September 27, 2023

How should you approach GivingTuesday?

Abby Jarvis

Farra Trompeter, co-director, and Abby Jarvis, Senior Content Marketing Manager from Neon One discuss the history, the challenges, and the opportunities of GivingTuesday as a global generosity movement.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, “How should you approach GivingTuesday?” If you’re very familiar with GivingTuesday, not familiar with it all, don’t worry, we’ve got something for everyone in this conversation and I’m delighted to be joined by Abby Jarvis.

Farra Trompeter: Abby Jarvis who uses she/her is a speaker, writer, and researcher at Neon One. Her 10 years in the nonprofit technology industry have been dedicated to understanding how and why donors support their favorite causes, studying donor trends and behavior, and sharing practical tactics nonprofits can use to build successful fundraising programs. I was talking to Abby recently about some other project and we started talking about GivingTuesday and I thought, let’s record this conversation, have an even longer one. So Abby, thanks for joining us today.

Abby Jarvis: Absolutely.

Farra Trompeter: So for those of you out there who may not be familiar with it, GivingTuesday is an international movement that describes itself as “re-imagining a world built upon shared humanity and generosity.” It was created in 2012 with the intention of being a day that encourages everyone to do good. It is held typically once a year in November or December, and in 2023, as we’re recording this podcast, it’s November 28th. And it really is now something where in fact the folks behind it are encouraging people to celebrate GivingTuesday every Tuesday. So with that background in mind, I actually just want to start by talking to you, Abby, about how you connect to GivingTuesday. What’s been some of your experiences over the past, now as we’re in the 11th year, but over the past decade with GivingTuesday?

Abby Jarvis: It’s really been quite a ride. So I started working in the nonprofit tech industry in January of 2013. So right after the very first GivingTuesday, and watching its growth since then has been amazing. It went from a relatively small giving day. It was really exciting, but it was still pretty small compared to what it is now. Now it’s a huge global movement and that has happened really in just a few years and I think that’s really wonderful. And my favorite part has been watching nonprofits get creative with what they do on GivingTuesday. And then, of course, watching it grow and watching people all over the world rally to support their favorite causes. Especially when you consider that, especially right here in the States, we’re doing so right in the middle of one of the biggest shopping weeks of the year. So I think it’s a really beautiful reminder that like, yes, people care about more than just Black Friday deals. They also care about making the world a better place as well.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, which I think was the original intent behind it. And you know, when I talk to other nonprofit staff and consultants and board members and volunteers about GivingTuesday, I will say the reaction is mixed. Some I find are very excited about how it’s grown. They use it as a way to get new donors or even to get an extra gift from existing supporters raising more online, in fact, on that day than any other in the year. Others find it overwhelming and distracting, fostering competition between organizations or sabotaging efforts to get bigger gifts. And then there’s a group out there who maybe even ignore it altogether or use it to amplify other organizations in their ecosystem, and I’m personally excited about that last trend. Past few years I’ve seen more and more organizations approaching GivingTuesday with a collective lens, and in fact, I blogged about that last year. We’ll be sure to link to that in the show notes. But in this world, of all the different feelings that are associated with GivingTuesday, I’m curious, where do you fall on this debate, Abby?

Abby Jarvis: Man, this has been a spicy debate for about as long as I’ve been in the industry. Personally, I’m very much for GivingTuesday. I think honestly, having a day dedicated to giving is an important move. We know people are generous, but I don’t think a lot of folks wake up in the morning and write, donate to a nonprofit on their daily to-do list. So I think having a day set aside expressly for that purpose, expressly for celebrating generosity, and coming together to accomplish big beautiful things is very useful. I also think honestly, having a deadline for giving is useful. Nothing bad is going to happen if someone doesn’t give, of course. But I think there’s a certain psychological response that people have when there is a day dedicated to giving. I don’t know how else to explain it, but I think it’s a really useful tactic.

