Nonprofit email is down - keep your email up with these tactics

You may have heard - nonprofit fundraising email had a bad December.

M+R surveyed 23 organizations and found December 2018 email revenue was down 18% for the median. (For more stats, click here)

This downward trend in email performance fits the larger, still developing narrative that small-gift fundraising is falling on hard times. Whether uncertainty in the economy, the new tax law, email overload, or something else, our work as fundraisers appears to be getting more difficult.

But the news is not all bad - especially for those nonprofits who have a deep understanding of digital. For example, email response rates are up 26% and revenue up 2% for those who reduced email list size. This approach to email hygiene is critical if we want to beat spam filters and actually connect with those we email.

Which is why conducting a robust and ongoing email hygiene program is one of our two key tactics for beating the odds with email.

Improving email tactic #1

We have to be comfortable “breaking up” with our email connections who have ghosted our outreach attempts. When we send emails that are ignored (not opened) by a large swath of the recipients, our ability to reach ALL of our list members is severely damaged. Inbox providers like Gmail and Yahoo punish those who send to unresponsive lists by sending more of our emails to spam more consistently. (Sound interesting? Read more on email spam flagging here)

So if you want to stay out of spam folders, ditch those who don’t open what you’re sending. One easy way to do this is the “break up” email. You might literally use a subject like “It’s us, not you” or something else to playfully suggest

“hey, we get it, you’re not that into us. That’s OK. We’re going to remove you from a lot of future emails unless you click below and let us know you want to stay together.”

The last piece is key. Give the email recipient the chance to stay with you. If they’re reading that email, it means they’ve opened it (the whole point, really) and they are paying attention. In fact, this can be a great data refreshing exercise, because you can request new information when the person re opts in to your email program. Provide a link to an OPTIONAL data form that can pull new email addresses, social media account info, phone numbers, volunteer interest, etc.

And keep redoing this process every six months. Remove those who don’t open the “Break up email.” Because remember - recent stats say smaller email lists actually raise more revenue.

Improving email tactic #2

Make people glad they opened and clicked on your email. Give them content that reminds them why they followed you in the first place.

It’s not easy, but a robust video program coupled with a resource-intensive online ambassador program leads to annual fund AND seven figure fundraising success. Many of Groundwork’s partners have unlocked six figure gifts through these tactics while also injecting an energetic burst of new, warm major gift prospects.

To enjoy game-changing digital fundraising success requires content. Did you know that 72% said they stopped giving due to “poor, vague, or irrelevant” content? (Source: Abila Donor Loyalty Study) 3/4 of your donor churn can be fixed by fixing content.

Invest in video producers. You can hire an in-house team, hire out, or do both. Ultimately, your goal should be at least one new piece of video content per week for social media. The top performing social media videos can then be shared with your email lists. “Hey - this is our most popular video!” subjects with no or a passive fundraising request. This builds trust and engagement with your email audience and boosts open rates to maintain your email program’s overall health. Then, when you need your list, it is healthy and ready to provide conversions during busy events like giving days or end-of-year campaigns.

Next, get your ambassadors involved. Find your top group of about 10 to 50 ambassadors. Personally manage the relationships with these ambassadors and produce content that features the ambassadors. When someone is actually in a video, telling their story about why they support your mission, that ambassador will share that content more aggressively than anything else your org can produce. Plus, you have the added benefit of more authentic content that audiences resonate with.

Content is everything. And good video content is everything times infinity (Statistically speaking). Commit to content your audience wants to see, then email it to them regularly (as well as share across social media).

Email may be down, but a healthy email list combined with robust video engagement can keep your fundraising and engagement numbers up. Good luck!

Want to learn more? Email me at

Two Tactics that Make Ambassador Programs Work

The idea of an “online ambassador” program is simple - find supporters who use social media, send them content to share on your behalf, and voila! …you have yourself an acquisition-driving, retention-boosting, peer-to-peer program.

Well, if I’ve learned anything since launching my first online ambassador program in 2011 with Florida State University, ambassador programs are anything but “simple.” Finding the right ambassadors, incentivizing social media sharing activity, building touch points beyond a giving day … myriad complications make ambassador programs great in theory, but tough in practice.

