Focus On: E-philanthropy: E-volving with the Times
In the formative years of online fundraising, nonprofit organizations assumed that if they built a Web site with bells and whistles, rich content and a device to accept donations, donors would come. But to the chagrin of many fundraising pros who defined effective online fundraising as the ability to take credit card transactions through a Web interface, donors came in fits and starts. Charities soon learned that they needed to be just as creative, diligent and engaging in their approach to the Internet as to any offline fundraising medium.
Since then, the process of adopting online fundraising plans has been a slow, but steady, one. In August 2001, 41 percent of the 900 nonprofit organizations surveyed by the Gilbert Center, a Seattle, WA-based nonprofit research institute and consultancy, said they did not have an e-mail strategy. Only 4 percent reported having a successful program. In the same study, 36 percent said they collected e-mail addresses on their Web site, and only 23 percent said they published electronic newsletters.
Michael Gilbert, founder and principle of the Gilbert Center, which publishes the Nonprofit Online News, says that a Web site built around an e-mail strategy is more valuable than a Web site built around itself.
“Stop obsessing about how many hits your Web site gets and start counting how much e-mail interaction you have with your stakeholders,” Gilbert says. “Stop waiting for people to discover your Web site, and start discovering their inboxes.”
Albeit unglamorous, e-mail is person-to-person communication — the fundamental baseline of direct marketing — and the one thing that breaks down barriers faster than anything else on the Web, Gilbert says.
“An e-mail-savvy organization is one that collects e-mail addresses on its Web site in some useful fashion, that has a newsletter, that is able to ask people for things online, move people to action and is able to listen,” he says.
According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University’s Philanthropic Giving Index December 2003, 28.9 percent of fundraisers surveyed cast their e-mail initiatives to be more successful in the near future than they are today. A gradual sign of improvement, that. But for the organizations that have successfully utilized e-mail as a fundraising tool, it’s a delicate balance of nurturing relationships and urging action.
JNF defies the odds
Several years ago, the Jewish National Fund, a nonprofit organization benefiting the land of Israel and its peoples, launched an in-house, e-mail newsletter campaign that produced marginally impressive returns. In 2003, heeding the need to bolster its e-mail efforts, JNF partnered with Internet software and services firm Convio — the company that championed Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean’s success on the Web.
The first order of business was to personalize and regionalize all e-mail broadcasts, so a recipient in Los Angeles would receive an e-newsletter that addressed him by name and include pertinent southern California JNF news, as well as related national and international news. That e-mail also would be signed by the local JNF president.
“We wanted [our constituents] to read stories about people and places they knew and heard about to generate interest in the newsletters,” says Howard Horowitz, director of marketing for JNF. “It’s a matter of providing them with something familiar to relate to.”
The underlying goal of each newsletter is to motivate recipients to purchase Tree Certificates, Water Greeting Cards, bar- and bat-mitzvah invitations and Water Certificates — items available on the JNF Web site (www.jnf.org). Below the salutation of each newsletter is a redirect link that takes members to one of two areas on the site: a page that allows donors to designate an action area for their donation, or the JNF store page.
“We talk about what JNF is, what JNF does, why JNF is important, but we don’t provide a specific ask [in our e-mail newsletters],” Horowitz says. “We are obviously trying to solicit donations, but we like to let [members] decide how much they want to give.”
In 2003, JNF eclipsed $1 million in online donations. Of the 19,100 donors that gave online, nearly 60 people contributed more than $1,000 each, including three who gave $5,000 each and one who donated $10,000. JNF’s e-mail database of addresses — gathered strictly from its Web site and at various fundraising events — increased by 106 percent in 2003 to more than 100,000. What’s more, 28 percent of all people who gave to JNF online in 2003 were new to the organization, proof of the powerful pass-along effect.
“E-mail is at the forefront of any marketing strategy that we put together,” Horowitz affirms. “The direct mail that we do and the money we bring in online netted at about the same amount in 2003, which is something nobody ever believed would happen. E-mail may even pass direct mail this year.”
‘Stream’ lining info
Until April 2003, The Humane Society of the United States’ Internet and e-mail fundraising program had been virtually flat. Then, online communications provider Exciting New Technologies entered the fray and persuaded HSUS to e-mail a broad, untapped market: pet owners who are not ready to receive donor appeals but want tips on how to care for their animals. Once the audience was clearly defined, HSUS and ENT opted to create a streaming video e-newsletter.