Abby Jarvis: Of course, I have heard a lot of concerns from consultants and staff about GivingTuesday, and I understand a lot of them. Of course, planning a full-fledged campaign that culminates in a single day is a ton of work, especially when you are really busy planning a year-end campaign, planning that second smaller campaign can be very stressful and I don’t want to downplay that at all. I also can kind of understand the concern about it creating competition between nonprofits and sometimes I can understand the concern about it possibly sabotaging other fundraising efforts. But I tend to think that those concerns are more of an issue with the way the nonprofit sector looks at fundraising than anything else. I think nonprofits create competition between nonprofits, GivingTuesday doesn’t do that. And I’m speaking from my own experiences here, especially after helping run a big GivingTuesday campaign. There was some concern of course, that we would be competing with the organization down the street for the same group of donors, but that didn’t really end up being the case.

Abby Jarvis: If you were listening to this podcast and you have these concerns, I want to share two little factoids that really kind of inform my feelings on this topic. So a number of years ago I did a study where we asked donors about their GivingTuesday activities. Most of the respondents to the survey, I think there were just over 1300 of them, didn’t only give to one organization on GivingTuesday. The largest cohort of donors in that set gave to two or three organizations that day. When we looked at some fundraising data from Neon One‘s clients, we saw an overall lift in fundraising for organizations that participated in both GivingTuesday and standard end-of-year campaigns. Participation in GivingTuesday didn’t hurt their year on fundraising at all. I understand where those concerns are coming from, but I don’t see data that backs up those concerns. Of course, we can still talk about the stress and pressure people feel. We don’t have data obviously that proves that they don’t feel that. But in terms of competing with other nonprofits, and in terms of it cannibalizing year-end gifts, those aren’t really concerns that we see backed up by data. People are generous and generosity isn’t a competition. It’s not a pie where the nonprofit down the street raising money means that you get less. You don’t have to forgo one campaign to make another more successful. You may need to reevaluate the way you communicate with GivingTuesday donors, especially if you are going to ask them for an end-of-year donation. But I hope those two data points give fundraisers the space to step back and look at their communities and celebrate how generous people really are. And I think it gives room to encourage your donor base to support the nonprofit down the street. You’re not competing for the same pie you are all working together to make your community a better place.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, well I can definitely agree with you for sure on that last piece. One of the reasons I want to talk to you is because you do have lots of data at your fingertips, and if you’re out there and you’re intrigued, one of the things that I really appreciate is that Neon One does publish a lot of resources. And I know that you recently published the nonprofit email report “Data Backed Insights for Better Engagement” in April 2023, and that had some great insights about using email. We’ll come back to that in a minute. But I know that you also just released a companion publication with “Data Backed Insights for GivingTuesday and Year End”, which obviously I think you were just calling to. So if you’re curious about these reports, we’ll link to both of those in the transcript and you can get that transcript But before you go out there and find those reports and download them, I’m wondering, Abby, if you can share just a few notable takeaways that our listeners might use when they’re setting up their approach to email for GivingTuesday. Because I would say that is often the number one complaint I hear from people out there, is like, Ooh my gosh, I got 16 emails from one organization on this day. What is happening? Why is my inbox on fire?” So yeah, perhaps you can talk a little bit about that.

Abby Jarvis: Absolutely. There are so many findings I could cite, but I’m going to focus on two of my favorites. Alright, so for context for this first one, we worked with someone named Cherian Koshy, he’s an absolute genius, to do an AI analysis of words, phrases, and sentiments in email subject lines and preview texts, and how those subject lines and preview texts impacted overall email engagement. When we did this analysis Cherian found that subject lines that evoke positive feelings, feelings like pride, optimism, relief, gratitude, and there were some others, way outperformed emails that had either neutral sentiments or negative sentiments. So if you want to stand out in an inbox when your donor’s inboxes are on fire, try to create subject lines that make your donors feel good. Honestly, we get enough negativity in our inboxes. We get enough negativity on social media. Negativity is pretty much everywhere else these days. When you create an uplifting email with an uplifting subject line, you will stand out. Interestingly, we also found that emails that included preview text raised 53.85% more than emails that didn’t. Now, I will say that doesn’t necessarily mean that the preview text itself is helping to raise more money. It may very well be that nonprofits are more likely to use preview text for important fundraising emails, for example, and that could impact those results. But I will say it’s worth taking the time to put together some good preview text for your emails. So that’s my first takeaway. If you want to stand out, write an email with a good subject line that makes donors feel good.

