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COVID-19 Fundraising Update: A Deeper Look at Email Fundraising

Published by Brady Josephson

The WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic on March 12, 2020, but the impact of the disease was already being felt around the world. The impact on nonprofits — and not only those on the frontlines — was, and is, still unknown but in an attempt to shed more light on the unknowns we developed the Coronavirus Nonprofit Fundraising Resource Center which features a series of data visualizations to track in real-time how nonprofits are communicating with their donors.

This data will hopefully help answer two crucial questions:

  1. How are nonprofits responding to the outbreak of coronavirus and COVID-19 in their communication with their donors?
  2. How are donors responding to nonprofits during this global pandemic and subsequent economic downturn?

Tim recently wrote a post with some high-level answers to those questions so today I want to dive a bit deeper into email fundraising and try to answer those two questions a bit more like this:

  1. How are nonprofits responding to the outbreak of coronavirus and COVID-19 in their EMAIL communication with their donors?
  2. How are donors responding to nonprofits’ EMAILS during this global pandemic and subsequent economic downturn?

What are nonprofits responding to COVID-19 in their emails?

We are currently tracking donor email communication from 157 different organizations across 12 different verticals. Here are a few observations:

Nonprofits have increased the volume of emails they are sending and April saw a 56% increase compared to March. 

More email volume but are all different types of nonprofits sending more email?

Every vertical has increased their email volume since February and 10 of the 12 have in April compared to March

Okay, email volume has gone up, across almost every vertical, but how has the type of email changed?

The mix of solicitations (emails that ask for a donation some way) has remained pretty consistent at ~47%.

So even with more emails going out, there isn’t a higher proportion of asks. But what about the messaging within the emails?

More nonprofits are mentioning COVID-19 and/or coronavirus in their emails as April saw a 67% increase in the ratio of emails that mentioned it compared to March and 120% in total emails mentioning it.

More nonprofits are tying their message into COVID-19 and/or coronavirus as time goes on.


So how are nonprofits responding to the outbreak of coronavirus and COVID-19 in their EMAIL communication with their donors?

Nonprofits, across almost all verticals, are sending more emails that are more likely to contain a mention to COVID-19 but the likelihood that they ask for a donation remains the same.

How are donors responding to nonprofits’ emails?

So we know what nonprofits are doing at a high level, but how are donors responding? 

April was the highest email revenue month (up 27% from March) and email revenue is up 123% Year to Date (YTD) overall.

It seems pretty clear that email is doing a good job at generating revenue for nonprofits not just in April but in all of 2020.

But why? What’s driving it?

Let’s look a little deeper to see what’s driving the increase in revenue by looking at some key fundraising metrics:

  • Traffic
  • Gifts
  • Conversion Rate (Gifts/Traffic)
  • Average Gift

Is more traffic being generated from emails?

Email traffic is up slightly compared to last year mostly due to a spike in the middle/end of March where visits from email went up 61% and then 46% in back to back weeks.

With more emails being sent it makes sense that traffic from emails would also go up but people actually giving?

Gifts from email have gone up 56% since February and April was up 18% compared to March.

Again, this makes sense, more emails with the same ask rate (as we saw above) should lead to more giving. But how does this impact engagement? Are people less likely to respond with more volume?

April saw a 54% increase in conversion rate from email traffic (people who visited a website from an email that made a donation).

So even with more volume, there seems to be more engagement leading to more gifts. That all seems great. But what about how generous people are? With financial strains maybe people are giving less on average.

The average gift from email was down 3% in April but year to date compared to 2019, it’s up 20%.

We saw a 44% decrease in email average gift in March from February which was also 33% lower than March 2019 and was a concern. But the slight drop in April is very minor and is actually 45% higher than April 2019. So, for now and from email at least, it sure seems that people are actually more generous than they were last year.


Even with more emails being sent, the conversion rate from email is actually going up leading to more donations. These donations have a higher average gift (compared to 2019) so more gifts from email and more on average plus more volume are what is leading to a significant increase in revenue from email for the year (123% YTD) and especially in April (27% increase from March).

What else can we learn?

One of the things I’ve come to believe when looking at our data, clients, and what others are experiencing and sharing is that good fundraising is good fundraising is good fundraising. Or in the case of email, good email fundraising is good email fundraising is good email fundraising.

Whether you’re in a global pandemic or not, sending clear, quality, relevant, and personal emails will win out.

So are nonprofits doing that?

One thing that you may have seen in the data above is that more organizations are mentioning COVID-19 and/or coronavirus in their messages as time goes on and we also saw an increase in gifts, average gift, and conversion rate in that same time frame.

Now, correlation does not equal causation and the email volume data set and the website activity/giving data set are not from the same organizations (so two big caveats there) but, the more relevant messaging could be helping drive the dramatic increases in email revenue.

There’s a 97% correlation between COVID-19 mentions and email revenue growth between the two different data sets which is interesting but we’ve also seen it play out in experiments like this where the organization saw a 36.7% increase in giving with a COVID-19 message.

