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What I Learned About Email Fundraising in Canada from 1,234 Emails from 152 Charities

Published by Brady Josephson

Have you ever wondered how many emails your donors get from nonprofits? Or what types of emails those other organizations are sending? One of the neatest things about signing up to get emails from 152 Canadian charities — which I did and you can read about my signup experiences here — is that you actually get emails from 152 Canadian charities! Obvious I know but by monitoring the inbox you can see what it would be like to be a donor or follower of multiple charities (side note: I also get all their direct mail, sent to my house, which is not as nearly as neat…) or as a researcher look for patterns, insights, and ideas to test.

Which is what we did for The Canadian Online Fundraising Scorecard, and why I signed up for all those emails in the first place. In the study, we were only analyzing fundraising focused emails where we looked at if the main focus of the email was to get donations or, as a donor, it would feel that way. For example, if an organization sent out a newsletter but there was a big DONATE NOW button as the first thing or one of the first things you see when you open it, you would, fairly, feel like you were being asked to give. So that counted as an appeal… just not a good one.

So that’s a bit of context about why I got all these emails and here are…

4 Things I Learned About Email Fundraising in Canada

1. A lot of organizations didn’t ask me for a donation.

Actually, 58% of the organizations in the study didn’t ask me for a donation in the first 90 days. This is partly because 15% of organizations in the study sent me nothing, no emails of any kind, in the first 90 days which is, hopefully, a broken form or, potentially, a broken strategy, but that still means that less than half of the organizations that sent me an email didn’t ask me to make a donation in the first 3 months that I was an email subscriber.

Now, when it comes to email appeals, frequency, how many you should send, how soon, etc. there are a lot of factors to consider (quality of the email and appeal being a big one) but when someone first signs up to get your emails they are engaged — enough to find and fill out your form — so there is an opportunity to use those first emails to further engage, build a relationship, and, possibly, move to a donation. Something many organizations aren’t doing at all or not very quickly as 52% of organizations that did ask did so after 30 days:

Should you be asking for a donation in the first 30 days? 90 days? Probably. But you should absolutely be sending good content that can further engage these new subscribers.

Key Questions & Insights:

  • Is your email signup form working?
  • Try signing up for your own emails and make sure (once a quarter).
  • Are you engaging with your followers when they are engaged with you?
  • Do you have a ‘welcome series’ (something you can easily automate) set up?
  • Try making a (good) ask for a donation within the first 30 or 90 days.

2. Fundraising emails weren’t very personal.

There are a number of ways to have your email fundraising appeals sound more human — like sending from a person instead of an organization, cutting down on the design, and having a more personal tone in your copy — but here are three reasons why it’s important:

  1. You can get more opens
  2. You can get more donations
  3. You can stand out from other organizations

You can get more opens because, according to Litmus, who an email is from is the most important thing for when we ‘triage’ our inboxes. And when your donors see an organization name, they most likely think ‘this is a marketing email’ whereas an email from a person doesn’t stand out, in a bad way, quite the same way. Here’s one of many experiments proving this idea:

How an individual sender impacts the open rate of an organizational email (Experiment #8010)

Control

Treatment #1

27.46% Increase to Opens

You can get more donations as fundraising, and giving, is very personal and relational — something we know in the major gifts world but often forget when it comes to online fundraising — so when we have overly designed templates, buttons, and images it can distract the reader and take away from the personal nature of giving.

Take this experiment for example, where we just changed the design elements so it felt a bit more personal:

How the design of a fundraising email affects clickthrough rate (Experiment #4174)

Control

Treatment #1

80.29% Increase to Clicks

That experiment had a 112.5% increase in donations so it wasn’t just about clicks. Or take this experiment, where we reduced the design even further but also tried to make the copy sound and feel a bit more human:

How a personal tone affects donations in an email fundraising appeal (Experiment #4171)

Control

Treatment #1

145.5% Increase to Conversions

You can stand out from other organizations because 77% of the fundraising emails we received were sent from an organization. Here’s a quick screenshot from the aggregate inbox with the four from people highlighted and the two from just people (as opposed to people and organization) circled:

So if all you were wanting to do was standout from other organizations, sending from a person would help. And when we opened and analyzed the emails we found that only 3% of the email fundraising appeals we received looked and felt like a personal email. The majority of fundraising emails looked a bit more like this:

Big logos. Hero images. And copy about the organization (as well as a bunch of links that don’t take you to the donation page…) comes across as marketing so more personal, human looking and feeling emails can help you stand out from other appeals from other organizations.

