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12 min Read
August 22, 2016

Communications and Engagement Before and During the Giving Season

A few weeks ago, as part of Blackbaud’s #NoFilter Nonprofit Series, I had the pleasure of sharing examples and ideas for what nonprofits can do to communicate better with donors during year-end fundraising season. I was joined by Michael Wogoman, Senior Manager of Annual Giving at Conservation International, and Danielle Johnson-Vermenton, CFRE, Principal Consultant at Blackbaud. Together we offered some context, reviewed Conservation International’s successful 2015 year-end fundraising campaign that Big Duck helped to produce (read the case study here), and shared eight ways your nonprofit can make donors the heroes of your fundraising efforts. In case you missed it, you can watch/listen to the hour-long presentation here. And if you are looking for more support, here are three ways Big Duck can help you with your year-end fundraising campaign.

Below are some of the burning questions that we were NOT able to answer from the more than 600 people who tuned in. We’ll start by digging into the details of the 2015 year-end fundraising campaign for Conservation International and then talk about how you can engage donors before and during the end of year, including #GivingTuesday.

If you have other questions for us, feel free to add them in the comments below. And if you are really eager to learn more about this topic, you can listen to a podcast I recorded with Danielle and Marc Pitman last month as well.

Of those 21,000 engagements in the pre-ask stewardship campaign, do you have an estimate of how many were current vs. prospective donors?

Michael: Based on the number of number of new emails collected and new social media followers, we believe that about 75% were from non-donors. However, this wasn’t something that we tracked closely at the time. In an ideal situation I would have paid more attention to and found a way to follow up on this engagement. We have a tool called, which Blackbaud recently acquired, that is a great social listening and response tool. We just didn’t have the bandwidth to apply it during the busy season.

What kind of engagement did the Thanksgiving email get? You said ‘it got great engagement’–can you go into detail on what happened?

Michael: While normally we measure the success of our emails on a number of metrics, in this case I meant that the open rate was very good. Among active donors, the open rate was 30%, which is up to 5 points above average for a non-fundraising email. Among lapsed donors and non-donors, the open rates were 15.7% and 11% respectively which is slightly above average for lapsed donors and average for donors.

Who did you target with your Facebook ads? Was it a lookalike audience, your donor file, or your prospect file?

Michael: We targeted a number of groups. Uploaded email lists of both donors and prospects, lookalikes, Facebook followers, and people that follow similar organizations. The uploaded lists and Facebook followers led to a far better conversion at about .35% clickthrough rate. Depending on your organization and current online investments, I would look more at paid search than paid social, but if you have some budget to invest in social, I think it is worth it to test.

It looked like there were two different mail packages. Was one a remail or did different audiences get a different package?

Michael: Just one package (see it here). The letter and donation form had some variable text based on a number of donor segments. Many organizations do have success with multiple packages or remails, but as a conservation organization we are very careful with our footprint when it comes to printing and mailing.

Would you describe your 6 year-end appeals and the timing in more detail?

Michael: Just to clarify, the “6 year-end appeals” were all emails and didn’t include mail, social, or other channels. The year-end emails started on December 12, which was the final day of the Paris Climate Conference, and this email announced the results of the conference with a big “thank you” to supporters and a hard-ask for donations because “now is the time to act.” From there, we sent three emails from the 17th to the 28th that each covered an area of focus of our work— oceans, forests, and wildlife—and also announced the matching gift from our Board member Harrison Ford. That left two more emails for the last few days of the year that were very simple. They reminded people of the matching gift opportunity and the important role the donor plays, and were heavy on tax-deductibility language. The timing of each email aligned with major events happening related to the Climate conference, fit the best practices our organization has tested, or followed recommendations made by our team at Big Duck.

In your cost per dollar raised, did you factor in staff time/creative time, and the consultant? Or was that hard costs only? Would love to know how to best calculate this to make it a selling point to management.

Michael: Really good and important question. Generally speaking, when measuring the efficacy of a fundraising campaign or appeal, I do not include staff time or salary (this is different when measuring the program as a whole). However, when calculating the cost to raise a dollar (CTRD) for this campaign, the expenses included Big Duck’s fees as our consultant, printing, mailhouse services, postage, and online ad costs. Selling this to an executive or manager can be difficult. I have almost always found that bringing in a consultant makes convincing management easier, but it is case by case. I’m happy to talk more about this.

Farra: To calculate the cost to raise a dollar for your campaign, divide the total expenses by total revenue generated. For example, if your year-end fundraising campaign generated $60,000, and you spent $15,000, your cost to raise a dollar would be $0.25. Typically, organizations include hard costs in the expenses, and don’t pull out staff salaries as those are considered sunk costs. Here’s a helpful article with more information on this important metric and determining return on investment (ROI).

Did you do anything special at Conservation International to thank first-time donors?

Michael: Yes! First off, we do a lot to thank all of our donors including sending a handwritten “thank you” postcard immediately when we receive the gift. For new donors, we contact them by phone or email at the end of every month as a quick thank you. New donors at higher levels get a more immediate and personal touch with information about our work and the impact of their gift.

What are some good examples of engagement activities?

Danielle: You can include engagement activities on social media, via email and on your website. It could be as simple as a “tell us what you think about our newsletter” to a campaign with a quiz or pledge component. On social it gets even easier, people love video, pictures and quizzes. The most important thing to think about is two fold: will it appeal to your audience and does it make sense for the mission? If the answer is yes to both, then go for it.

Farra: I agree with all that Danielle said here, and would add a few more questions for you to ask: 1) does the action feel meaningful to the donor or prospect? 2) is it related to the theme of your campaign? and 3) is it easy to do?

