standing on street corners and stopping anyone walking by, asking them to join HRC.
“We’re one of a handful of organizations that have made this work,” he adds.
One of the biggest problems with street canvassing for donations is donor retention. Sure, you might be able to get someone to give you a one-off contribution in the heat of the moment on a street corner, or maybe people even give because it seems like the quickest way to get out of the conversation and on with their day, but how do you keep those donors engaged — and giving?
HRC solved that problem by going to a monthly giving model with its street-canvassing and door-to-door campaigns, requiring long-term commitments from its street-acquired supporters.
The result: The organization now is acquiring 12,000 to 15,000 new monthly donors annually.
“While we had a difficult time getting people [who originally made a donation on the street] to make that second gift and stay with us long-term, getting them to sign on as monthly donors has made it much more financially valuable to us,” Grams says.
Still, Crowley warns, monthly giving isn’t exactly “a magic pill” that allows an organization to sign up supporters and then forget about them. It’s just as easy to cancel a monthly giving commitment as it is to agree to it.
“It takes a lot of focus on what resonated for these folks [in the first place], and we work hard to keep them on file and engaged,” she explains. “We test a lot of things and continue to try to make those numbers grow.”
Traditional direct-marketing channels have contributed in a major way to HRC’s success over the years — and remain a large and integral part of its fundraising mix — but there’s no denying that the Web is a significant new channel for the organization. How else do you explain an online strategy director? According to Grams, HRC’s fundraising model is appropriately integrated. And even though he and Crowley have been with the organization for 10 and 13 years respectively, they don’t struggle with the whole integration concept in the same way that many “old-school” fundraisers seem to. Perhaps that’s because HRC doesn’t draw as hard a line between donors and non-financial supporters as many organizations do.
When HRC lobbies “the Hill,” it’s important for it to have the power of numbers behind it — both financial and membership — and the team knows that once you get folks to come on as supporters, there’s a clear line to getting them to give. The key, Crowley says, is to keep them engaged.
Once it gets a donor on its file, HRC offers regular communications such as newsletters, letters from the president and event invitations. There’s a strong push for the second gift and for conversion to monthly giving. An online, mid-level giving campaign launched in August 2007 has garnered around 50 donors in the $1,200-to-$5,000 range.
“Integrate, integrate, integrate,” Crowley stresses. “But do so carefully and respectfully. If someone gives online, they get acknowledgment through the mail. You have to communicate with them through many venues.
“If someone reaches out and says, ‘I only want to hear from you in a certain way,’ we of course will respect their wishes. But generally, we tend to do multichannel solicitations to everybody,” she adds.
Grams agrees but maintains that there’s a subtle difference that marks HRC’s success with integration, one that many organizations have yet to discover: “While integration is key,” he says, “it’s sort of more like a salad than a melting pot. There can be independent campaigns within integrated channels. You can run an online campaign that doesn’t follow the traditional mail/phone/e-mail structure. It can all work well together.”
How it started
HRC started and built its online community around a 2003 petition campaign to collect a million signatures to fight the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment. According to Grams, 400,000 people signed it in the first year, and that number has since more than doubled. [HRC expects to cross the million-signature mark this year.]
“Then we found ourselves in this place where we had all these new supporters of the organization who hadn’t made a financial contribution but obviously were engaged in our issues,” Crowley says.
Grams says HRC’s conversion program, which began in 2003, raised nearly $1 million online in its first 12 months — the majority of that from new donors — and its online strategy is on track to raise $1.6 million in fiscal year 2008.
“That’s fairly significant,” he says. “The cost of collecting and converting these donors isn’t free, but compared to the cost of telemarketing and direct mail, it’s so low that we actually see a net gain from this program, which is unheard of.”
The organization continued its pioneering online efforts in 2007 with its Fight Hate Campaign — a stunning multichannel success that harnessed the power of e-mail, the Web, video and even an ’80s pop superstar.
Starting in May 2007, HRC launched a campaign to support passage of the Matthew Shepard Act, which would strengthen existing federal hate-crime laws. In addition to e-mails and a Web presence, the organization created a video featuring survivors of hate crimes and scored it with Cyndi Lauper’s hit song “All Through the Night.” It then partnered with Lauper on her True Colors tour, using concert dates around the country as platforms for educating the public about violence based on sexual orientation. The video was shown at the concerts, made it to YouTube and was included in HRC e-mails, resulting in nearly 500,000 views.
HRC also received a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales. What started out as HRC being a beneficiary of the concert turned into more of a partnership.
As a result:
■ 375,000 people sent e-mails to Congress;
■ several thousand filled out postcards to Congress;
■ several thousand more sent handwritten letters to Congress;
■ 40,000 placed phone calls to Congress; and
■ 100 letters to the editor on hate crimes appeared in newspapers large and small around the country.
“We had the issues. We had the politics. We were in the right place at the right time. We were moving public support. We were moving people on the Hill. We were raising money and bringing on new donors and activists,” Grams says.
“And educating people at the same time,” Crowley adds. “A key component of what we do is education, and that’s not always measurable. Without education, we’re not going to get the support we need to get our laws passed.”
By September, the Matthew Shepard Act had been passed by both the House and Senate. But the victory was short-lived, as it died in conference committee shortly after.