But there is a formula for ambassador success. Two specific concepts or tactics are showing real promise in the ongoing pursuit of long-term and sustainable ambassador programs:

  • Look inside yourself - build your internal ambassador program first

  • Produce content for ambassadors that features those ambassadors

Internal brand ambassador programs

In The Most Powerful Brand on Earth, authors Susan Emerick and Chris Boudreaux explain how IBM’s internal brand ambassador program outperformed ALL other marketing channels by a factor of 7x. Several other studies have shown that rank-and-file employees are some of the most trusted voices when it comes to advertising and communications.

So we know your staff, faculty, program administrators, doctors, etc. can be effective advocates online and via social media for your mission. Another benefit to building an ambassador program with your internal team? They are a captive audience. You are guaranteed near 100 percent participation when you hold internal ambassador workshops, trainings, and happy hours. Even more importantly, when you send a request to share news and fundraising solicitations, your rate of sharing with internal ambassadors will almost certainly far exceed any external groups (because it’s viewed as part of the job with internal groups).

Making ambassadors the stars of their own show

Content really is everything. In a recent Abila Donor Loyalty survey, 72 percent of respondents said “poor, vague, or irrelevant” content was the reason why they stopped giving.

So yeah, we’re not kidding when we say “content reigns supreme.”

Feature ambassadors in compelling content, such as Facebook Lives.

Feature ambassadors in compelling content, such as Facebook Lives.

Of course, asking ambassadors to produce their own content - regardless of whether they are internal or external ambassadors - is often an exercise in futility. It’s one thing to share a Facebook post. It’s another thing to produce a photo gallery or video on behalf of the organization you support. This is true of both internal and external ambassadors.

To solve this problem, Groundwork Digital is launching “Student Content Teams” with our higher education partners. With Student Content Teams, we are hiring about a half dozen students who fit the ambassador profile and have the on-camera charisma to become social media stars. Then, we work with the students to fill a strategically-aligned content calendar with video that is produced in the students’ voice, while reinforcing development and advancement priorities. This way, we are ensuring the necessary volume of content, while maintaining the authentic voice of students. And giving student ambassadors (and all ambassadors) engaging content to share online.

The ancillary benefit to the “Student Content Team” is the power of creating recognizable names with a small group of students. We know, beyond any doubt, that recognizable names lead to higher email open and conversion rates. With the SCT, we are creating those known names that can be used to communicate with donors throughout the year via email and text message, as well as through social media.

Think of it as a modern version of the phone program. Instead of connecting donors with students over the phone, we make those same connections online, in a more personalized way.

And this is not a concept confined to the world of education. Volunteers and staff, doctors and nurses, program administrators - anyone with on-camera charisma and social media reach can be an effective content team member for a nonprofit organization.

Peer-to-peer is more critical than ever before. It’s also more complicated to effectively deploy. We hope the above recommendations help you launch or grow an online ambassador program in the near future.

Do you still feel like you could use some help growing an ambassador program? Groundwork Digital is here for you. Click the button below and fill out the SUPER short form to ask for a free phone consultation.

The Secrets to Online Giving Day Fundraising Success

Cornell University’s monstrous giving day has grown into the institution’s “number one tool to acquire new donors.”

But it’s about more than acquisition. In the interview posted below, Cornell’s Nicole Cook, director of marketing and participation, and Andrew Gossen, executive director of digital for alumni affairs and development, share how…

…leaning into why students give has led to massive online fundraising results during Cornell’s more recent giving days.

…giving day has become a tradition at Cornell and therefore is a powerful retention tool.

…leaderboards in certain areas, like athletics and engineering, drive fundraising success at all levels.

…giving day can serve as a laboratory to test tactics and concepts for annual giving, leadership annual giving, and even major gifts.

Intrigued? Check out the video below to help you plan your next giving day…

Need help planning an online giving day? Groundwork Digital’s team has partnered with more than 60 institutions to launch a first giving day or rethink and grow an existing event. Click the button below to contact Groundwork for your giving day needs.

Multi-Channel to Engage the Modern Donor

Groundwork Digital President Justin Ware leads this webinar that introduces innovative new tactics for modern nonprofit fundraising. Originally delivered January 17, 2019, this webinar covers…

  • Building a “Student/Volunteer Content Team”

  • How digital unlocks massive giving from leadership annual and major gift donors

  • Why automation is an absolute must for your constituent engagement programs

In February 2019, Groundwork will be celebrating our two-year anniversary. While building our company, we’ve helped our client partners raise MILLIONS in fundraising from donors in the annual fund to the major gifts program. And we can do the same for you. Click the “Contact Groundwork” button below to request a telephone assessment of your needs and opportunities.

