What Fundraising Non-Profits Can Learn from the U.S. Elections

As we round the corner into the final stretch of the presidential election, many of us are likely going through the same never-ending cycle of emotions:

  • Total shock and fear at the possible outcome
  • Impatience for the whole thing to be over, whatever the result
  • Complete exasperation at the flood of fundraising emails filling your inbox

But if you work for a fundraising nonprofit organization, there are reasons to linger in this silly season a little longer: namely, important lessons from the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump emails flooding your inbox — and with end-of-year fundraising season just around the corner, now’s the time to start paying attention and planning which tactics are worth copying and which aren’t.

Lesson 1: There is no such thing as too much email (sometimes)

All those emails might seem like overkill, but presidential campaigns (at least the successful ones) are very efficient, resource-conscious organizations. There’s a reason they send so much email: They work.

In 2011 and 2012, President Obama’s re-election campaign raised $690 million dollars online. 70 percent of that fundraising haul came in thanks to the email team, writing, testing, and sending emails more or less non-stop throughout the final stretch of the campaign.*

Four years have passed and in that time the country has changed, the internet has changed, and social media have changed, but there’s a simple formula that has not changed: The more email you send, the more money you raise.

Yes, people may unsubscribe — that is always a possibility, but you shouldn’t let that fear define your email fundraising strategy. If you’ve correctly cultivated your email audience (more on that in a second), it should take more than a few too many emails to turn them off from your organization. Remember, your donors have lots of charitable giving options. They donate to you because they believe in your mission. They won’t suddenly stop caring about the environment, LGBTQ rights, gender equality, the plight of refugees, or whatever your mission may be just because you sent too many emails.

We don’t, however, recommend sending up to four emails per day as some of the campaigns do. Instead, we advise focusing on the big moments like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Send two to three emails on each of those days — and on regular intervals on the days and weeks in between.

Lesson 2: Know and love your data

Your inbox is where you go to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. It’s also where you go to shop (and provide your credit card info).

What does that mean? Email is personal. So the email your organization sends to supporters should feel personal, too. That’s where data comes in.

First there are the basics, like first name and geography. There is no greater turnoff to a potential donor than addressing them by the wrong name or sending them information about a local event that is nowhere near where they live.

But, there are more layers to this onion. Your mailer software should have more data on your subscribers: which emails they opened, what actions they’ve taken, and which topics have inspired them to give. If your organization’s work can be divided into smaller issue areas, take a look at which of those issue areas have inspired people to respond the most — and which people have reacted to which areas. Then, instead of sending an email about issue X to the whole list, send it only to the people who have donated in response to issue X in the past. For those who have responded better to issue Y, send them an email about issue Y.

It’s a little bit more work, but it creates a more personal experience for the email’s recipient, and it generally brings in more fundraising revenue, too.

Lesson 3: Put your audience first

Pretend you don’t work for your organization. Forget all you know about how it works, the different personalities that make the place run, and the internal processes and politics.

Now, ask your newly objective self these questions: Why do you support it? What is it about its mission that inspires you?

The best stories to tell in the emails to your supporters are not necessarily the stories that you personally most want to tell or that your board most wants to tell. Sometimes, the things that you completely take for granted are the most inspiring and touching stories.

Use those stories to deepen your connection with your supporters, by inspiring them to take action in response to those stories. Sometimes those actions will be to donate, but when you’re not in the midst of end-of-year fundraising you should mix in a lot of non-fundraising actions, too: submitting their own stories, signing petitions, sharing on social media, etc. These stories and their corresponding actions are the foundation upon which you’ll build your successful fundraising campaign.

Lesson 4: Make it meaningful and make it easy

Your supporters joined your email list because they believe in your mission and they want to help, but don’t take it for granted that they’ll do everything you ask of them. You need to earn their support in every email and one way to do that is by making sure each action feels meaningful. Why are you asking them to do what you’re asking? What will it accomplish?

And once you’ve made that clear, make sure you make it really easy for them to do what you’re asking them to do. If you want your supporters to post an image on social media, don’t expect them to download the image from the email, navigate to their favorite social network, and post it themselves. Instead, give them a link that will automatically take them to the post on Twitter and Facebook so it’s just a matter of a few clicks.

Similarly, if you’re asking them to donate, you shouldn’t send them to a long, onerous looking form that will discourage them from completing their donation. Instead, send them to an optimized fundraising page that allows people to complete the process in quick, bite-sized chunks.

These lessons don’t apply only to politics.

Last year, our client Lambda Legal, was concerned that end-of-year fundraising wouldn’t be as successful in years past. After all, the LGBTQ rights movement had a banner year in 2015— the Obergefell v. Hodges decision granting marriage equality was a major victory, but it also might have left Lambda Legal’s supporters feeling like the battle was won and there was no longer any reason to support their work. Applying these lessons and a few other tricks, however, we helped the organization increase their year-over-year end-of-year email fundraising revenue by 43.8 percent in 2015. Looking solely at the final five days of the calendar year, when the plurality of end-of-year contributions come in, fundraising revenue increased by more than 100 percent.

So, as you’re looking forward to this holiday season, give a little extra thought to your digital fundraising plan. Check your email for some inspiration and don’t be afraid to borrow a few tricks from the politicos. No doubt as election season hurdles toward November, new inspiration will arrive daily.

Steve Jacobs, vice president, Corporate and Public Affairs.

*The author helped lead the Obama 2012 email fundraising team for the last push of the campaign.