“So we’ll be starting all over again with our campaign,” Grams says. “That’s what it’s like working on the Hill.”
As far as numbers for HRC, the Fight Hate Campaign brought in 2,000 new donors and 70,000 subscribers to the online community.
“I keep asking myself, ‘How are we going to top this?’ and then we do,” Grams says. “In December, we implemented an online membership drive campaign — ‘2008: The Year to Win’ — and over the next six weeks we had almost 10,000 people give $500,000. Roughly half of them were first-time donors to HRC.”
HRC began thinking about an online strategy in 2000 when Grams and Crowley figured if the presidential candidates were doing it, how hard could it be? They admit to making many mistakes — like crashing their server with the very first e-mail attempt — but persevering. Once the commitment was made, they made sure that e-mail address collection was a priority, and they started doing it as part of every contact with the public — online petitions, e-mails, events, etc.
“You really have to instill that at every level of the organization. That’s step one. That’s the hard part,” Grams says. “Once that’s done, you have to let the organization speak for itself, communicate the right amount, share information, invite [supporters] to things, let them get to know you, develop a relationship with them.
“Collect, cultivate, convert. It really is as basic and as simple as that,” he adds.
Traditional vs. online
At its core, of course, fundraising is fundraising. There’s always a compelling story that must be told, and there’s always an ask or other call to action that must be made.
But the beauty of e-mail and online fundraising, Grams and Crowley agree, is its immediacy. The main thing any organization can do to make the most of the Internet and e-mail is to have the infrastructure in place that allows it to get e-mails out as soon as an opportunity presents itself — to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.
“When people are hurt or angry is the best time to get them involved,” Grams says. “HRC does a good job of moving on these situations when they arise — not just to raise money but to raise public awareness and support. You send out e-mails immediately … it’s a relevant opportunity to get people engaged. With direct mail, there’s no immediate, snap-of-the-finger opportunity to do that.”
Crowley adds: “[It’s important to] have the software in place that allows you to do mass e-mail immediately so that when something breaks or happens you can make the most of it.”
Other differences when comparing e-mail to direct mail:
■ the more casual tone of e-mail;
■ the immediate returns and feedback;
■ the rapidly changing best practices for e-mail, such as best days to send, vs. a more tried-and-true set of best practices for direct mail;
■ and, of course, new opportunities for mistakes.
That last one is a biggie, which makes it imperative that there’s a rigorous quality-control plan in place when organizations utilize e-mail messaging. Of course, you can “correct” an e-mail boo-boo with a quick resend, but given the breadth of the mistake, it might not be good enough.
“Pushing that ‘send’ button when you’re sending to 850,000 people is one of the most difficult, sweaty moments you can think of,” Grams says. Crowley adds, “And it’s not just 850,000 people. Those 850,000 have the ability to forward it to however many people they want.”
“Of course, that’s also the beauty of it,” she says. “The extension of audience is much greater with e-mail. If someone has a letter, they might show it to someone, but they probably aren’t going to show it to 10 people.”
The emergence of e-mail as a solid fundraising and advocacy vehicle also means that the e-mail team must be more intimately involved in the politics and programs of an organization because there’s less time for research than when the direct-mail pros are working on their mailings.
Like most organizations, HRC has its own set of mission-specific challenges when it comes to fundraising. First off, its core list is inherently limited. Turning to street and door-to-door canvassing helped alleviate the problem since a majority of the people brought into the organization via face-to-face fundraising, Grams and Crowley believe, are straight. But sexual orientation isn’t the easiest demographic to measure.
“The closet is a very strong entity in a person’s life,” Crowley explains. “If they’re not out yet or are only out to certain folks, then even if we ask, are they really being honest? So we take our best guess based on different components.”
HRC fundraising/friendraising also has a strong “tell-a-friend” component, which encourages its target audience (the GLBT community) to forward messages to friends, family members and coworkers who, statistically, are more likely to be straight.
And in order to make all of this mesh more seamlessly, HRC slightly tweaked its self-description, changing its verbiage from “the largest GLBT organization” to “the largest civil rights organization working on behalf of GLBT Americans.” It’s a small change, but one that stands a better chance of resonating with those outside the immediate community.
That done, however, HRC also has to understand what effect — if any — bringing more “straight allies” into the mix will have on the organization’s perception and reception among its core audience. So far, so good, Crowley says.
Which then brings us to inherent challenge No. 2, which is illustrated perfectly by the Matthew Shepard Act. Despite an apparent victory, the legislation remains stalled — something that easily can frustrate donors and other supporters.
“Passing a law is like making sausages — no one really understands what goes into it, and they don’t really want to see. They just want to enjoy the end result,” Crowley says.
HRC’s answer to all of these challenges, it seems, has been a mix of relentless education, creativity and dogged determination to keep donors engaged.
“We’ve gotten through all of these things before,” Crowley says. “We always stay steady. Maybe we change things here and there, but we stay true to our goal of getting our message out, getting people engaged and working at raising the much-needed funds to accomplish our mission.”
Adds Grams: “It’s personal for us; it’s personal for people who give to this organization. When you have to live your life every day in fear of coming out, in fear of perhaps losing a job or an apartment, in fear of being beaten up at school …
“Our equal sign [logo] really embodies what this organization is about,” he concludes. “And that has enabled us to build a really strong and solid program.” FS