Recently, Thomas Gensemer who led online communications for the Obama campaign said nonprofit email newsletters are “a waste of time and effort and should be ditched”. He instead urged organizations to send “short, personalized emails to supporters giving clear instructions for participation”. For the Obama Campaign, “fundraising and participation tactics included sending regular, short emails to supporters asking recipients to do one thing that day. Each email also told the supporter what their action would accomplish and what would happen next.” He went on to say “Email newsletters don't get read, yet they take more effort to prepare than a 250-word email”. He concluded, "email is still a killer application, but only when used properly."
Anyone who helps raise $500m online is worth listening to, but in this case I beg to differ. While I concur that email messages should be as brief as possible and that it’s important that supporters see the impact of their contributions and actions, the notion that every email should ask a supporter to do something that day is in my opinion incongruent with maximizing donor lifetime value. Political campaigns are short lived and maximizing participation during the campaign cycle is critical. In contrast, nonprofits rely on building long-term donor relationships. As such, they should adopt a much more stewardship centered email strategy, regularly sharing stories about the impact of their work, interspersed with calls to action/ fundraising asks at the appropriate frequency. In fact, the ground breaking “Wired Wealthy” research into the online habits and preferences of mid-level and major-donors shows that many of your donors would indeed react negatively to Mr. Gensemer’s recommendations.
For many charities major and planned gifts represent a significant part of total contributions. Major gifts are generally preceded by ten continuous previous smaller contributions over a number of years. Planned gifts are typically given by people who have had multi-decade relationships with a charity. Without a long-term communications orientation, you risk alienating your future major and planned giving donors. As we learned in the research, the Wired Wealthy, major donors are increasingly online and assess where to direct their contributions based upon how they are engaged online. Communication preferences vary, but so-called “relationship seekers”, a segment representing 29% of the donors are pretty avid readers of nonprofit newsletters – 42% of them reporting that they read 75% of more of the charity email newsletters they receive. To quote a relationship seeker, “I do get lots of emails from all these organizations and if it’s got interesting content about their work, I’m happy to get them. You pick and choose.”
Many nonprofit newsletters are unfortunately poorly executed. Far too many send organizational updates versus writing inspirational content. In the Wired Wealthy research, only 8% agreed strongly that they charity emails they received are generally well written and inspiring. This is not to say that nonprofit newsletters as a category are a bad strategy. There are many nonprofits who are utilizing the email newsletter as an effective donor relationship strategy. Conservation International is a great example. Their high quality emails present donors with vivid accounts of their work, share successes, and place a significant emphasis on thanking donors. They invest in writing high quality content that is always donor centered. They will from time to time ask donors to take action – in their case, make a gift, but those requests are far outnumbered by high quality stewardship and compelling informational updates.
So to Mr. Gensemer, I say, let’s not kill nonprofit email newsletters as a category. Let’s instead invest in building more donor centered and inspirational communications. Let’s not sacrifice the development of long-term donor relationships by over whelming them with actions and requests today.