Key Question & Insights

  • Are you sending emails from and as an organization or a person?
  • Try testing a person as the sender and even different people.
  • Try sending emails that sound and look as if they’re from a person, not a brand or an organization
  • Write an email, read it out loud to a colleague and ask yourselves if it sounds like how a person would talk if not, rip it up and write it again

3. It wasn’t very clear what I was asked to do

When it came time to actually make the ask in the email appeal, we first saw that 42% of organizations had multiple calls to action in their emails. Look at all the other links and things they’re asking me to do:

Now that’s not a pure appeal but as a donor you are clearly asked to donate and see a big donate button so you would feel like this is an appeal (just a poor one). And when it came time to actually ask, we saw that 39% of organizations didn’t make it clear how my donation would be used. Look at the above example again for their ask:

Do you know why you should give or what your donation will do? Not really. And it’s also pretty passive: “If you would like…” and “… we invite you to make…”. I know Canadians are nice and all (and we are) but when asking you need to be more direct and clear. You may get fewer clicks but those who do know why they are clicking and what to expect and are more likely to give. That’s what happened in this experiment where we changed a few things to make it sound more emotional and personal but look at the call to action sections:

The second option — the one that was more clear and direct — got a 67% decrease in clicks but a 246% increase in conversion rate and 209% increase in total revenue which are the goals for fundraising appeals.

Key Question & Insights

  • Do you have multiple calls to action in your email appeals? Remove them!
  • When you ask, is it clear what a donation will do?
  • Are you being direct in your ask so the reader knows what to do next?
  • Try being very clear, simple, and direct in your call to action.

4. Reading emails on mobile was a pretty good experience.

There is a lot of room to improve when it comes to email fundraising in Canada — remember, good is the enemy of great so everyone can always improve — but one of the positives in the study was that 91% of organizations sent emails that were readable on mobile. 

When we did this study in the US 4 years ago (you can check it out here) only 46% of emails were optimized for mobile so it appears the tools we use and our knowledge of mobile has come a pretty long way which is great. Now, 26% of the donation pages we looked at were still not optimized for mobile so going from mobile optimized email to non-mobile optimized donation page is pretty much useless but hey, that’s another section of the study and another blog post.

Key Question & Insights

  • Are your emails readable on mobile? And all types of mobile phones including older, smaller smartphones?
  • Are you pointing people to a page that is also mobile optimized?
  • Make sure the full flow — email, donation page, confirmation page, confirmation email — is optimized for mobile

Summary & Infographic

Those were just some of the findings and stats about email fundraising in Canada but here are more:

Get the Canadian Online Scorecard and Start Optimizing Your Online Fundraising Today

Learn from 152 Canadian Charities and 1,200 experiments to improve your email signup process as well as email fundraising strategy, donation pages, and overall online giving experience.

About the author:

Brady Josephson

Brady Josephson is a charity nerd, entrepreneur, digital marketer, professor, and writer. At NextAfter, he focuses on business development and partnerships, content creation, and marketing. He's also a huge Liverpool FC fan. #YNWA


Set yourself up for online fundraising success this year-end with a free year-end fundraising course.LEARN MORE »

What I Learned from 152 Email Signups from 152 Organizations

Published by Brady Josephson

Before I worked for NextAfter, one of the resources I used and referenced most was the Online Fundraising Scorecard. I found it incredibly useful to see what other organizations were doing, what they weren’t doing, and what I could or should be doing. So when I joined the team and we decided to do a new version of the scorecard, and with Canadian organizations, I was pumped.

I also didn’t know what I was getting into.

