Last night I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed, when I came across a post from someone who was “shocked that charities are still buying lists of ‘potential donors’ and soliciting them via direct mail”. I was a little dismayed that the ...


Say What?!?

Last night I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed, when I came across a post from someone who was “shocked that charities are still buying lists of ‘potential donors’ and soliciting them via direct mail”.

The post wound up in my feed because it was eloquently rebutted by one of my connections.

I was a little dismayed that the original poster, who believed “someone sold [his] wife’s info”, is connected to the nonprofit community. But I was utterly stunned when his initial post and follow-up comments were supported by fundraisers. How do I know they were fundraisers? Because they touted their CFRE accreditation in their name.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all CRFEs. There were CFREs defending direct mail acquisition, but the fact that people who earned their certificate in fundraising were condemning the foundation on which many of this country’s largest and most successful organizations were built on felt like a stab in the back.

As my connection commented, direct mail acquisition is still a critical part of many organizations’ fundraising programs. Certainly there are other ways to acquire new donors, such as digital, face-to-face or DRTV, but many organizations rely on direct mail as the only source for acquiring new donors.

There are a lot of organizations who can’t afford to launch a new channel or who haven’t been able to scale digital acquisition to match the same number of returns that direct mail provides. And, even organizations who make significant investments in other donor acquisition channels, still keep direct mail in the mix.

Why? Because it works. And it has proven to provide a pipeline for higher-dollar and planned giving programs. The moment we can say definitively that there is a better way to acquire new donors who can a) replace the lost revenue from direct mail donors who are no longer being acquired and b) have the same long-term value as direct mail donors, we will stop doing direct mail acquisition. At least that will be my recommendation. We’re a metrics-driven industry and the numbers will tell us what to do.

But for now, for most organizations, direct mail acquisition is critical to building and maintaining a donor base.

The Association for Fundraising Professionals should make sure that fundraisers who earn their CFRE understand the importance of direct mail acquisition and its value. A CFRE is supposed to represent excellence in fundraising – all of fundraising – and that includes direct mail acquisition.


Regaining Trust from Our Constituents and Supporters

Last year, alarm bells rang when Edelman reported that trust among the four main U.S. institutions—Government, NGOs, Businesses and the Media—were at an all-time low.

Now, in 2019, trust has risen — but only marginally — and only for the most informed public: they tend to be younger (between 25-64), college-educated, high-earners and consume significant amount of news media, in addition to being involved in public policy.

Sound like our donors? Yes—except they are younger than we would normally expect. And it’s only a slice of the U.S. population.

In addition, while more people are consuming the news, they are also more engaged with the news. In 2019, Edelman reports a 14% increase in people sharing or posting content “several times a month or more”.  This doesn’t mean that trust in social media has risen—quite the opposite.  Search and traditional media are trusted almost twice as much as social media in the U.S. and Canada.

At the same time, we all know that social media — or specific social channels — are critical to building brand awareness, story-telling, promoting our work, generating leads and donor acquisition.

What does this mean for nonprofits and fundraising specifically?

First, we need to make sure that we are being authentic, transparent and genuine — in all our communications, whether that’s direct mail, email, social, blogs…you get the point. This all goes back to story-telling — the subject of countless blogs, books and classes. This becomes the backbone of your organization’s story and paints a vivid, moving and passionate picture of who you are, what you do and how you make the world a better place.

Second, it’s time to start empowering other people to speak on behalf of our organization. In Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer Special Report: Brands and Social Media, experts (e.g., program staff, academic staff) and “a person like yourself” (e.g., a supporter’s own peer network or what we would term “micro-influencers” which are people who have 5,000-10,000 highly-engaged followers) rated highest in terms of credibility when speaking for a brand (i.e., your non-profit). Next was a representative from your organization (not your CEO – these are your employees, and they don’t have to be the heads of your departments). Interpreting Edelman’s findings for our industry, I would rank a donor, journalist, and your CEO next in terms of credibility. Last on the list would be a board member and celebrity.