“We have a strong in-house video department, and we have used these assets to some success on television but hadn’t had a good way to use them on the Web,” says Joe Mann, senior advisor to HSUS’ e-community department.
The effort dropped a combination of biweekly and weekly messages to 14,000 opt-in subscribers who requested information from HSUS’ Web site (www.hsus.org). The newsletter featured streaming video images of various animals, accompanied by news, tips and online-donation capabilities. One particular newsletter presented a video of the organization’s president explaining why a small monthly donation amounts to a sizable annual gift.
ENT and HSUS use a combination of Flash and Windows Media to ensure readability, but in the event of technical difficulties, embedded text in the e-mail instructs those recipients who don’t see the video to click a link to view it in their Web browsers.
Mann says most of HSUS’ messages contain a soft ask, since the organization is not using e-mail to directly solicit donations but, rather, to build program awareness.
“We receive a much higher response rate and open rate from e-mails that contain video,” Mann notes. “In the first several months, the rate of donations from the [pet-owner audience] that we developed was much lower because it was a new audience, but as we kept delivering this message to them, they really came through in a big way.”
Before the streaming video e-newsletter campaign launched, HSUS had no monthly Internet givers. Now, Internet donors compose approximately 10 percent of its total monthly contributors.
Youth group bowls a strike
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the largest and oldest youth-mentoring organization in the United States, has reason to celebrate its centennial anniversary this year. After employing an e-mail fundraising strategy in 2003 with the assistance of Internet software and services firm Kintera, the organization’s overall online giving increased by 210 percent from the previous year.
According to Robin Palley, vice president of marketing and communications, BBBSA’s long-term mission is to serve 1 million children by the year 2010. Today, the organization serves 200,000 children, ages 6 through 18, in 5,000 communities.
“We looked at all the components in our arsenal to help us reach our goal, and we saw [online fundraising] as an excellent opportunity to raise the profile of the organization in the eyes of the public, government, funders and corporate partners and [to] go out and tell our story,” Palley says.
With the gauntlet thrown down, the braintrust of BBBSA designed an e-newsletter campaign to solicit donations and event participation for its signature fundraising program, Bowl for Kids’ Sake, an event that takes place in bowling centers to raise funds for children.
“The lower cost and higher efficiency of using e-mail is going to be key in slicing the direct marketing pie in a new way,” Palley says.
When a constituent receives the e-mail, he is taken to a localized landing page to either register for the local event, volunteer to raise funds for the event, sponsor a child participant, make a credit card donation, or pass the message on to a friend or family member.
BBBSA piloted the e-mail program in 2002 with only seven participating agencies; in 2003, more than 125 BBBSA local organizations signed on.
“Up until now, Bowl for Kids’ Sake has been our only real online effort,” confirms Debbie Everitt, director of development projects. “Our agencies, as well as our donors, are becoming technically savvy, and that’s going to continue to play a role in our online initiatives going forward.”
The amount raised online for the nationwide Bowl for Kids’ Sake events increased by 1,026 percent, from $33,971 in 2002 to $382,588 in 2003. The number of e-mails sent by participants to friends and family increased by 1,100 percent, from 5,392 e-mails sent in 2002 to 64,682 sent in 2003.
Click-throughs of pass-along e-mails increased 1,199 percent, from 1,719 in 2002 to 22,328 in 2003.
One volunteer fundraiser, who previously had toted around a pledge sheet for a month in an attempt to raise $500, shifted to e-mail and plucked $575 from 21 people in two hours, Everitt says.
“We are really just scratching the surface of online giving,” she says. “Our efforts have increased significantly, but we are only talking about 18 percent of the entire Bowl for Kids’ Sake program.”
Web spending on the rise
Benefiting from several years of experience on the Web, organizations recognize the need to embrace online fundraising. Eighty-six percent of respondents to a recent study conducted by Kintera said they expected to improve Internet fundraising efforts in 2004 compared to 2003. Six percent expected to maintain 2003 levels, and 8 percent said they will decrease online fundraising efforts.
Says Michael Gilbert: “The fact that more and more e-mail newsletters are being started for purposes of maintaining and building relationships with stakeholders — long before they actually give money and well after — that’s the inflection point around real online fundraising.”