Abby Jarvis: The second standout takeaway made me laugh out loud when I saw it because it’s baffling to me. So during that same AI analysis of email subject lines, we found that emails whose subject lines contained the word Tuesday had higher engagement rates. But that subject line sent on GivingTuesday that included the phrase GivingTuesday saw poorer engagement rates. That did not make any sense to me at all. I worked really closely with my friend Tim Sarrantonio to get these data points, and when he noted that GivingTuesday and subject lines on Giving Tuesday harmed engagement, I asked him to go back and double-check because that didn’t jive with me. It turns out there are a fair few emails that were sent in 2022 that contained the word Tuesday in a non-GivingTuesday context, and those emails got great engagement. So that’s my second piece of advice for you. Don’t use “GivingTuesday” in your email subject lines on GivingTuesday, go figure.

Farra Trompeter: So wait, does that mean I might say “Why you should give this lovely Tuesday,” and that might be okay?

Abby Jarvis: Something like that or “An event reminder this Tuesday!” or “What are you doing this Tuesday?”

Farra Trompeter: Interesting. Alright, well fun with data, here we go!

Abby Jarvis: So fun!

Farra Trompeter: Test it yourselves. Well, since GivingTuesday is often the kickoff or falls in the middle of year end fundraising campaigns, as you mentioned, some folks just do a very focused 24 or 72-hour Giving Tuesday push, and then they get into year-end in December or a few days following, depending on when GivingTuesday is. Others really integrate it. I know you also took a look at end-of-year fundraising. I know that you looked, I think particularly at emails that were sent out the last three days of December, which is another day inboxes are on fire. And I’m just curious if you have any tips to share about using email for end-of-year fundraising?

Abby Jarvis: I do. We found a few different takeaways that I think can answer some common end-of-year fundraising questions. The first question that we were able to kind of answer is about that sweet spot for the number of end-of-year email campaigns. And that seems to be two emails. Now I want to be clear that that is an average of two emails received per donor, not email campaign sent overall. If you’re doing a lot of donor segmentation and you are intentionally tailoring your appeals to different groups of donors, you may write more than two emails. But sending any one donor more than two emails during that end-of-year period, the 29th, 30th, and 31st of December, generally resulted in diminished returns. This was actually true of email campaigns sent the day of GivingTuesday also two was kind of the maximum before returns started to drop off.

Abby Jarvis: So as you’re planning your year-end campaigns, two emails per donor is about the max you want to send. Otherwise, you’re just spending a lot of time and effort creating emails that won’t have the results you’re looking for. The other finding that really stood out to me when we did this research was around the actual day that you send an email in those last three days of the year across every engagement metric, we looked at fundraising emails sent on December 30th, 2022, outperformed emails that were sent on the 29th and on the 31st. These emails sent on December 30th had higher open rates, they had higher click-through rates, and they raised more than appeals sent the other two days. So I believe the average email campaign sent on December 30th raised almost $1,200 more than campaigns sent December 31st and more than $3,300 more than campaigns sent on the 29th. So if you’re only going to send one email appeal during those last three days, you may want to consider sending it on the 30th. That is when donors seem to be most willing to engage and respond with those emails.

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Farra Trompeter: This conversation’s getting very tactical, but I know that some people really appreciate that of our podcast. I hope you’re out there and they’re appreciating that–taking notes as you build your year-end campaign plans. And before we turn away from email, because there’s obviously many channels to talk about, but historically, for many years, many nonprofits, email has been the best source to drive people to a donation page and get those gifts. We will talk about other channels in a minute, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about that overarching nonprofit email report you put out earlier this year. Was there anything surprising or that you think would be really helpful for folks to know about and consider as they’re developing maybe their approach to email for 2024?