Third, focus on your social media platforms. Not all of them! Find one, two or three where you know your supporters gravitate to and you are committed to updating regularly (more than daily) with interesting, relevant content. It doesn’t all have to be directly about your program. Fun quizzes, recipes, holiday ideas, book recommendations, polls … anything that is interesting and connects with your work, region or mission is great content that keeps people reading your posts – and sharing.

Remember the fact above that people distrust social media? They do when posts/advertisements show up in their feed unannounced and without any endorsements from their own community. The larger your social community, the more people your advertisement will have “endorsing” it. Use your larger community to your advantage.

Want to take your social media program to the next level? Create a suite of content that indicates people who click that content are more deeply involved in your issue. When they click that recipe, quiz, or, stories about your work, send them a personal message asking them to join a closed Facebook group to get more involved with behind-the-scenes information, curated content and moderated Q&A. Everyone loves exclusivity and feeling special. Supporters can talk to each other, share their interests and begin small fundraisers of their own.

Fourth, make it easy for supporters to give feedback, ask questions and navigate their personal constituent journey. With the advent of chatbots, texting and messaging platforms (including Facebook messenger), there is no reason an organization should not be available to answer a supporter’s inquiries nearly seven-days a week. While much of these chats can be handled with simple algorithms, because we are in the business of donor service, there are firms who also staff these services (like a 1-800 number) who can also handle these inquiries.

Not ready to implement a chatbot? (Don’t worry, we’ll keep bringing it up until you are!) Be sure to create a comprehensive FAQ section for donors, members, advocates, supporters and anyone else you can think of on your website. Be sure, too, that you have a mechanism for people to submit their own question and a process for answering and then immediately posting the answer. Why? First, it’s just good donor service. Second, FAQs are often some of the highest ranked pages in SEO, so it would be foolish not to have them on your site – if just to boost your own site’s rankings in Google’s search algorithm. Third, people who submit a FAQ will often immediately search for the answer to their question — again, boosting your ranking in Google’s algorithm. Win. Win. Win.

Fifth, remember when we talked about people trusting representatives from your organization? Use them. A lot. Assign different employees to take over social media handles for a day a week. Have them live stream. If they are specialists that can build up their own following under their own handle, let them. It will allow them to build a network that is completely different than the organization’s and allow you to tap into a whole different audience. Retweet what they are doing and have these employees retweet the organization’s own posts. Use each other to amplify the organization’s message.

In today’s fractured society, building trust means finding your organization’s ambassadors — whether they come from within or outside your organization — and giving them the freedom to spread your organization’s message to their own community. 

We are not advocating for eliminating any of the traditional ways of acquiring, retaining or upgrading donors. Far from it. But to continue to see increased growth in today’s splintered society, we need to look for new avenues of growth, even if it’s by letting go of the tightly managed way of doing business we’ve clung to in the past.


Looking past the ABCs of Email Deliverability

A few weeks ago, everyone was wondering if email deliverability had something to do with soft December online returns. M+R was the first to suggest this could be a factor and asked the question. In a quick follow-up, they suggested it wasn’t. Yes, email revenue was down in December, but response rate was similar – without some context, this stat may not be the best metric of email deliverability. (Also, the sample size was small and many of the respondents had already been cleaning up their lists. Perhaps we’ll know more as M+R collects more data for their larger benchmarking report.)

In my last blog on email deliverability, I outlined a few simple ways to start cleaning up your email program to improve inbox placement. This blog is for those of you who want to delve a bit deeper into the subject – or have tried all those tactics and still don’t see any improvement.

Email Deliverability 201 (I should really rename this the syllabus for Email Deliverability 201. I’m going to highlight some major factors in deliverability that reside behind the kitchen doors. But just like a restaurant, all you’re really seeing is the amuse bouche.)

