6 tips to improve your next fundraising campaign using digital storytelling

Storytelling is the currency of fundraising. In the digital environment of email, social media, and mobile, we can use storytelling in innovative ways to inspire supporters and donors — and raise more money.

Photos, videos, selfies, and personal stories allow us to embed emotional content in fundraising campaigns. They also invite our supporters and donors to be more deeply involved in our fundraising campaigns.

Below are six tips for nonprofits that want to use digital storytelling to engage donors and boost giving.

Tip 1: Create a Strategy

As you plan your next fundraising campaign, consider how you’ll use stories as a central element of your messaging. Your goal is to create maximum emotional impact around your fundraising goal and deadline.

Ask These Questions to Start

  • What’s the central theme of your fundraising campaign (the goal you’re trying to solve, amount of funds you need to raise, giving deadline)?
  • How will you tell your story to create both authenticity and urgency?
  • What photos and videos can you use to tell your campaign story?
  • How will you encourage supporters and donors to make a gift? What tactics will push people to give (a match, or a deadline)?
  • How can you encourage donors to share their generosity and spread the word? How can you obtain supporter-contributed content?
  • How can you use your social media channels to spread the word about your fundraising campaign and showcase donor generosity?
  • What previous fundraising campaigns worked best and why?

Tip 2: Use Photos to Create Emotional Impact

Photos are a central element to create emotional impact in your email appeals, on website pages, on website pop-up lightboxes, in digital advertising, and even on donation pages.

Consider how the photo subject will reinforce the fundraising campaign message. Avoid using stock photography, since this turns off donors. Use images of volunteers whenever possible to connect with your most avid supporters.

Here’s a great example. Be the Match uses a photo of past volunteers to inspire people to sign up to raise funds:


And here’s how International Medical Corps used a photo in its website lightbox to garner support for disaster survivors:


Middle East Children’s Alliance used a slideshow during its 2016 year-end campaign to share powerful images and stories of families and children who need help:


Tip 3: Use a Photo on Your Donation Page to Inspire Giving

Featuring a good image on your donation page that captures the essence of your work can significantly improve your fundraising campaign’s success. When selecting photos for donation pages, it’s important that they be authentic and relevant so that they reinforce your campaign theme. Test a variety of images to figure out which one resonates best with your audience.

Here’s a great example of an authentic and relevant photo on the Doctors Without Borders donation page:


If you want more ideas to improve your donation page, this blog post showcases 10 tips.

Tip 4: Create a Video to Tell Your Story

Videos allow you to bring your fundraising story to life and connect with your audience. Furthermore, fundraising campaigns that include a video are often more successful.

CauseVox has assembled 15 examples of video storytelling for online fundraising campaigns.

TechSoup also offers an excellent resource guide for video storytelling. It’s available for download on the Storymakers 2017 page.

Follow These Tips

  • Keep your video less than two minutes long.
  • Include a screenshot of the video in your email appeals and invite people to click through to watch it.
  • Post the video on your website home page and on your social media channels to build maximum visibility for your fundraising campaign.
  • Include a web address at the beginning and end of the video so you can direct people to where they can make a donation.

This fundraising appeal from SETI Institute incorporated a different short video at the top of each message, helping to tell the organization’s story and ask for donations:


Tip 5: Encourage Photo and Video Sharing Among Your Supporters, Volunteers, and Donors

Encourage your supporters and donors to share their own photos with you during your fundraising campaign. You can ask your supporters to share their photos on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter using a hashtag. Get permission to reuse and share photos to showcase your donor generosity and encourage peer giving.

Here’s a good example: the Best Buddies Challenge promotes a hashtag for supporter-contributed photos during its annual bike ride in California to support families with children with intellectual disabilities.


Tip 6: Use Peer-to-Peer Fundraising and Let Your Supporters Tell Their Own Stories

Create a community fundraising campaign and enroll your supporters to help you out. Supporters can create their own fundraising pages to raise money for your cause and tell their own stories about why they’re involved. Encourage your fundraisers to use photos and videos to illustrate their campaign.

For example, Children’s National uses a platform that lets families raise funds for its cause.


Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist for progressive social causes for over two decades. He is the author of three books and numerous articles chronicling the rise of digital marketing, mobile, and online fundraising. He works as a consultant and coach to nonprofits, foundations, and educators, with a focus on marketing and fundraising in a multichannel and multiscreen world. Find Michael on Twitter at @mstein63.

Giving in the age of Trump

I don’t usually wait with bated breath for annual giving trends and studies. But this year was different. Many fundraisers (including me) were eager to understand how the emergence of the Trump Presidency last year may be affecting the giving landscape, particularly at the individual giving level.

Like many people, I was intrigued and delighted at the news of big giving surges that occurred in the wake of Trump’s victory. Planned Parenthood reported receiving over 80,000 donations within days of the election. The American Civil Liberties Union received $24 million in online donations in the weekend that followed the news of Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban.