But just mentioning the pandemic isn’t a panacea, especially if it’s a real stretch or reach to make the connection. We saw this in an experiment here where the organization saw an 81% decrease in their COVID-19 related message.

So that’s a bit on what we’ve seen in the research library but one of the cool things (biased I know) with the Coronavirus Nonprofit Fundraising Resource Center is that you can actually see the emails we are receiving from 157 organizations to see what they are, or aren’t, doing. 

COVID-19 Nonprofit Fundraising Email Examples

Here’s an email from the Innocence Project where they connected their exoneration/post-jail program to COVID-19 and made an ask.

That’s not what I’d call a “COVID-19 ask” meaning it’s not directly connected to COVID-19 or the frontlines but there is a connection that makes sense tied to their mission and work.

Compare that to this ACLU ask which is much more of a “COVID-19 ask”:

You can see that it’s quite direct, straightforward, and clearly tied to COVID-19.

You can also see they used a time-sensitive matching offer to increase the urgency to act today and that message continued on the donation page when you clicked which is hugely important for email fundraising (more here).

They also had a “opt-out of this campaign” in the PS which allows people to opt-out of a campaign but not the entire email list. A great way to respect people’s inboxes but also actually decrease overall opt-outs as we saw in an experiment here that used this to reduce unsubscribes 33%.

Hard to say for sure without more experiments but it sure seems as though if you can make a clear connection of your mission/work and how COVID-19 is impacting it your work or, more importantly, the people who serve you have a better chance at securing donations from your emails.

So that’s a bit on messaging and connecting it to COVID-19, but what about some of the other things we’ve seen help email fundraising, namely sending emails that are more human?

Sending emails from a person for example.

One thing you can’t see from the examples on the resource page is who those emails are from in terms of the sender but who an email is from is the main way that you and I ‘triage’ or manage our inboxes so it’s crucial to getting someone to pause and consider opening and reading your email. We’ve seen a number of times now that emails from a person, not an organization, can often lead to more opens and engagement.

And yet, when we analyzed email senders of over 2400 emails in the State of Nonprofit Email Cultivation study with Kindful in 2019, we found that 74% of organizations were sending emails from their organization as opposed to from a person (9%) or a person, organization (17%).

And when we look at the Aggregate Donor Inbox today, here’s what we see:

I put the individual senders in yellow and individual, organization senders in orange and could show page after page or screenshot after screenshot and you’d see the same thing: very few organizations are sending emails from a person.

This may not work for you and your organization but it’s a simple test with enough evidence to suggest it could work plus it’s a way to stand out from other organizations.

Okay, that’s a bit on who an email is from and we’ve already shared a bit on messaging, but what about design?

If you’ve read any of our stuff before or taken an online fundraising course, you’ll know we teach and suggest, for fundraising emails, you try no design. Like at all. That’s what our research suggests and what we do with our clients.

Here’s an example email from The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate who serve poor and needy people in the United States and more than 60 countries around the world.

There’s a lot of good/interesting things going on with this email but here are a few:

  • It’s sent from a person only, Fr. David
  • The subject line evokes curiosity
  • The first paragraph is hyper-relevant to their audience (personal tone, mentions Holy Week, references ‘uncertain times)
  • Connects mission/work and impact of COVID-19
  • It’s a bit longer than “normal” or a lot of emails we see but uses the copy to share the problem, solution, and ask clearly
  • The ask comes at the end, only, and as a raw/hyperlink, not a button
  • It’s actually asking for a recurring gift, something we’ve seen a lot of success with our clients and have heard the same from other people

But there is no design in this email! It looks like it’s from Outlook or something like that but it’s not. This is a MailChimp email.

Now that’s pretty close to an email that we teach and suggest nonprofits try for themselves as we’ve seen it work time and time again. But even with clear results and evidence, we still see very few organizations taking that approach (less than 10%) and get a lot of pushback from organizations about how they “can’t” do or try this approach (don’t even get me started on what you “can’t” do in your fundraising…).

It’s a pretty simple test too to try for yourself which is what KUOW Public Radio — Seattle’s NPW news station — did in a recent email appeal and were gracious enough to share the experiment with us.

Here was their control or typical design for an email appeal:

And here was the no design treatment they tested against it:

The result?

You can read the full experiment write up here but the designed version was actually better at driving clicks but the plain text version was 29% better at securing donations. This means, for those who clicked, the plain treatment actually had a 79% better “click to conversion” rate (100% confidence).

The goal of a fundraising email isn’t to just get clicks. It’s to get motivated clicks that ultimately lead to donations and in this case, and others, we’ve seen that no design is often best for this.

So What…

As you consider how you can start, continue, or increase your email fundraising “in these times”, consider testing a more stripped-down, personal style email, sending your email from a person, and try to make a clear connection of your work and how its impacted by COVID-19.

Go Deeper

Published by Brady Josephson

Brady Josephson is Managing Director of the NextAfter Institute.