How did you solicit donors to offer matching gifts?

Farra: First, I would try to identify who your most engaged major donors are. Depending on your organization, that might start at the $5,000 level and for others it might be at or above $100,000. Then look for donors who are the most engaged—they’ve given for several years, they attend your events, they have a personal relationship with the executive director, board member, or other staff, they are actively involved as volunteers or board members, etc. Once you have a sense of the amount you’d like to set for your matching gift amount, ask one or several of your most engaged matching donors if they would like to make a gift you could use for as a match for the campaign OR if they would be open to allocating their recent or next gift. Some donors are even game to be part of your campaign—sharing why they gave and authoring one of your appeal emails or letters.

How do you engage your monthly donors in your year-end efforts?

Danielle: Monthly donors should get a different set of messages in December that acknowledge and thank them for their ongoing support. You want to highlight examples of the impact of their sustaining gifts first and then make the ask for an additional donation at the end of the year. If you have a prominent monthly donor who would agree to make the ask for the campaign, that would be more powerful than say the CEO or Executive Director. Your campaign spokesperson should be the right person for the ask, it doesn’t have to be leadership.

Farra: Generally, I think year-end is a great time to cultivate your monthly donors-—a time to show your appreciation and give them a special report about how they’ve made a difference this past year. You could also use the end of the year as a chance to run a special sustainer upgrade campaign. To do this, you’d need to segment your monthly donors out and then send them mail or email appeals that ask them to increase their monthly giving amount for the next year by 25%, or 50%, or 100% using dollar amounts based on their current contribution level.

On your list of bonus ideas, you suggested that we ask board, staff and volunteers to make phone calls. Would the purpose of those calls be to solicit gifts or to thank donors?

Danielle: When I worked at the American Red Cross and Boys & Girls Clubs we planned thank-a-thons in early November to lay the foundation for our year-end fundraising campaign. Our Board worked the thank-a-thon, calling major donors, and our staff handled mid-level donors. We also selected key donors for handwritten Thanksgiving or holiday notes from leadership, while development staff sent Thanksgiving cards to key community partners, volunteers, and mid-level corporate and individual supporters.

Farra: Yes, the main suggestion was to use the phone as a channel for acknowledging donors, ideally before or around Thanksgiving. There are some nonprofits that incorporated telemarketing or telefundraising into their campaigns, with calls to prospects, current donors, or lapsed donors made before or after a mail piece or key email arrives. Other nonprofits use SMS or texting to educate or solicit donors at year-end as well.

What is a lightbox and what is a homepage takeover?

Danielle: Here is the definition from “In digital marketing, the lighbox term is often used for referring to the lightbox pop-ups used to promote content or offers on a web page.” I’ve seen nonprofits use this tactic to ask people to subscribe to ecommunications, change a one-time gift to a monthly gift on a donation form and ask for website visitor reviews. A smart tactic at year-end is to add a lightbox pop-up on the homepage promoting the campaign with a story and then linking over to the donation form.

Farra: We generally recommend using a lightbox for one-two weeks in December and ideally coding it so that the amount the donor clicks or fills in transfers over to the corresponding donation form. You can see an example of a lightbox we set up for Fountain House—and read about how well it did—in this post. Some people use the phrases homepage takeover and lightbox interchangeably for nonprofit websites, though homepage takeover technically refers to the instances when one advertiser takes over all advertising spots on a website.

When is #GivingTuesday this year?

Farra: #GivingTuesday is always the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving, following the consumer-focused holidays of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. You can learn more about this global day of giving at If you are looking for some great ideas for how you can celebrate #GivingTuesday, read this blog post from one of our strategists, highlighting 2015 trends.

Danielle: This year #GivingTuesday is the earliest it’s ever been since its first year in 2012— November 29! That means that soliciting for social ambassadors, developing content and coming up with the promotions before the big day needs to start now. Two years ago, I attended NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) and I heard that organizations should treat and plan for #GivingTuesday like a special event. Coordinate your activities, your people and your content months ahead of time to run a seamless event. Stay tuned to @Blackbaud for announcements about our #GivingTuesday webinar series starting up in September.

If a gift was given on #GivingTuesday, would you ask that donor again in December?

Danielle: I think it’s fine to solicit for a second gift because research shows that #GivingTuesday donors consider those donations like event gifts, not associated with their regular year-end donation. That being said, you shouldn’t re-solicit unless you sent an additional thank you message in addition to the donation autoresponder. You have to thank the donor again before making another appeal. In that appeal you should also thank them again for their #GivingTuesday donation and demonstrate that you’re paying attention and know they already gave—this is a really important step. If you’re just not comfortable re-soliciting donors then I recommend suppressing them from all year-end appeal messages, and instead sending them a happy holidays greeting and a welcome series.

What are some things smaller nonprofits can do for #GivingTuesday?

Danielle: I don’t think the size of the organization matters on #GivingTuesday. A smaller organization can still send a #GivingTuesday appeal and make the pitch on their website and social media. Leading up to #GivingTuesday, post mission moments on social (make sure the content is sharable and bite size), highlighting the impact of the organization’s work and get a promotional image and a testimonial up on your website too.

Farra: If you’ve never done anything for #GivingTuesday before, start small. Just send an email that morning and/or post an ask on your single most popular social media channel. You can also ask your supporters to give something other than money—their time, their network (sharing a message or image), or their action. Some organizations use it a day for them to give back—with their staff or board volunteering for another organization or sending a message of thanks to donors and program participants alike.

How will your nonprofit communicate and engage its list BEFORE the end of the year? Share your great ideas, tips, or questions in the comments below.