Abby Jarvis: Absolutely. There are so many findings to choose from. My favorite personally is that for context in the study, small nonprofits are nonprofits that have between 250 and 999 contacts on their email lists. Those small nonprofits actually saw much better email engagement than large organizations, which in our language in this report have 1000 or more contacts on their email lists. Small nonprofits got better overall engagement metrics, and they also raised more per email contact during those four biggest days of the year, GivingTuesday and the last three days of December. On those days, those four big important fundraising days, the average large nonprofit raised around 88 cents per email contact. The small organizations, though, raised an average of $6.15. Every time I talk about email, I hear from fundraisers and nonprofit staff and marketers who feel so much pressure to grow their email lists. And yeah, expanding your audience is an admirable goal and it is important. But if that’s a pressure that you feel, I do want to encourage you and remind you that having a small, highly engaged audience is really valuable. So put that in your back pocket the next time you feel stressed out about growing your email list. My next favorite takeaway is, concerning the day of the week, that gets the best overall email engagement. Now, every time I talk about this, I ask what day of the week people think get the best email engagement.

Farra Trompeter: I’m going to jump in and guess Wednesday?

Abby Jarvis: Yeah. So Wednesday is a really common guess. Most people usually guess Tuesdays or Thursdays, but it’s Fridays. Fridays get amazing email engagement. And for this purpose, when I talk about email engagement, this is a combination of both open rates and click-through rates. If you look at one of those metrics, in particular, the day shifts a little bit, but Friday’s overall very great for email engagement. But everyone hears that Fridays are like the kiss of death for an email campaign. And when we talked about this at AFP Icon earlier this year, the mutter that went over the room when we said that Fridays were a great day for email engagement, was very funny to me. And that’s what you hear as a for-profit marketer, for-profit businesses are told that you send email campaigns on Tuesdays and Thursdays and you never, ever, ever send on Fridays. But that’s just not true for nonprofits. So aside from kind of proving that nonprofits need their own benchmarks and their own best practices, not borrowed from for-profits like me, I think this shows that there’s room to experiment with emails, there’s room to question a lot of the generally accepted best practices. There’s room to try new things and see if donors respond. So who knows, your bright uplifting email subject line could be just what your donor wants to see when she’s doom scrolling her inbox on her lunch break on Friday.

Farra Trompeter: There you go. Well, we have talked a lot about email, but as we both know, GivingTuesday shows up on all the digital platforms, a nonprofit’s website, it’s Instagram channel, it’s SMS or texting program, it’s accounts on Threads, Facebook, LinkedIn, the X Network, previously known as Twitter (I’m not actually sure what they’re calling that yet). But I’m curious, what advice do you have about nonprofits in terms of how they should use their digital channels before, during, and after GivingTuesday?

Abby Jarvis: This one’s a good one. My number one tip is not to assume that people are seeing everything you post. Your donors and your audiences are almost certainly not seeing everything you post. The last time I checked, the average reach for an organic Facebook post is 5.2%. The average reach on Instagram if you’re posting on your feed, is actually pretty decent. It’s almost 27%, but it’s just over 8% for stories. And that’s if you happen to have fewer than 10,000 followers. I don’t know how many folks listening have more than 10,000 followers, but if you do, you can expect to see that reach decline as you grow. Now that kind of sounds like a bummer. You’re putting a lot of time and effort into writing really engaging posts. You’re sourcing, you’re sharing great pictures, you’re making cute reels or videos and people just aren’t seeing them. But the silver lining is that you can share a lot on your social media channels and you can reuse a lot of the content you have. Sure, you don’t want to post exactly the same thing an hour or two apart, but you do have room to repost your content. So in the lead up to GivingTuesday, remind people that it’s coming up multiple times a week or do that for a week or two before the actual big day. Share lots of stories throughout the day, post updates, be silly, be approachable. You want to keep your email campaigns on GivingTuesday limited to one or two so you’re not just lighting up your donor’s inboxes. I would say if you are using SMS, be extremely judicious with using that. SMS feels very personal and it can quickly become annoying or intrusive. But on your social media channels, just go wild.

