Looking Back at 2013’s Last Week of Fundraising, Part 1

The last six days of 2013 have a different meaning for fundraisers. Instead of a post-Christmas “catch your breath” opportunity, they are vital times for raising last-minute income to ease the journey into the new year.

As a donor to 17 nonprofits in 2013 (and a lapsed donor to others), I decided to keep track of the mail and e-mails I received — as well as the receipts for the year-end donations I mailed on Dec. 20 — and share my observations with you.

This week, I’ll focus on e-mails received, and next week I’ll explore direct mail, receipting, and a random comment or two. While my “database” is much smaller than, for example, Who’s Mailing What!, there is certainly much to be learned anytime we take a few minutes to look carefully at what others send to donors to raise funds.

Between Dec. 26 and 31, I received 20 e-mails from 13 different nonprofits. Most were national organizations, but two were from local charities. Save the Children sent out the most — four — followed by Opportunity International with three. Two other nonprofits (CARE and World Wildlife Fund) sent two, while the remainder sent only one in the last six days of 2013.

Preferred delivery day
Without question, Dec. 31 was “the” day for e-mail — half of the ones I received came that day. Here’s the daily breakdown:

  • Thursday, Dec. 26 – one e-mail
  • Friday, Dec. 27 – two e-mails
  • Saturday, Dec. 28 – two e-mails
  • Sunday, Dec. 29 – one e-mail
  • Monday, Dec. 30 – three e-mails
  • Tuesday, Dec. 31 – 10 e-mails
  • Wednesday, Jan. 1 – one e-mail (this one was actually sent at 10:05 a.m. on the 31st, but it apparently hung out celebrating somewhere and failed to arrive until 9:10 p.m. on the first)

Subject lines
Not surprisingly, 13 of the e-mails referenced time — last chance, “only 4 more days,” midnight, there’s still time, etc. But seven had your basic “business as usual” subject line. This seems to squander a wonderful opportunity to encourage giving, as year-end is a time when many generous people think about getting in a last gift. Also, only one mentioned “tax deductible.” I don’t know if that’s the result of testing or not, but given the sophistication of many of the senders of these e-mails, I suspect it is (and welcome anyone willing to share test results to do so in the comments below).

Also a bit unexpected, only one of the 20 e-mails used my name in the subject line. Five had at least some of the subject line in all caps, three referred to matching gifts, and one began “FWD:” and was a resend of an earlier message with an added note at the top.

Use of salutation and signature block

While 12 of the 20 e-mails began “Dear Pamela,” two referred to me only as “friend” and six jumped right into the message without a salutation. However, all but three had some name on them as the signer of the message, although Opportunity International signed its e-mails with the corporate name instead of a person’s name. On a related note, 17 of the “senders” were an organization name while the other three (from two organizations) had a person’s name as the sender.

Word count

This is clearly where I saw the greatest divergence. One e-mail, received on Dec. 28, had 705 words between the “Dear” and the “Sincerely.” On the other hand, the e-mail from Charity Navigator (which is shown above) had only 27 words in the body. Eliminating those two anomalies, the average word count was 161 words. Personally, I think sending an e-mail on New Year’s Eve that has close to 250 words seems like asking a lot from your audience. However, the least readable e-mails of all came from Opportunity International because the copy was centered. Nice photos, but the readability was greatly reduced (in my opinion) because the message was centered with line lengths ranging from five characters to more than 100.

‘Above the fold’ offers
Although three e-mails didn’t have any obvious places to click to donate that were on-screen without my having to scroll, and five e-mails only had one, two seems to be the prevailing preference as that was the case in nine e-mails. Two had four, and one had six (and considering that it had a word count of less than 90, that was pretty impressive feat). In most cases, the donate buttons were tasteful though obvious; however, two e-mails required me to slide my mouse around looking for that one magic spot where a hyperlink was embedded.

Use of graphics

Four e-mails had graphics that were specific to year-end (clock, thermometer and calendar page), and 13 used photos that were program-specific. One showed a photo of the CEO, and two dispensed with graphics altogether. Personally, the one that stood out to me the most used a less overt program photo and more unusual colors. It’s the second photo above, from the National Park Foundation. Obviously, preferences are personal choices, but this is one I came back to over and over because visually it intrigued me.

So what does it all mean?

Obviously, there are very few “right” and “wrong” things here; these are mostly my opinions, with an occasional “best practice” tossed in. However, by looking at these 20 e-mails with the intention of seeing if there were applications for next Dec. 26–31, here’s what I came away with:

  1. E-mail more than once. There’s a lot of competition in the inbox so you don’t want to risk it all on one e-mail (or one that takes 36 hours to show up).
  2. Use your subject line to convey the deadline. “Invest in XYZ today” or “Your gift x3” seemed like “business as usual,” not something I needed to deal with in the holiday season.
  3. Change up your graphics. Sending multiple e-mails that basically look the same felt like “white noise” to me. I found myself thinking, “Didn’t I see this before?” At least to me, familiarity did not increase my interest.
  4. Address the recipient by name if your e-mail is in the form of a letter or note. “Personal” gets lost when there’s no mention of my name.
  5. Try a short, to-the-point e-mail (aka. Charity Navigator). I’m busy, but reading 27 words doesn’t seem to be asking too much of me. On the other hand, 705 words??!!!
  6. Make your offers easy to find without reading the entire e-mail or having to search for clickable text. Don’t ask recipients to do too much work; they may move on to an easier option.

Agree? Disagree? I’m sure there are readers who fall into both camps. But no matter where you stand, this old dog reminds you that looking at the “competition” in the mailbox or inbox is a great way to challenge your own thinking for your future fundraising efforts — and often gives you new ideas that you can hardly wait to incorporate.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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