The nonprofit Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to families in need across the country, took in more than $100,000 in donations after Trump proposed federal budget cuts. Were these giving surges one-time events or a presage of an enduring phenomenon with lasting impact?

The Giving USA Report: Documenting Increases in Gifts to Nonprofits

The annual Giving USA report is the longest-running report of charitable giving in the United States. The latest report, covering the year 2016, sheds some interesting light on philanthropy trends that may continue to affect nonprofits during the Trump era.

The Giving USA study reports that for 2016, all giving rose to $390.1 billion, which is a 1.4 percent growth over 2015 (adjusted for inflation). Individual donors really helped drive giving in 2016, and continue to represent the biggest piece of the charitable giving pie (72 percent). Individual giving alone had a 3.9 percent increase over the previous year!

Meanwhile, charitable giving from foundations and corporations also increased in 2016. However, gifts by estates decreased sharply (-10 percent).

In the individual donor category, it appears that all categories of recipient organizations saw an increase in giving in 2016, meaning that giving wasn’t isolated to so-called “resistance-oriented” groups. The greatest year-over-year increases were seen in environment and animals (7.2 percent); arts, culture, and humanities (6.4 percent); and international affairs (5.8 percent). Even religious groups saw a 3 percent increase.

Towards the Democratization of Philanthropy

Numerous commentators in the nonprofit philanthropy community seized upon this growth in the individual donor category as an important bellwether of changing giving trends in the Trump era.

Ruth McCambridge writes in The Nonprofit Quarterly: “Amid great political uncertainty, and probably even because of it, people without enormous wealth gave in larger numbers than they have in the recent past. The highest increases among recipient groups were […] front and center in public and political discourse toward the end of 2016 as areas that might be targeted for policy changes and defunding by the new administration.”

McCambridge continues: “All of this should come as little surprise to nonprofits, since we already knew that volunteering and giving are relatively closely linked behaviors. Thus, the massive number of people who volunteered to show up for protests on climate policy, immigration, science, and women’s rights over the past six or seven months should have been something of a predictor of what we could expect in giving trends. That makes this an exciting moment for fundraisers and organizers […] and you get a sense of the potential of this moment.”

Quoted in that same article is Patrick M. Rooney, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs and research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which researched the Giving USA report.

He suggests that “we saw something of a democratization of philanthropy. The strong growth in individual giving may be less attributable to the largest of the large gifts, which were not as robust as we have seen in some prior years, suggesting that more of that growth in 2016 may have come from giving by donors among the general population compared to recent years.”

Making the Most of This New Era of Civic Engagement

Let’s return for a moment to our initial mention of Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and Meals on Wheels, who saw a literal deluge of donations from existing and new donors. Can these — and many other organizations who aren’t mentioned here — take full advantage of this opportunity to cultivate and deepen relationships with donors, volunteers, and subscribers, eager for action?

If current trends and news reports are to be believed, we are well on our way to a new era of civic engagement. Says McCambridge: “It may be time to concentrate on making the most of this period of multi-faceted activism and our very rich landscape of mobilizable human and cash capital.”

Jay Love, writing in the Bloomerang blog, concurs. He believes that “if a strong base of individual supporters can be built via top-notch relationship building, which takes time, they can be retained at well above average retention levels.” He calls for a resurgence in individual donor cultivation.

As Steve MacLaughlin notes in Huffington Post: “Nonprofits are taking more risks, engaging supporters in new ways, and using more science to aid the art of fundraising. The future of fundraising will require risk, innovation, and a drive to move beyond the status quo.”

I, for one, will be watching nonprofit innovation blossom in the Trump era as a sign that we are embracing new strategies and tactics to engage and cultivate supporters.

Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist for progressive social causes for over two decades. He is the author of three books and numerous articles chronicling the rise of digital marketing, mobile, and online fundraising. He works as a consultant and coach to nonprofits, foundations, and educators, with a focus on marketing and fundraising in a multichannel and multiscreen world. Find Michael on Twitter at @mstein63.

How nonprofits can improve their email deliverability

A recent study published in May 2017 by digital tool provider EveryAction reported that over 18 percent of nonprofit fundraising emails ended up in junk folders in 2016. That number jumped to 36 percent during #GivingTuesday, seriously hindering fundraising campaigns during the biggest giving season of the year.

Email Deliverability Defined

This issue of email deliverability — the percentage of email that actually makes it into inboxes and not spam folders — is becoming a critical issue for nonprofits of all sizes. Nonprofit staffers across the country are taking notice.

This problem doesn’t only impact fundraising campaigns. It also prevents nonprofits from connecting meaningfully on a year-round basis with stakeholders, donors, subscribers, volunteers, and others.

What causes poor deliverability? Often it’s decisions made by email service providers (ESPs) about whether to deliver your email. Those decisions are based on hundreds of different metrics.

How Your Emails Become Spam

Brett Schenker writes in the 2017 Nonprofit Email Deliverability Study: “If an ESP notices that emails you send are often marked as spam, deleted immediately without being read, never opened, or not engaged with in general, they may begin routing your email to spam folders, or worse, completely blocking you as a sender. Once your IP address has been flagged by an ISP as a bad sender, it can take months or even years to recover.”