1.       Authenticate your email and your organization’s domain. Yup. I’m getting all techie right out of the gate. But these steps are probably the most critical because if all your authentications aren’t properly aligned, you’re on your way to tanking your sender reputation (think of it like a credit rating—the higher the better and a critical factor in email deliverability).

Why? Because fully authenticated outbound emails (the ones you send) tell inbound email platforms (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.) that you are who you say you are. In other words—you’re not the Prince of Africa needing $3 million wired to a bank account in the Cayman Islands (i.e., you’re not being spoofed or phished).

Even if no one is taking unauthorized control of your domain, unproperly aligned authentication will still send a signal to email platforms and they’ll immediately start moving your emails right into spam (if they deliver them at all). So, what does authentication include?

a.       SPF – Sender Policy Domain Keys. SPF allows the email platform to verify that the email it receives addressed to one (or many) of its users that claims to come from your organization is really allowed to send messages on behalf of your organization. How? Because organizations list which IP addresses are authorized to send email on behalf of the domain (organization). It’s your first line of defense against spoofers. Want more? Go here:

b.       DKIM – Domain Keys Identify Mail. Domain Keys are two keys – public and private – that the email platform uses to make sure the email sender’s message didn’t get changed in transit. When folks talk about DKIM, you’ll hear a lot about “signing”—because whatever is signed with DKIM (a few fields in the header, the whole message) must remain unchanged when it arrives at the email provider. DKIM is complicated and can lead to a lot of authentication failures. Have lots of fun reading more about it here.  😊

c.       DMARC – Domain Message Authentication Reporting & Conformance. Ah, my favorite. DMARC is an added layer of protection over SPK and DKIM. Do you need it? Absolutely. Most of the major email platforms now require that you’re DMARC compliant. It allows valid senders (us) to work with email platforms to weed out spoofers and phishers.

DMARC also tells email platforms what to do with specious messages and provides daily reports back to you on any specious activity. (Although I’ve tried to read some of these reports, it ain’t easy. I’ve had flashbacks to my Organic Chemistry classes in college.) Here’s all you need to know (and more) about DMARC.

Whew. That was A LOT. But, it’s important. You FAIL (all caps deliberate here – open up any of your email headers and if you fail SPF, DKIM or DMARC, it will be in all caps) and you’re in spam and your reputation starts free falling (cue Tom Petty here!).

Most of this is taken care of by your IT department, but when email is a big source of your online revenue, it’s worth knowing about and making sure your always authenticated (just like your BRE account is always full).

2.       Create sub-domains. Sub-domains are great ways to separate different types of emails that may be sent out from your organization. Subdomains allow you to keep your organization’s branding consistent, while protecting the deliverability of your different email streams. At a minimum, you may want to create two subdomains – one for your direct response list and one for your main organization. Or, you could create many – based on how many departments send to their own mailing lists.

Note: If you are going to move to sub-domains, make sure you warm each one up just like you would any IP address (i.e., slowly and patiently—around 3-6 weeks) and authenticate the subdomain.

Creating and moving to a subdomain needs to be thought through very thoroughly – there are some very good reasons why you may not want to move to a subdomain – at least not yet.

3.       To share or not share IP addresses? My favorite question. When you use an ESP with shared IP addresses, then your reputation could be affected by the reputation of the other senders. When you’re sending off a dedicated IP address, your mistakes are all your own – and there are no other senders to help you boost your reputation.

The answer is complicated and based on your current reputation, your list size and future growth plans, your internal infrastructure and your dedication to implement today’s and future best practices.

In short, smaller organizations may benefit from shared IP addresses that are known for the quality of their servers. (Want to know if an ESP has quality servers? Ask how many clients they’ve let go because of dirty email lists – you want an ESP that polices their customers’ lists.) Larger organizations may benefit from a dedicated IP address – if they have the infrastructure and the organizational buy-in to adopt the best practices.