Have you ever signed up for emails for 152 organizations? If your answer is yes, I want to know your story friend. But it’s not as easy or as simple as it sounds for a lot of reasons (more on that below) but it was fascinating to see so many sites, offers, and forms back to back to back to back to back to back to back… you get the point. Signing up for emails is one of four key areas that we’ll look at in the study — along with email communication, donation experience, and acknowledgment — and with the first part done, I wanted to share…

6 Things I Learned from Doing 152 Email Signups to 152 Organizations

Let’s start with the positives.

1. Organizations were “pretty good” at making the email signup quick and findable

It took me more than 10 seconds to find the email signup for only 17% of organizations compared to 24% in the original Online Fundraising Scorecard. For 75% of organizations, I could sign up for their emails in less than 2 clicks from the homepage — compared to 64% in the original Online Fundraising Scorecard. And, in total, 67% provided an email signup within 10 seconds and less than 2 clicks.

While that is “pretty good” (relative to the original Online Fundraising Scorecard) it also means that for 33% of organizations, it either takes more than 10 seconds or more than 2 clicks to signup for an email. Being able to easily find out how to signup for emails — for those rare people who are seeking that out — should common practice so I think there’s still some room to improve here.

And… that concludes the positive part of this post.

But before things get more negative — and I embed GIFs from me live tweeting this experience — let me just say that I love the charities and nonprofits working to change and impact our world for good. Truly. I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t believe in them and the sector overall or devote all of my professional life to work with, for, and alongside them.

On to the more negative section (but also full of GIFs).

2. Not every organization wants to get and send emails.

25 out of the original pool of 152 organizations (16%) either provided no way to sign up from the website or had a broken form and did not respond with a way that I could sign up within 5 days after I reached out to see how I could get their email updates.

I was expecting some of the later findings, but this one truthfully took me by surprise and I found this quite shocking. My thinking was that even if email wasn’t the number one source for online donations for these organizations — as it is for many nonprofits and a lot of our clients — I thought it was generally recognized that capturing and sending emails was a useful thing to do when it comes to online fundraising. Apparently not.

And many of these organizations weren’t new, hyper-local, or small either. There were some pretty major organizations (revenues over $50M) that were in this group. I suppose there may be some reasons for not allowing or wanting email signups — like being a national entity with local and provincial chapters — but even then I don’t believe they are good enough to not allow or want people to engage with you in a high-value channel like email.

3. You really can get a crappy newsletter anywhere.

Well, I guess based on #2 above not anywhere… but almost anywhere.

For this report, to assess the value proposition associated with an email sign-up offer, I tried to rank the appeal and exclusivity of that offer. For appeal, I tried to assess whether or not, as a donor, I would be highly interested in the offer, somewhat interested, or not interested at all. For exclusivity, I tried to determine if the email offer was something I could find nowhere else, somewhere else, or anywhere else. This is the same method we used in the original Online Fundraising Scorecard.

Here are the less than ideal results:

  • Only 6% of organizations offered something with ‘high interest’
  • Only 8% of organizations offered something people couldn’t get anywhere else
  • In total, only 10% of organizations had an offer that scored over 2
  • The average score was 0.48 and the median score was… 0

Instead of harping on the negative here — and there is a lot to be negative about — let’s think about the other side of the equation and all the opportunity! Just by simply starting to offering something that is appealing and something that is even somewhat exclusive means you can quickly and easily stand out from all the other newsletters out there.

4. Organizations are not using enough copy to communicate their offer

One of the biggest lessons I’ve seen from our research and experiments is that there is immense power and value in copy (your text and writing). In fact, the most important tool you have to communicate your value proposition is your copy. Yet in this study, only 32% of organizations used more than one sentence to state their case as to why someone should sign up for their emails. That’s less than a third that are even trying to use what we’ve seen as the most powerful tool when it comes to email acquisition.

I don’t know if this is because the people wrongly assume people don’t read, they are getting advice that it’s all about the design, videos, or images (it’s not), or if people just aren’t spending enough time caring and testing when it comes to trying to get emails but this was one of the most discouraging findings.