Standing Out From the Email Crowd

Early returns on end-of-year giving suggest numbers are, well, mixed.

As always, there are winners and losers. #GivingTuesday fundraising totals look stronger than ever, while online giving for the end of December is looking light (according to this preliminary report from M+R).

One of the chief concerns around online giving in December (and well beyond December) is the deliverability of email. Email has been the top source for online revenue since we started tracking online revenue numbers. So what now, if email is losing its ability to grab donors and dollars?

The first place many nonprofits turn is volume. While listening to the vocal (and often ill-informed) minority complain about receiving too much email, many fundraisers believe less is more with email.

But that’s probably not true. The problem is not that your nonprofit sends too much email - it's that every other nonprofit sends a ton of email and your nonprofit doesn't have a plan for standing out from the crowd.

So how do you stand out? Well, consider a 2015 study from Blackbaud’s TeamRaiser platform that discovered the following -

  • Emails from a known source (a person who you are familiar with) have a staggering 25 percent gift conversion rate

  • If you remove the known sender and instead use the organization’s name, that conversion rate tumbles to a miserly .08 percent

In other words, emails sent from known senders are 312 times more effective at securing a gift than the exact same email, when the email is sent from an organizational email account ( v., for example)

The vast chasm between the conversion rates of emails sent from a known sender versus those sent by an org makes you wonder - why would we ever send emails from anything other than a known sender?

Well, at Groundwork, we think you should only be sending from known senders. And we have a strategy to ensure you can do that …while also generating tremendously engaging content for all your social media channels.

Introducing the “Student Content Team” (or volunteer content team for all nonprofits that don’t work with a student body). Think of the Student Content Team as the modern version of the phone program. Instead of connecting supporters with student callers over the phone, this new approach builds student personalities via video, email, and social media. The objective is creating a handful of well-known student personalities. So, when you send an email, you send from those well-known students. Since the email recipients recognize the students by name - because the students achieve a micro-celebrity status as Student Content Team stars - the emails are far more likely to be opened and clicked through.

Sound interesting? We think so. And we’ll be talking about this strategy in far more detail during our webinar on Thursday, January 17 at 2pm ET/11am PT.

Click the button below to register for our free “Multi-channel Fundraising to Engage the Modern Donor” webinar…

Increasing Participation with Online Fundraising

Thank you to everyone who joined Adrian Matthys and Justin Ware for our “Increasing Participation with Online Fundraising” webinar on Wednesday, September 26! Below is a full recording of that webinar along with the Q and A at the completion of the webinar.

Still have questions? Would you like to know how you can incorporate digital to increase giving from the annual fund to the major gifts program? Complete the form below and Adrian or Justin will get back to you shortly:

Name *

"Increase Alumni Giving" Webinar

We’ve all heard about the trend of “donor decline.”

And a lot of us have experienced this deflating feeling of fewer donors giving to the institiutions we love and support.

But here’s the thing - it doesn’t have to be this way. All it takes is a little resource reallocation and you can enjoy a development operation with donor participation on the rise - from the annual fund to the major gifts program.

Join Adrian Matthys, from the University of Texas Austin, and Justin Ware, Groundwork Digital president and co-founder, for “Increasing Participation with Online Fundraising” - a free webinar on Wednesday, September 26, 2018 at 2pm ET/11am PT. Click the button below to sign up:

Go "Agile" with your Nonprofit Fundraising Strategy

Agile fundraising unlocks new giving from every corner of your development operation, often from donors who were not planning to make a gift.

Case in point? The University of Minnesota's Super Bowl Marching Band campaign. The following are the highlights from that campaign...

  • $183,000 raised in two months: $83,000+ in small gifts plus a $100,000 gift from a major donor
  • New donor acquisition: More than 110 new donors who have never given to the University of Minnesota – 80 lapsed donors reactivated
  • Major gift referrals: 12 major gift prospects referred to development officers from this project

For more on the UMN Marching Band campaign and "Agile Fundraising," check out the following video:

Groundwork Digital's innovative "digital development program" incorporates agile fundraising, along with other modern fundraising mechanisms to reverse donor decline and grow philanthropy at every level using digital, content-driven tactics. We specialize in:

  • Peer-to-peer
  • Video
  • Digital major donor engagement
  • Giving days
  • And more...

