This is a guest post from Rootid.
The need to increase fundraising revenue is a constant in the
nonprofit world. Year after year, nonprofit development and
marketing teams are under pressure to increase donor dollars while
keeping administrative overhead low.
Marketing automation technologies for nonprofits are
increasingly becoming the solution to address these challenges,
while also addressing the needs of your donors. In this post, we
will provide a blueprint on how to get started with a marketing
automation series that will increase donor retention and build
long-term relationships with new donors.
The donor retention challenge
According to an AFP study in 2016, nonprofits retained only 46%
of their donors. This statistic is staggering, but perhaps not
surprising to those that work in the fundraising industry.
With limited staff resources, time and technical expertise,
nonprofits often struggle to build lasting emotional bonds with new
donors. As a result, development teams can often spend time and
money building donor acquisition campaigns to replace the 54% of
donors that leave each year.
In fact, just a modest increase in donor retention rates has
dramatic effects on the ability to increase fundraising dollars
So, how can we keep donors around longer?
Bloomerang, a donor management software provider, released a
survey recently that showed 53% of donors reported bad donor
communications as the primary reason they stopped supporting
This further illuminates the idea, that providing donors with
timely and customized content to keep them informed and engaged can
stem the tide of donors abandoning nonprofits.
It just so happens that this is where email marketing automation
What is email marketing automation and how does it improve donor
It sounds fancy, but email marketing automation is a simple tool
that allows nonprofits to release a series of emails based on
constituent behavior and/or a period of time.
Once a constituent takes an action, like making a first gift, an
email marketing automation campaign can be triggered to send a
series of emails over a prescribed period of time. More
importantly, fundraisers can deliver content based on the donor’s
interests and behaviors.
Why would you want to do that?
When a donor gives a first gift, it the most fragile part of
their relationship with your organization. If you cannot build a
relationship during this period that secures a second gift, your
organization often never recovers the initial investment you made
to acquire that donor.
In other words, building a strong relationship with new donors
at the beginning is directly correlated to your ability to increase
your fundraising revenue over time.
In the nonprofit world, this initial donor onboarding process is
often referred to as a donor engagement series or donor welcome
An effective donor welcome series achieve five things:
- Immediately says “thank you”
- Reaffirms the donor’s choice to support your organization and
orient them about what they can expect from the relationship
- Gains trust and permission to continue ongoing
- Learns the donors’ passions and preferences so you can
customize communications going forward
- Moves the donor through the engagement pipeline with another
These five goals can be achieved in a number of different ways,
and with any number of emails.
There are plenty of donor welcome series that are 10, 20, or
even 30 emails long. But, the welcome series laid out below uses
just five simple emails to help you get started. Over time you can
add and refine the email content in this welcome series, but this
will help you get started.
The donor welcome series blueprint Email #1: Say thank-you
Send this email immediately after a donation is given. In
addition to showing your gratitude, take the time to orient your
new donor to your mission and set expectations.
Tell the donor how often they should expect to hear from you,
and if they want to get in touch with a human give them information
on how to do that. Let them know how they can change their
communications preferences if they desire.
Next, provide them with a vision for your mission. You do not
want to go into detail at this point, but people want to know that
an organization is moving forward with a vision. It’s likely that
your vision is what attracted them to your organization in the
first place. Reinforce their initial attraction to that vision.
Lastly, this email is best if sent using your executive
director’s name and role in the “From” field. This will
personalize the communication, and give it additional
If possible, provide a link to a video thank you message from an
executive director that lays out the broader vision for the
Email #2: Let’s talk impact.
A day or two after the first email, send out your second email.
This email should focus on the problem that your organization
addresses and how your organization is uniquely positioned to make
Think about this email like an elevator pitch to the donor.
Build on the historical context of your impact to date, and how you
will address the vision for your nonprofit moving forward.
If you’ve ever heard of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle
framework, you know that humans are biologically wired to connect
to the “why,” and will later connect to the “how.”
Why does this matter?
Donors will connect with your mission because they believe that
the problem you are addressing fundamentally alters our communities
and world. If you can build alignment around this belief, then
research shows that donor is more likely believe in that way in
which you address these problems.
A great content format to deliver this information is an
explainer video. You may have seen these before. An explainer video
tends to be 2–3 minute video that explains a problem, then talks
about how you are addressing it. It breaks complex problems into
Email #3: Get to know your donors.
This email should be sent three-five days after the second
email. Its purpose is to learn more about what this individual
donor cares about. There are a few reasons we want to get to know
First, most nonprofit communications professionals would
probably say they do not survey their donors enough.
Asking a donor what they care about and why they are engaged
with your organization is a great way to show that you care. It
It also has the added benefit of giving you information that can
help tailor your communications to them going forward.
What should you be trying to figure out at this point?
Most importantly, we want to find out what motivates your donor.
If you run several programs that address different areas, it’s
important to know which program motivates them the most. If you
only run one program, then try to figure out what it is about that
program that motivates them the most.
Other information that you can learn in addition to this is a
bonus, but these motivational drivers are a must.
If possible, try to limit the number of questions you ask to
less than three. You want these donors to feel engaged and cared
for, but not burdened by a massive survey.
Depending on your CRM or Email Service Provider (ex.
