Donor-Acquisition Strategies During Tough Times
Acquisition is one of the toughest endeavors in the fundraising sector. Acquiring new donors is costly, budgets are tight and the next wave of donors has different needs than prior generations.
At the Association of Fundraising Professionals' Fundraising Day in New York last month, Clint O'Brien, vice president of business development at Care2, laid out acquisition techniques in today's fundraising landscape in the session, "Acquisition in Tough Times: Finding New Donors Without Breaking the Bank."
The major problem is that direct-mail acquisition of new donors has continued to decline in the past 10 years while the average age of donors continues to rise. So where are you going to get donors? According to O'Brien, the best places are online channels — not direct mail.
"Direct mail is great for cultivation," he said, "but not for acquisition anymore because people want permission for contact."
Search: SEO vs. SEM
"Anyone searching for you is valuable to you by definition," O'Brien said. "They are clearly interested in your cause or something about your organization."
That's where search comes in, both organic and paid. Organic search, or search engine optimization (SEO), is all about getting your website found — and the goal is to get your site found by valuable people searching for information about you and your cause. The key is page rank, O'Brien said, and he offered the following advice:
- Include in your site's content (title tags and meta data as well) key search words, e.g. "help homeless," "protect whales," "stop fracking," etc. Be literal in word choice.
- Update your website pages often so search engines crawl your site more often.
- Encourage other sites to link to you to boost page rank.
The pluses of SEO are the costs are one-time and it's a good way to retain donors as well. However, creating content takes time and effort, something that not every nonprofit has the staff to accommodate as regularly as it'd like.
"Don't rely too much on SEO because you're at the mercy of Google," O'Brien said. "Your e-mail strategy is much more important than your website because people don't browse for your site every day. Invest accordingly."
For search engine marketing (SEM), the goal is the same as SEO, however it is "paid." The good news is that Google Grants provide a great opportunity to get in front of active searchers who are engaged, so there's a good chance of converting. Plus, it's free money to use and experiment with from Google.
However, while there is no cash cost, it takes a lot of work and staff time to build good landing pages and learn how to bid successfully with the money. Plus, it's more of a trickle of donors than a gusher — but it's still worth exploring, O'Brien said.
The pluses are that SEM is a high-quality source and that Google gives you "free" money to use. The minuses are that it's a low-quantity source, takes considerable work and has a steep learning curve.
The goal of social-media acquisition strategies is to get more donors by turning your supporters into ambassadors for you and then convert them into donors and peer-to-peer fundraisers, but fundraising via social media has been largely ineffective.
"I want to say don't try this at home, fundraising through social media," O'Brien said.
However, he said social media is a great place to get donors on your e-mail file. While donor conversion on Facebook and Twitter is only 3 percent to 6 percent, donor conversion on e-mail averages 34 percent, according to O'Brien. Thus, it's an excellent opportunity to get them to sign up to your list.
The key is to manage expectations with social media, because the truth is social media isn't free — nothing is free, O'Brien said. There is the cost of staff time and resources, which takes away from other aspects of fundraising and the organization.
The pluses of social media are that it leverages pre-existing networks and has a multiplier effect when your supporters help you out. The minus are that you have no control over social-media networks and few donors have been acquired through social media so far.
O'Brien is a big fan of e-mail append, which is taking the direct-mail list and trying to get the e-mail from donors are your file. The goal is to convert more of your supporters into donors and increase the value of existing donors, transforming them into multichannel donors.
However, this is "not to be done callously," O'Brien said. "It must be done carefully to avoid annoying donors who did not want to receive your e-mails and avoid putting your e-mails at risk of being blocked by Internet service providers."
This isn't necessarily acquisition in the traditional sense, because it's not about growing your file so much as adding value to your housefile. However, it is inexpensive and adds value to your donors and prospects.
E-mail list sharing
O'Brien also said he a proponent of e-mail list sharing with like-minded nonprofits, an exchange of donors that helps grow each organization's list. The goal is to recruit donors from peer organizations in return for giving the other nonprofit similar access to your list.
It must be done carefully — O'Brien suggested via "chaperoned e-mails" in which the organization that the donors donated to introduces the nonprofit it is sharing its list with to its own donors first as an introduction — to avoid annoying donors or violating their privacy.
O'Brien did warn that most nonprofits that do this hold back their "best donors," but the reality is that most donors give to more than one charity — so you already are sharing your donors with other nonprofits. The pluses are that you can grow your list of donors and supporters fast, and the cost is almost nothing. The minuses include letting other nonprofits have some of your donors and that you might annoy some of your donors.
Care2 is a provider of paid acquisition, so obviously O'Brien is an advocate for paid acquisition of warm donor leads. The goal of paid acquisition is to recruit multichannel donor prospects and supporters who are "prequalified" to boost the likelihood of conversion into actual donors.
In paid acquisition, nonprofits only pay for actual captured leads, not for branding, awareness, impressions, exposure, advocacy, etc. And it taps existing communities who already care about the cause. It's based on behavioral targeting plus permission-based marketing to become prequalified warm leads.
- There are no duplications. All the leads are new to the nonprofits, not supporters already on file.
- It is cost-per-lead pricing, meaning the nonprofit only pays for actual leads delivered.
- The leads are multichannel leads. The nonprofit receives the e-mail address and postal address.
- It's a high-volume, high-quality, fast, proven model.
- There is an initial up-front cost.
- You still must cultivate and convert leads into donors.
Odds and ends
O'Brien added that online action campaigns fuel fundraising — e.g., supporters who take online actions such as via pledge or petition campaigns. Why? Supporters who take online action are seven times more likely to donate than supporters who did not previously take an online action for the organization. Online advocacy and fundraising activities complement and reinforce each other.
"Don't propose marriage to a stranger," O'Brien said. "Get them to give permission to build a relationship, and then ask."