Is your phone program barely breaking even? (or worse?) Could your direct mail benefit from a multi-channel marketing boost? Fill out the form below and let's talk about we can rebalance your resources with cutting edge digital strategies to grow your fundraising program.

Name *

"Agile Fundraising" Leads to Online Giving Success at the University of Minnesota

Campaign Highlights:

  • $183,000 raised in two months: $83,000+ in small gifts plus the $100,000 gift from a major donor
  • New donor acquisition: More than 110 new donors who have never given to the University of Minnesota – 80 lapsed donors reactivated
  • Major gift referrals: 12 major gift prospects referred to development officers from this project

The big game, a big donor, crowdfunding, and a road trip

Those ingredients, combined with a skilled and agile fundraising team, led to an exciting multi-channel, “agile fundraising” campaign win that will ultimately send the University of Minnesota marching band to their first road game performance since 1996.

Click the image to watch a video of the University of Minnesota Marching Band learn they would be playing in the Super Bowl halftime show with Justin Timberlake.

Click the image to watch a video of the University of Minnesota Marching Band learn they would be playing in the Super Bowl halftime show with Justin Timberlake.

It starts with that closely trademarked “Big Game.” During this “Big Game” football event in Minneapolis, on February 4th, 2018 (wink, wink), Justin Timberlake invited the U of M’s Pride of Minnesota marching band to perform with him during the halftime show. The Pride of Minnesota knocked it out of the park with a flawless performance, and local news took notice.

The University’s Foundation and it's College of Liberal Arts fundraiser, Jake Muszynski, saw the potential in advance. A small group within the Foundation had access to the privileged and secret information about a band half-time performance several days before the Big Game event. The skilled team of fundraisers, communicators, and strategists quickly turned to a generous band donor. Within days, the donor offered to match up to $100,000 to encourage an influx of donations to the band that could be used for travel with the football team for a B1G game. (Funding a road trip for the University of Minnesota Marching Band comes with a $100,000 price tag) In 2018, that game would take place in Lincoln, vs. the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

The campaign was an instant success. Thousands of dollars were rolling in during the first few hours, with more than $20,000 raised in the first week.

The fundraisers behind the project flexed their promotional muscle with a strong news media push, emails to supporters, social media marketing, and engagement of U of M social media influencers to drive the effort. Almost all of the marketing and fundraising was done online, with some gifts coming in-person and 10 percent of the final total raised through telemarketing. This communications work elevated the campaign and kept the momentum strong through the first $50,000+ raised.

Then, a short stall – the fundraising stayed locked in the $50,000 range for the final weeks.

So back to work.

The communications team fired up a video-based email and Facebook Ads campaign to drive toward the finish line. The final week total: $73,000+ raised by the April 6 deadline. Additional gifts trickled in after the “deadline” bringing the total to more than $83,000.

"I had conversations with top donors leading up to the launch of this project, but the incredible thing about this campaign is that everything was organic. There were no gifts set up ahead of time--this campaign was truly built around excitement and timing, and it proved to be extremely successful," says Muszynski.

The elements of the U of M Marching Band campaign were no coincidence. This approach of connecting with major gift capacity donors and working to magnify their generosity through donor-acquiring (and retaining) digital events was a very deliberate strategy on the part of the University of Minnesota Foundation. The Foundation’s team brought talented fundraisers and communicators together with forward-thinking strategy to connect digital-savvy large gift donors with online fundraising campaigns that aligned with the donors’ passions.

Oreo Cookie was one of the first to introduce the concept of "agile marketing" during the Super Bowl in 2013.

Oreo Cookie was one of the first to introduce the concept of "agile marketing" during the Super Bowl in 2013.

And, they were “agile”

“Agile marketing” is essentially the practice of marketing that rolls with the blows, so to speak. We live in a real-time world, which means we expect real-time everything. 10 years earlier, a commercial that was tone-deaf to the events of the day would be understandable. Today, that faux pas is inexcusable. This is true not just of our news media, but also the marketing aimed at us. (Think of the classic “Oreo Big Game Power Out” tweet for a perfect example of real-time, agile marketing)

Agile marketing helped the U of M Foundation team find success, despite the tight-timeline. In less than a week, a CLA fundraiser had the generous matching gift of $100,000 ready to go. The communications team quickly followed with their email and social media strategies, the Big Game happened, the band performed, and now that same band is on its way to Lincoln for a long overdue B1G road game. In addition to funds raised, the project saw many other gains.