CampaignMonitor), there are a number of different ways to collect
your donors preferences and connect them back to your Donor
Relationship Management (CRM) database.
Here are are a few popular ways:
Surveys – Send your donor to a survey on
Google Forms, or SurveyMonkey and collect responses that can be
automatically imported into your CRM.
Update Their Record in Your Email Service
Provider – Send the donor to an email sign-up form that
has questions about their motivations. Once the form is submitted,
with their emails address it will update their record in the Email
Use Click Behavior – Many Email Service
Providers, like Campaign Monitor, can tag a donor record based on
the link that they clicked in an email you send them. So, if you
send them an email with links to several articles that focus on
several different topics, we can tag their profile with their
interests based on the links they click in that email.
Once you have recorded the donors’ interests, you can use that
data to send them content that specifically addresses their
individual motivations. This process is often referred to as donor
By segmenting your new donors, your development team can
leverage this data in the future to tailor communications to these
individuals in following campaigns.
This donor welcome series will automatically segment donors for
you. That’s powerful stuff!
Email #4: The power of storytelling
The fourth email is sent five-seven days after the third email.
Its purpose is to deliver a story about your work that is
customized based on the results from the last email.
Storytelling is a powerful tool in donor cultivation. In the
second email, we talked more globally about the problems that your
organization is addressing. A story frames that larger problem in a
way that individuals can connect with at an emotional level.
The story should highlight how the larger problem affects
individuals, communities or specific locations. In other words, it
grounds the larger problem in something that is tangible for the
If you have not written an impact story like this before,
research the Hero’s Journey. It will help deliver a more powerful
message that compels individuals to take action.
Most importantly, make sure that this story addresses the
specific topic that we learned motivates the donor in the previous
For instance, if you have a program at your nonprofit that that
addresses homelessness, and you know your donor is passionate about
this topic, tell a story about homelessness and how your nonprofit
is addressing it.
Lastly, if you can deliver this story in video format, it allows
you to tell the story more visually, and create a bigger
Email #5: Move the donor through the engagement pipeline.
The final email should be sent five-seven days after the fourth
email. This final email is designed to “make the ask,” or move
the individual through the engagement pipeline and build a stronger
Many people immediately think about asking for more money when
they hear “making the ask.” For some nonprofits that may be
appropriate. However, there are a lot of ways to move donors
closer to your organization without giving money.
In fact, the best ask provides value to the donor. What do we
mean by that?
When cultivating a relationship—personal, professional, or
while fundraising—it’s tempting to focus on what you can get
from the other individual. Instead, you are more likely to build
long-term relationships if you focus on what you can provide to the
other person. This is no different when cultivating donors.
Often, when you provide value to someone, that goodwill comes
back in full.
With that concept in mind, what value does your nonprofit
provide to donors?
Here are some common ways that organizations deliver value:
- Access to research data
- VIP Access to people, events or places
- Thought leadership on a particular topic
- Industry frameworks and resources
- Technical assistance and training
- Access to a community of like-minded people
- Access to a community of professional peers
- Acceptance to a community of “doers” who share a common
There are a number of different ways that nonprofits provide
value to donors. Focus on what you can give to help build that
So, how do you make the ask?
All too often we see asks like “Follow us on Facebook.”
Where is the value proposition in this ask? What’s in it for
When making the ask, frame the ask in a way that delivers value
and provides context. Again, focus on what we learned about the
donor in our third email when making the ask.
How about this instead?
“Watch our executive director’s most recent interview on
Facebook with the leader of homelessness research and how they are
addressing the problem across the United States. While you are
there, make sure to follow us so you don’t miss our weekly
interviews with other industry leaders.”
See how this ask provides value? If you were a donor that cares
about understanding industry trends, this offer would be too good
to pass up.
How to measure the success of your welcome series
As marketers, it is critical to measure and analyze the results
from your work. By measuring your work, even your failures have
value and will help you continuously improve your campaign
Being a data-driven nonprofit can be challenging if you have not
made it a priority, but getting started with data-driven marketing
is easier than you might think. More importantly, leveraging data
to make decisions is crucial to the success of your organization
over the long-run.
Ultimately, the success of your donor welcome series is defined
by your organization’s ability to retain donors. We recommend
tracking donors that have experienced this welcomes series in
As you refine your welcome series over time, you can compare
cohorts to see which version of the welcome series retains more
At a more granular level, you should track each email within
your welcome series so you can test email subject lines and email
content to track open and click-through rates. If specific emails
are not performing well, try testing new content, or changing the
email order, timeline or sequencing.
Remember that marketing is a constant experiment that we are
tracking to continue to improve the results.
The success of your organization’s individual donor
fundraising program is directly linked to your capability to retain
donors and build relationships over time while overcoming the
reality of limited staff bandwidth.
Marketing automation has completely changed our capabilities to
deliver timely, customized content that makes donors feel connected
to your mission and respected by your organization. By establishing
a close connection to those donors early on in your relationship,
donors will remain engaged and invested in the work that you are
doing so you can continue to grow your mission’s impact.
Andrew is the co-founder and Chief Impact Officer at Rootid Nonprofit Communications.
The Nonprofit’s Guide to Email Automation for Better
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The Nonprofit’s Guide to Email Automation for Better Fundraising