Abby Jarvis: You can post so much without being overwhelming or annoying again because your reach is not going to be getting your posts in front of everybody. I think that also leaves a lot of room to be human. I think donors respond very well to that, especially on a day like GivingTuesday where people are putting out very polished graphics and this and that. Put your face out there, post a lot, connect your donors with the humans at your organization, and connect your donors to the people they’re supporting when they give. Have fun with it. Building that relationship between your donors and your staff and your clients will really help you stand out in a sea of GivingTuesday posts.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. Well, before we go, I do want to just speak to two things you just said. One, I would encourage people, if you are going to show the people that you’re supporting, consider ethical storytelling. Consider if you’re compensating those folks, telling those stories from a place of dignity. There’s a lot out there that we’ve talked about and others have on that subject. And the other is I do want to uplift your idea of experimenting and being authentic in what you put out there. We always talk in our branding work that your brand should be who you are on your best day, but it is who you are every day. And you need to be genuine with how you communicate and be clear. So thanks for saying those things. Now I do want to take a moment and talk about generosity. GivingTuesday is now all about “radical generosity”. Neon One is all about powering movements of generosity. What’s it all about? What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “generosity”, and what are some examples of nonprofits or nonprofit supporters being generous on GivingTuesday that you’ve seen?

Abby Jarvis: I think this is a really neat topic. It’s something I’m very passionate about, so I’m going to try to keep it succinct. Generosity is such a human thing. We are hardwired to be generous with each other. When we are generous, when we give to a cause we care about or when we help our neighbor out, or when we are doing something good to make our communities a better place, our brains create the same chemicals our brains create when we are in love. To be generous, whether we’re donating online or collecting food for a food drive, or volunteering our time, it makes us very, very human. And that’s why I like your point about being authentic and personal when you’re on social media. A big thing that we could talk about probably forever is that there is a situation happening right now where there is diminished trust between donors and the nonprofits they support. And when you remember that generosity is human and you can be a human with other humans working together to make a better world, you’re tapping into something very special. And that’s important, especially if you’re a fundraiser. Part of being in the fundraising world, it’s inevitable, is having goals and working toward goals and raising revenue, and thinking about your reporting. And that’s okay and that’s necessary. But when you don’t have a moment to step back from those goals and those reports and that database, it’s really easy to lose sight of the humanity that is unfolding in front of your eyes. Donors just become records in your CRM. A $30 gift is just an incremental step toward reaching your GivingTuesday fundraising goal. It becomes a transaction, it’s not a gift anymore. So when we talk about designing a generosity experience for donors, what we’re really talking about is intentionally creating a moment where you help someone connect in a very real, very human way to the work that you do.

Abby Jarvis: And when you do that, when you put yourselves in the shoes of your donors or someone who’s giving you money or volunteering or making a gift that they could spend in a thousand different ways, but they choose to invest in you and your work. Instead, when you create that moment for them, you’re doing something that’s more than transactional. You’re GivingTuesday appeal, the story you tell, even things like the donation process and the receipt you send and then later the thank you letter you send and the impact update that your donors receive. All of those things are very intentionally designed to speak to and to celebrate the very human instinct to give. You stop focusing on the money and you start focusing on the humanity behind the gift. And that sets the stage for true relationship building between your organization and your supporters. And that helps you build a community of people who trust you and who you can rely on to do important work. It’s not just a database full of names anymore, it’s a community. And I will say because when we talk about generosity, especially on big fundraising days, we tend to associate generosity only with financial gifts. An important thing to remember is that especially on GivingTuesday, generosity isn’t only financial. That person who’s volunteering at your organization, or that student who can’t afford to give you money, but will reshare your posts to their stories, or the person who’s raising money for you, instead of just donating themselves, they’re all being generous too. Generosity takes a lot of forms, and all of them are valuable in their own right, even if they don’t easily transfer into a bank account.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I love that you said that. And again, giving and being generous is so much more than just making a financial donation. So thank you for putting that out there. Well, Abby, thank you for everything. You’ve shared some really helpful insights, suggestions, really specific things people can put in place. If you’re out there and you want to learn more about Neon One’s tools or access their resources, be sure to head on over to Neon One that’s spelled out, If you’d like to connect with Abby, you can follow her on LinkedIn at Abigail L. Jarvis. There’s an extra L in there. Abby, thank you so much for being on the show.

Abby Jarvis: Thank you for having me. I love talking with you about this stuff.

Farra Trompeter: Great. Well, everyone, good luck this year-end season, however it is you celebrate, and may it be one that is full of generosity and love and all good things.

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