But, again, instead of looking at the negative — like where the heck is everyone getting their conversion and email signup suggestions from — the upside is that, most likely, by using more copy to explain in a way a potential donor can understand (clarity trumps persuasion!) why they would like your emails and how they are unique compared to others you should be able to get more visitors to become email subscribers.

5. Organizations are not taking advantage of the confirmation page.

The confirmation page — the page you are should be taken to after an action like an email sign up — is one of the most underutilized tools in the online fundraiser and digital marketers’ toolbox. It makes it easier to set up goals/tracking in Google Analytics so you can see where your sign-ups are coming from and even run some experiments but at the very least, confirmation pages should:

  • Confirm the action that someone took
  • Thank them for that action
  • Let them know what they should expect because of that action

If landing pages should be conversational in their tone and approach — as our research and findings suggest — then not having a confirmation page is like walking away in the middle of a conversation. Imagine if you invited a friend over for dinner, they say yes, and you say… nothing. Not thanks. No ‘see you then’. Just silence. How weird would that be?

But that’s what many organizations are doing as 61% of organizations did not have a confirmation page of any kind.

So, just to recap, if you wanted to sign up for email, found it, and got over the fact that there was, most likely, very little value being communicated to you and you still went ahead and signed up for emails you had a 60% chance to be greeted with… nothing. No confirmation. No thank you. Nothing.

There is clearly a lot of room to grow with just having a confirmation page but beyond simply having one, they can, and should, be used more strategically to engage donors and move them toward another action — follow, share, take a survey, etc. — and even a donation with something like an instant donation page. That may sound counterintuitive — didn’t they just sign up to get email updates from you? — but they’ve already made a bunch of micro ‘yes’ decisions which builds up cognitive momentum so asking or encouraging another greater action just keeps the momentum going which is why we’ve seen conversion rates on these pages anywhere from half a percent up to 10% or even 20%.

Remember that scenario where you invited your friends to dinner, and they said yes? This is kind of like asking them — now that they’ve shown interest in your dinner — if they can bring a dessert or a salad. If you just asked if they’d bring a salad that would be weird. But once they’ve said yes to coming it’s actually pretty natural. Many people will even ask “what can I bring”. Think of your confirmation page with an instant donation page kind of like that.

Yet only 7% of organizations in the study had an ask for donations (of any kind) on their confirmation pages. And only 1 had anything like a specific ask with a form on the page.

Again, there is ample room to experiment with this low-cost approach to more quickly turn email signups into donors.

6. Many tools and templates organizations are using suck.

As I went through the process of signing up for 152 emails, I ran into some pretty poor sites, pages, and forms.

Like being asked to provide my email twice on consecutive screens (and then not having a confirmation page):

Or needing to create and register for an account to just get emails:

Or having a good offer… only show up if you’re on a desktop or laptop:

Or requiring information but not telling me about it until I submit all the information:

Those are just a few. I’d say the majority of my Tweets/GIFs/frustrations were actually about the tools, sites, and user experience as there was a lot of friction (form fields, information required, decisions to make, etc.) and anxiety (Is my information secure? Did I actually sign up?). Much of this is down to the tools being used which are either poor (overall) or need to be customized to be better and people/organizations either don’t care or don’t know how to do that.

In either case, while I have a lot of empathy (truly), it is still a choice to use a crappy tool or do nothing to improve the experience you are providing donors. One of the goals of this report is to shed light on some of these areas and findings in the hope that more people will care and do something about it.

For me, you, and all of your donor’s sakes… let’s hope so!

Summary & Infographic

Those were some of the early findings and things I’ve learned in the process and here’s a handy infographic with more of the key stats so far as it relates to email signups:

Get the Canadian Online Scorecard and Start Optimizing Your Online Fundraising Today

Learn from 152 Canadian Charities and 1,200 experiments to improve your email signup process as well as email fundraising strategy, donation pages, and overall online giving experience.

About the author:

Brady Josephson

Brady Josephson is a charity nerd, entrepreneur, digital marketer, professor, and writer. At NextAfter, he focuses on business development and partnerships, content creation, and marketing. He's also a huge Liverpool FC fan. #YNWA