SPF, DKIM and DMARC are the areas you turn to after you’ve pared down your list to just actives, stopped engaging in poor hygiene and acquisition practices, and started providing interesting and relevant content. Basically, you know your mail got onto the postal truck, but it just wasn’t delivered (sorry—flashback from 1998).

Sub-domains and moving to a new IP address are options after you’ve tried to repair your reputation and you remain stuck with a low sender score, soft open rates and more emails hitting spam than the inbox.

Regardless, after many years of analyzing organizations’ digital programs, I can still say that email deliverability is one of the top three reasons that a digital program isn’t growing at the rate it should be. And email should be the workhorse of your digital program—so if you can’t get your emails into your donors’ inboxes, then you’ve already lost before you hit send.


Why I’m thrilled to pay the USPS every extra penny from its recent rate increase….

Okay, not really. The recent rate increase was a real kick in the butt (and the budget)*. But, I’ll tell you one thing—my mail generally gets delivered.

Of course, we play a pretty big role in making sure the mail gets to our donors. We NCOA and CASS-certify our files, we immediately remove people who ask to be taken off our list. And, we pretty much stop mailing people who haven’t responded in a while (in some cases, that could be a long while, but eventually, we stop).

Postal worker.jpg

Now let’s talk about email. Email deliverability has become a hot topic recently. The nonprofit world is a bit late to the game — the commercial world has been working on deliverability for years now — but check out @Agitator for a recent post and a great report from Brett Schenker @EveryAction.

Based on some early grumblings, it looks like email deliverability reared its ugly head for a lot of people this year end. Even though it didn’t cost us a lot of money to send the emails, poor deliverability sure lost us a ton of revenue those last few days of the year.

So, what do we do about email deliverability?

First, do you know what counts as delivered? Not delivered generally means it bounced (hard or soft) and never made it to an email address. But the other 98% of your messages? Those made it into one of your constituent’s email folders – their inbox, their promotions tab, their clutter tab, and … their spam folder. On December 31, 12 organizations ended up in my spam folder – and I’m a donor to all of them. I could go back for weeks and see even more organizations who are sitting there — some consistently and some not.

But wait? I’m a donor! I want these emails. Why are they in my spam box? Because once an email platform starts recognizing your domain or IP (the address — or addresses — used for sending out emails) as having reputation issues, it will start funneling more and more of your emails to spam—regardless who the email is going to. And from there, it’s just a downward and dizzying spiral that can spread like wildfire.

So, what’s a potential spammer to do?

While I could get all techie on you with terms like DMARC, DKIM, SMTP Error Logs (and I will, but no need to jump into the deep end), let’s start with some of the basics:

1.                   Figure out if you have a deliverability problem. Remember, with many systems you can’t rely on the reported delivered numbers. And, don’t just look holistically at your entire list or program-wide. Delivery issues could be sporadic or specific to just one or two email clients like Gmail, Outlook or AOL (yes, it still exists — see direct mail, above). Plummeting open rates (overall or by email client) are a good tip-off. There are also some great tools to help you determine your true deliverability.

2.                   Remove bounces. Hard bounces should be removed immediately. Soft bounces should be removed after two or three tries (if you’re having deliverability issues, remove those immediately, too). This may seem like a no-brainer, but from some of the conversations I’m having, I think it’s worth repeating. Sending to an email address that bounced degrades your reputation.

3.                   Clean your list! We do it with our offline files, why aren’t we doing it with our online files as well? Some ESPs (email service providers — the tool that sends out your bulk emails) have this functionality built in, but many nonprofits use ESPs that don’t regularly scrub your email file for invalid addresses, spam traps and forced sign-ups. Just like NCOA, there are services that will clean your email file for you. Depending on how large your file is and how much email acquisition you do, you may want to do this quarterly, monthly or every send.

