Email Donor Cultivation
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How to ask your email donors to give again is an important question. A lot has been written about how to cultivate your donors using e-mail. Email marketing is such a huge business that laws have been written to govern the way we use email to reach out to donors (or customers).
Your email cultivation will have two primary aspects that you’ll have to deal with: the solicitation schedule and the content.
Your email cultivation schedule
How often can you ask someone to give? The real answer is as often as you’ll think they’ll let you. You are going to have to feel this out for yourself. Very aggressive email cultivation campaigns (say for instance a political campaign) often email extremely frequently. As the election nears and the tension increases, they might ask weekly, multiple times per week, or even daily. For most organizations, this frequency is simply unsustainable. Your email list will begin to shrink as people start to unsubscribe.
On the other hand, if you’re only asking once a year that is also a big problem. People have a relatively short attention span, so if you’re only emailing them once a year, they’re going to feel disconnected from your mission and will be less likely to donate.
Finding the right balance means creating a rhythm of communications that includes non-‘ask’ messages with enough variety that it doesn’t feel like you’re asking all the time. But at the same time, you need to ask frequently enough that you’re not leaving lots of money on the table.
What does your email schedule look like? It needs to be integrated with your annual fundraising plan. You might do twelve annual asks, with a quarterly e-newsletter, monthly project updates, and some kind of call to action every other month.
A good way to learn best practices is to make donations to some of your favorite national charities, sign up for their email list, and then pay attention to what their sending one. You’ll notice that political campaigns are often the most aggressive during election season, but will ease up during off years. You’ll see that some organizations use a lot of surveys, others use activist “sign this petition” opportunities, and still others have invitations to volunteer.
The email that you send needs to tell a story with three parts: the need, the impact, and the ask.
The “need” section presents the conflict. People are hungry. They are homeless. Some are sick. And not just “people”… this person named Bill is suffering from some kind of terrible affliction. Tell their story. Add enough detail to make it interesting and stir up an emotional response. You’re not trying to manipulate people’s emotions here, but you need to make sure that the story you pick reaches your audience at an emotional level.
The impact section describes how a donation made right now will cause some good thing to happen in the situation that you just described. Bill is going to get a home cooked meal, or a place to stay, or drug rehab. You’re connecting dots here. Your readers should see that their donation will make a big difference to a person in need. And get specific about how the need will be made… IF THEY MAKE A DONATION. Don’t resolve the conflict here. I know this is hard to do. But your readers need to be left with the feeling that if they need to do something (like make a donation).
The ‘ask’ section can be brief but you can’t leave it out. You need to tell your reader that without their help, Bill is in trouble. Would they consider making a gift to the make sure that Bill gets the help he needs?
Cultivation is not manipulation!
A key point to remember is that you are not trying to manipulate your donor. People can sense manipulation, and they frankly don’t like it. They will tune you out. You are, on the other hand, trying to persuade them to take action by making a donation. It’s a fine distinction but an important one. Email cultivation tries to reach them on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one. You’re not just trying to inform them, you’re trying to inspire your email donors to give again.
Also, if you’re paying attention to the fundraising letters you’re getting, you’ll notice that they often write in the 2nd person. While this breaks the convention of standard business format, it is ok for you to do. You are talking to someone and using the word ‘you’ to refer to your audience is perfectly appropriate. You are trying to convince your reader to donate, and that means you are trying to write them a letter that sounds familiar and personal. Friendly.
Test, Test, Test!
One of the great things about email cultivation is that you’re able to test what you’re sending out. What does that mean? If you’re doing a monthly ask, you can send out two different versions of the letter to a small percentage of your subscribers. This is often called A/B testing. Once you see which letter brings in the most donations and the highest gifts, then you can use the winning letter with the rest of your donor list.
Testing might sound like a pain, but there’s nothing more painful than sending out a letter that you think is awesome and discovering that it is really a dud. Testing can save you from embarrassing failures as well as the budget crises that come from them.