Benchmarks for Email Communications, Advocacy and Fundraising

Hard numbers on effectiveness can be rare in the nonprofit world, where groups are often judged more by process than by results.

But earlier this year, several of the e-advocacy consulting firms and service providers released a joint study of the use of email for advocacy, communications and fundraising by nonprofit organizations. They looked at factors ranging from overall communications budgets to the effect on an email campaign’s success of the day of the week on which it was launched.

The authors gathered numbers from 15 organizations and used them to derive the Return On Investment of many different practices and provide benchmarks for other organizations to use when measuring their own campaigns’ effectiveness. Math is our friend!

To quote from their key findings:

Greater Online Advocacy Results: Organizations generating the most online advocacy actions had several key characteristics in common, including larger e-mail lists; longer-lived online advocacy programs; larger online communications budgets; and a higher volume of advocacy e-mail messages.

Investment Pays Off: Not surprisingly, organizations with larger online communications budgets built larger e-mail lists, generated more advocacy activity, and raised more funds online.

E-Mail Open Rates in Decline: E-Mail message open rates averaged 25 percent between September 2004 and September 2005, a decline from the previous 12-month average of 30 percent. Average response rates to e-mail advocacy appeals were 10 percent, while average response rates to e-mail fundraising appeals were just 0.3 percent.

E-Mail Lists Continue to Grow — and Shrink: List churn (where e-mail addresses become undeliverable or unsubscribed) is a considerable problem for organizations. Even though the nonprofits studied more than doubled their list size with new recruits over a 12-month period, their overall list growth was only about 73 percent as some new recruits were offset by heavy email list loss.

Online Actions Speak Louder Than Dollars: Not surprisingly, more e-mail subscribers took online action than made an online donation. Between September 2004 and September 2005, an average of 47 percent of all e-mail subscribers took at least one online action, while just 6 percent of subscribers made an online donation. There were significant discrepancies among issue areas; international aid e-mail lists are made up of just 37 percent activists, but 17 percent of their subscribers made an online donation. On the other hand, environmental organizations have lists made up of 61 percent activists, while just 4 percent of their subscribers made an online donation.

A Rise in Online Fundraising: Despite modest online donation rates, by September 2005, online annual fundraising totals increased by 40 percent on average from the year before, likely driven (in part) by the public’s overwhelming response to the Asian tsunami disaster. Participating organizations averaged $2.5 million in online donations last year, with a $97 average gift. International aid organizations led the way, with an average of $9.6 million raised last year and an average gift of $121.

While the size of an organization is not necessarily the prime measure for success on the Internet, a robust and strategic use of funds and other resources to sell a nonprofit’s message to legislators, business leaders, potential donors and the general public, using all the online tools at one’s disposal — even in conjunction with other communications media, like direct mail — is mandatory.

You can read the full study here. (Mmmmmm, appendices about methodology are tasty-licious).


Written by
Colin Delany
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1 comment
  • I have seen fundraisers dramatically increase their raised funds by personalizing each direct mail piece.

    For example if you are sending a postcard state what the recipient donated the previous year and just up that amount a little bit for this year’s contribution.

    “John I see you donated $50 last year and I am sure you are excited to donated again this year and would be willing to do $75 this year?”