4 min Read
December 15, 2015

Who will control your donor communications in the future?

In May 2015, a 92 year-old British woman named Olive Cooke tragically committed suicide after telling friends she “couldn’t give any more.” The British media immediately seized on the story running headlines such as, “Organisations who exploited pensioner’s kind heart admit to sending begging letters” (Daily Mail) and “Killed by her Kindness” (Sun).

More substantive and credible voices countered that the “begging letters” Ms. Cooke received had come from organizations that had maintained high standards in their fundraising, and that her death was not the result of being pursued by nonprofits. Nonetheless, the incident whipped up a frenzy of scrutiny of nonprofit solicitation practices in the UK. Over the summer, articles from Third Sector, the Nonprofit Quarterly, and other credible industry resources noted that if nonprofits don’t take responsibility for monitoring their own practices effectively, the government may step in and do so, likely with a more restrictive hand.

Nonprofits work hard to build relationships with donors, often in multiple channels. Today’s donor might hear from your organization through social media, email, snail mail, telesolicitation, video, and more. Soon, they might even tour your programs in virtual reality. It can feel overwhelming for the people receiving all of those messages, not to mention the nonprofit staff people trying to walk the line between cutting through the clutter, communicating clearly, and potentially overcommunicating.

So how much is too much? When are you going to far? Farra Trompeter recently wrote a thoughtful piece on how to tear down silos, make your donor feel like a hero, and map your donor communications in 2016.

But let’s face it: the future of your donor communications is really in their hands, not yours. After all, the technology that allows donors to dictate their preferences for communications—defining exactly how often and what you can send them—is getting more affordable and increasingly expected.

Blackbaud recently invited a small group of senior fundraisers from America’s largest nonprofits to a forward-looking conference called NPNext. And if there was one theme that permeated the day, it was donor control.

Steve MacLaughlin, Blackbaud’s Director of Analytics, predicted that, in time, your CIO (chief information officer) and your CMO (chief marketing officer) will evolve into a CXO: Chief Experience Officer. Steve sees technology becoming so plug-and-play that we won’t need people who specialize in data or technology to translate it for the rest of us. The data mining and segmenting you want will help you develop the customized content your audiences increasingly expect much more seamlessly, and this will become the norm, not the exception.

Here’s one example of how I imagine this should work in the near future.

When people register for an event, sign up for a newsletter, or take any other action with your nonprofit, they will be dropped automatically into streams of communications defined by their preferences and past actions. If, as a supporter of the National Brain Tumor Society, I demonstrate my interest is primarily on Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), the bulk of communications I receive might focus on GBM-related research, advocacy, and discoveries.

If I also participate in a New York area walk, I might also get information about local events or walks, probably not those taking place in California. The calendar of communications I receive will not only reflect my behaviors and interests, it will adapt as I take further action.

Watched a video? Great! I’ll get more videos and less to read downstream, perhaps. Ignored the past few advocacy alerts? Perhaps the volume of actions I’m asked to take will be adjusted. 

Many nonprofits send new donors and prospects a series of emails (usually called a “welcome series”), although I’ve seen few orgs do much more than deliver a string of generic “thanks for joining us” messages. I’m talking about something much more personalized: messages that are customized with content selected automatically based on your behavior. Depending on what you’re viewing online, clicking on, or participating in, the technology notices and adjusts accordingly.  Content gets ever more customized, and therefor more attention-worthy.

These personalized streams of donor communications are called “drips” by marketing automation fans (ok, nerds) like us Ducks. We design them for ourselves and our clients the way you’d design a flow chart, flowing people through a set of if/then options designed to engage them in ways that feel personalized—but might not actually require much personalized touch.

Still, for most organizations, that future is hard to imagine. The technology isn’t yet so plug-and-play: it takes a sophisticated mix of staff, consultants, and technology to build a communications stream that engages donors in segmented, personalized, meaningful ways.

If you’re thinking about how to up your nonprofit’s game in 2016 and feel ready to take a step forward (without totally jumping in to the deep end of the pool), Big Duck’s fabulous Farra is leading a two-day deep-dive immersive workshop (with some additional support afterwards) in January on developing a donor communications plan so you can nail down your communications program for 2016 like a rock star.

Over the next few years (maybe even months) the way we all communicate will continue to change in ways we might not even imagine today. Think of the possibilities! So here’s to a future of virtual reality, 3D videos, and—most of all—smarter, better fundraising.