Quick Guide to E-mail Fundraising

by Joe Garecht

Raising money online is nothing new. While many non-profits may not be doing it right, almost all organizations know that it is something they should be trying to do.

E-mail fundraising, on the other hand, is something that most non-profits are not doing. There are a number of good reasons for this… primarily, many development directors hear “e-mail fundraising” and think of those spammy sales letters and chain fundraising letters that you see from time to time. Thus, they stay away from e-mail fundraising, and in doing so, miss out on a big source of potential income for their schools, churches, and charities.

In this article, we’re going to talk about e-mail fundraising: what works, what doesn’t, and how to maximize your revenue through this type of solicitation. If your non-profit is looking for a great way to augment your current revenue, check out this advice and add e-mail fundraising to your arsenal….

What Not to Do: Spam

Let’s start with the things your non-profit should avoid when starting an e-mail fundraising campaign. First among those is spam. Spam is what has given fundraising e-mails a bad name, and likewise has caused many organizations to avoid dipping their toes into the e-mail development waters.

Simply put, spam is unsolicited e-mail. If you buy or compile a list of people who have no connection to your organization, have not previously donated to your group, and have not signed up to receive e-mails from you, then you are spamming.

Spam sometimes works in the short-run, but as a long-term fundraising strategy, it generally fails. Spam annoys people, turns them off, and often makes them angry… not a great way to get people to give to your organization.

Avoid spamming by sending fundraising e-mails only to your in-house list, one that comprises your donors, volunteers, supporters, and others who have given you permission to stay in touch with them.

What Not to Do: Cheese

The second major thing to avoid in e-mail fundraising solicitations is what I call “cheese.” That is, using cheesy, sales-type language that turns donors off and makes them think twice about giving to your non-profit.

The best way to engage donors over e-mail is also the best way to engage them in person: with compelling stories about your work, a short explanation of your mission and why you need the money, and a direct ask…

What Not to Do: Dance

Which brings us to the third and final thing you need to avoid when drafting your e-mail solicitations: dancing… as in, “dancing around the ask.” The only way to raise money over e-mail is to ask for it. Don’t try to hide the purpose of your e-mail. Be honest, get to the point, and ask for a donation.

Remember, putting a “donate now” button on your e-mail newsletters is important and can raise good money for your group, but that doesn’t qualify the newsletter as a fundraising e-mail. Every organization should, in addition to regular communications like newsletters and updates, be sending out at least one or two fundraising e-mails per year – e-mails whose sole purpose is to raise funds from your e-mail distribution list.  (If you need help on how to craft an ask, check out How to Ask Anyone for Anything).

What Works: Building a List and Staying In Touch

Now that we’ve taken a look at what doesn’t work, the question is: what does work? The answer is simple: building a quality e-mail distribution list, and staying in regular touch with that group of people.

How to Build a List

As mentioned above, your goal should be to build an ever-growing e-mail distribution list comprised of people who have given you permission to communicate with them. This means you’ll need to start asking people for their e-mail addresses and keeping these addresses in a database.

Start with the people who have already given you permission to contact them: your donors and volunteers. How many of them have given you e-mail addresses? Get in touch with those that haven’t and ask for them. Tell these supporters the truth: that you are starting an e-newsletter, and want to stay in touch with them through e-mail.

You’ll also want to make sure that you are collecting e-mail addresses wherever and whenever possible from folks who have indicated an interest in your organization. Make sure that your donor envelope asks for the person’s e-mail address. Put a sign-up box on your website. Have e-newsletter sign-up forms at every event your organization holds.

When people sign up for your e-newsletter, send them an immediate thank you e-mail (this task can and should be automated) so that when they get their first regularly scheduled e-mail from you, they’ll remember that they signed up for your list.

Your goal is to keep your list growing week by week, month by month.

How to Stay in Touch

Once you’ve started your list, then next trick is to stay in touch with your donors via e-mail. Most of these communications should not be fundraising solicitations. Most should be updates and newsletters, with a few solicitations sprinkled in.

The single best way to stay in touch with your donors via e-mail is through a regular e-mail newsletter. This type of communication allows you to stay in front of your donors in a non-threatening way on a regular basis, makes donors feel like part of your team, and brings them closer to your organization by providing stories, pictures, and updates on the work you do. Companies like AWeber and Constant Contact (I have successfully used both) provide a very affordable way to send out great looking newsletters to your list.

How Often?

Your goal should be to send out an e-mail newsletter at least every other month, but no more than monthly, unless your donor base has unique needs for more regular communications. These newsletters should be mission-based, providing updates, news, and stories, along with pictures of your non-profit in action.  (For more motivation on staying mission-centered, read Mission+ Energy = Raising More Money).

Then, at least once per year (but no more than quarterly, unless you have a very unique situation), send out an e-mail fundraising letter to your list asking for donation. Your supporters will be used to getting e-mails from you, will be up to date on your work, thanks to your newsletters, and will likely be ready to support you by making an online donation through your e-mail fundraising letter.

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