4.                   Stop emailing people who don’t like you anymore. Seriously. Just stop. It’s time to cut the cord. There’s no one best practice for what an engaged subscriber looks like, because different platforms use different algorithms. But if a constituent hasn’t opened an email within 6-months, they are probably stale. Gmail’s threshold for engagement is much higher — its algorithm looks at your send schedule versus the constituent’s open rate (for some senders, this window can be as short as 30-days) and its algorithm also includes time spent reading the email and links clicked.

5.                   Don’t buy email names. Ever.

6.                   Run your emails through a spam checker before sending. It will evaluate your code, subject lines and content for anything that could be read as spam. Some ESPs have spam checkers built into their tool set; if yours doesn’t, there are a lot of great products out there.

7.                   Keep your email under 100kb – it’s a good rule of thumb for passing through spam filters.

8.                   Have your constituents opt-in. Preferably double-opt-in. I know this is the “technique that shall not be named”, but it does ensure you’re only adding people who really want to receive emails from you. Since our privacy laws haven’t changed like in the EU (yet), you can always store the other emails (i.e., non-double opt-ins) and retarget them in digital advertising.

If you’re like, “Jess — tell me something I didn’t know”, then don’t miss my next installment on email deliverability—when Jess learned that DMARC was not the rebranded DMV.

*PS—the USPS is offering some incentives for reducing your postage rates when you use different techniques. They are all different and they don’t last long – if you have any questions, please reach out to the fabulous Cheryl Keedy to talk more about them and ideas for mailing smelly paper!


The Holiday Fundraising Marathon--Mile 15

Oh ‘tis the season – of email development and donation page testing, year-end package delivery monitoring, checking daily deposits and last-minute matches, just in case.

Whether you work at an organization, agency or another part of our industry, December often feels more like a 770-hour sprint and January 2nd the brass ring.

I took my son to his first Broadway show last Saturday for his birthday (he’s so grown up now!) and we had an amazing time—right up until he said, “Mom, stop talking about the optimal number of stamps on an envelope and email deliverability; it’s my birthday!” And I realized I had a problem. I had the year-endsies and I needed a bit of realignment.

So, no tips, trade-secrets or last-minute optimization recommendations. Just some thoughts to make sure I stay in the present and remember why we stress over postage and sender scores.

  • Health is everything. Without your health – both physical and mental – you cannot achieve anything in life. Thank you @americares for reminding me of this every day and providing it to people who cannot access it on their own.

  • It’s not enough to talk the talk. To make an impact, you have to walk the walk. Thank you to everyone who worked so tirelessly on the 2018 mid-terms and continue their work for the 2020 national elections. Yes, I’m looking at you Rosa!

  • Speaking of mid-terms, I was reminded how privileged I am that I never questioned my right to vote. Thanks to @TheTaskForce for helping restore the voting rights of over 1.4 million people in Florida. It was a great win, but only one battle in war against disenfranchising voters.

  • I knew separating children from their parents was awful, but I didn’t know how awful until I saw this segment from John Oliver (scroll to 15:30) Thanks to @lirs and @irc for all you are doing to help unite families and care for these children. Thanks to @hrw for not stopping at family separation #EndFamilyDetention.

  • It’s the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was created to ensure that no one would ever have to suffer the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Thanks @hrw for my copy; time for another read.

  • Huge shout out to my THA team, who creates the most amazing fundraising campaigns I’ve ever seen, all while telling me, “no, you may not have a pop-up tent in the package”. They are the most dedicated, talented, smartest group of people I’ve ever worked with and I don’t tell them enough how grateful I am to spend my days working alongside them.

  • And, it goes without saying, thanks to the Royals, especially Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton, to whom I’m especially indebted to for my sanity. You all have given me hours of mindless reading pleasure. You can check out the latest on their bff vs frenemy status here.

Nate and I at the show. You can’t tell, but he’s thinking about Joe’s Pizza and I’m thinking about the conversion rate on an AdWords campaign.

Nate and I at the show. You can’t tell, but he’s thinking about Joe’s Pizza and I’m thinking about the conversion rate on an AdWords campaign.