"This project became a great cultivation tool, as donors told stories through their giving. Many donors left a note on the crowdfunding page saying who they were or why they were giving, and it made for a great way to follow up with those donors in a thank you," says Muszynski. "I was very surprised and excited at the number of new donors this project uncovered."


Your fundraising organization can realize similar success to the University of Minnesota’s band campaign. Below are tips for launching and growing an agile fundraising program.

  • Foster open, cross-team collaboration – fundraisers, communicators, prospect development, and strategists should all be meeting regularly to discuss opportunities in the digital space
  • Hire smart, nimble staff who can adjust on the fly to run digital fundraising campaigns that align with the media and news cycles
  • Integrate digital with the major gifts AND annual giving programs and encourage both groups to work together – provide training for gift officers and leverage online data for sophisticated major donor prospect development research
  • Produce more video – the centerpiece of great, multi-channel content marketing campaigns

From video, to digital for major gifts, to email, to online ambassadors, and more - Groundwork Digital builds programs that produce results like the UMN Marching Band campaign. Click here to fill out our contact form and we'll be in touch soon with how we can help.


How the #MPRraccoon Translates to Modern Fundraising Strategy

What does the #MPRraccoon have to do with modern fundraising? Everything. 

#MPRraccoon inspired people around the globe on topics ranging from completing college to world peace.

#MPRraccoon inspired people around the globe on topics ranging from completing college to world peace.

In case you missed it, #MPRraccoon is the tale of a raccoon who was observed scaling the side of 25-story building in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. Quite literally, millions (billions? It was the top trending story on Twitter worldwide at one point) followed this furry little critter's harrowing climb up several hundred feet in the middle of a busy work day. (Thank you, social media) It was a unifying event that, according to many tweets, inspired observers across the globe.

So what does this have to do with fundraising? Again, everything ...because online fundraising works best when you are able to catch potential donors at the right point in time. 

In most cases, we try to accomplish this by tying digital campaigns to established events we can anticipate. #GivingTuesday, national awareness days, founding anniversaries ...and that can be successful. But rarely are those events as inspiring as a sudden, viral Internet sensation.

So how on Earth can you prepare for something as random as a miniature mammal taking center stage before the world? If you're an conservation or animal welfare organization, the answer should be obvious. Early the day after the #MPRraccoon hit the news, you should have had a social media campaign with promoted tweets and Facebook posts ready to fire. Emails should have been created and sent - a giving page with a screen grab of the raccoon and clear call to action should have been ready to go.

The messaging? For animal rights orgs: "Not all wildlife achieves the fame of #MPRraccoon - give today to ensure happy endings for all those animals who aren't trending topics"

For the conservation org: "Don't force more raccoons up high rises - give today to preserve habitat for generations to come"

It's concept we at Groundwork have coined "agile fundraising" (a play off the more well known "agile marketing" term). You can prepare your fundraising shop to leverage this concept and react nimbly when the social media gods deliver opportunities that align with your mission. Here's how:

  • Hire internally or outsource a team of quick thinking communicators and producers who can work with the news cycle. (This is why Groundwork aims to hire fundraisers with experience in the news industry ... women and men who are accustomed to delivering impactful stories that align with the events of the day on excruciating tight timelines are fundamental to our strategies)
  • Be ready to quickly produce short, succinct video which can be deployed via social media. OR ...create video content in advance that can easily be connected to a more predictable news item with a slight edit. (A full screen graphic, for example)
  • Use technology that allows you to build a content-rich online giving page in less than an hour. Most crowdfunding platforms allow for this. 
  • And develop a strategy that prepares your team - from major gift officers who secure matching gifts in less than a day (our clients have done this - it is possible if you've built the framework in advance) to content producers ready to turn on a dime to leadership who is comfortable with the pace.

At Groundwork, we are doing agile fundraising for our clients right now and we have examples of how this has helped raise hundreds of thousand of dollars and hundreds of new major gift prospects. In fact, later this summer (2018), we'll be releasing a case study about our most recent agile fundraising campaign with one of our client partners. Click here to let us know if you'd like to be added to the email list so we can send you a copy when it's ready.

Agile fundraising is not without it's challenges, but the opportunity that exists with this strategy is tremendous. Have you had success with agile fundraising or agile marketing for your nonprofit? If so, let us know in the comments!