This assessment by Schenker has some profound repercussions for nonprofits of all sizes, who need to do some soul searching about their email messaging programs. Gone are the days when a nonprofit can keep dumping emails onto its list, message monthly, and hope for the best.

The truth about email management is that unless nonprofits change their ways, email deliverability will continue to decline. Therefore, nonprofit administrators and technologists must be committed to improving their email acquisition strategy and messaging practices.

Six Tactics to Improve Email Deliverability

Here are six tactics you can apply immediately to improve your email deliverability:

1. Go the Extra Distance to Confirm Email Subscriptions

It’s no longer acceptable for the executive director to hand a pile of business cards to her assistant and say, “Add them to our email list.” Each and every one of those individuals should be personally invited to join the list and go through your double opt-in email registration process. This new technique will reduce the age-old problem of people not remembering how and why they’re receiving email communications.

Also, double opt-in email registration is no longer optional. It’s necessary and it’s cool, especially if you make the messaging fun and interesting. Your subscribers will respect you for respecting them and appreciate the concern for their privacy.

2. Create a World-Class Email “Welcome Series”

Your email welcome series is your most important email communications. I repeat: the MOST important — because everything that comes after it depends upon its success. A study by Return Path showed that people who open all your email welcome messages are more likely to open more email messages, which in turn impacts your email deliverability.

Create a welcome series team. This team will be responsible for not just creating a great welcome series, but reviewing it at the beginning of each business quarter to determine what needs to be updated. The first emails that subscribers will receive set the tone and the voice for your communications going forward. So, let your creative juices flow, and you’ll make a lasting impact.

3. Test and Improve Your Email Engagement

Improving your email messaging practices means a continuous process of testing and refinement so that your subscribers will open your messages and find interesting content. To figure out how to improve, test different types of subject lines, and experiment with varying content types. Vary your messaging voice and style, and continually improve your email templates.

4. Segment Your Email List

Another critical facet of improving your email engagement is segmenting your email list. Segmenting means you make smaller subgroups that have similar characteristics such as common interest areas or geographic proximity. Sure, this means more work on your part to create messaging campaigns, but the end result is deeper relationships with your supporters.

5. Pay Attention to Bounces

Bounces are data points that notify us when something is wrong and needs attention. Explore why bounces are occurring and contact your ESP to get more information if needed. If bounces happen repeatedly with certain subscribers, remove those subscribers from your list, because repeated bounces are danger flags for ESPs.

6. Manage Your Inactive Subscribers

Inactive subscribers are people who haven’t opened an email in some time and are ultimately just cluttering up your email list and hurting your email deliverability. Email addresses that are inactive for nine months should be removed from your list.

Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist for progressive social causes for over two decades. He is the author of three books and numerous articles chronicling the rise of digital marketing, mobile, and online fundraising. He works as a consultant and coach to nonprofits, foundations, and educators, with a focus on marketing and fundraising in a multichannel and multiscreen world. Find Michael on Twitter at @mstein63.

7 best practices to engage and retain donors for nonprofits

Recently I wrote about the challenge of donor fatigue and donor retention, which gets to the heart of how nonprofits are building relationships with their financial supporters.

Many express “fatigue” from the over-messaging or clumsy communications they receive from nonprofits they support. Those nonprofits often neglect to properly acknowledge appreciation for the donors’ support, or to cultivate their ongoing interest.

From the nonprofits’ vantage point, direct response managers are challenged to get donors to make repeat gifts. These staffers are frustrated by the constant churn of donors who “leave the list” after only making a single gift.

This month, I’d like to provide some useful best practices for nonprofits to engage and retain donors. This guidance is also helpful to donors to allow them to recognize nonprofit organizations that are using effective techniques to keep them engaged and appreciated.

Thank Your Donors After Each Gift

I challenge every nonprofit I meet to make that thank-you email as special as possible. It’s not just a donor receipt; it’s the start of a new stage in your relationship.

Think of ways to make that message as creative as possible and focused on the donor and their impact to the organization. Avoid generic emails; instead, make sure it’s signed by a specific person, and include their photo and signature.

Offer a phone number or “reply to this email” so the donor can quickly be in touch. It’s important to review that message on a quarterly basis to make sure it’s the very best it can be.

Create an Email Welcome Series for New Donors

Speaking of creating something truly special, I strongly recommend an email welcome series for all new donors, even if they’ve been on your file for a while. What differentiates a donor from other people who are engaged with your organization, and how do you want to communicate that?

Your donor welcome series could include a series of emails from key stakeholders in your organization, including board members. If you mail materials to new donors, be sure that your mail and email materials are consistent with each other and tie together well.

Create Balanced Communications with Your Donors

A common complaint from donors is that organizations ask for money too often. I think that’s a symptom of a different problem, which is that the balance between fundraising, cultivation, and engagement has not been achieved. This balance in communications should allow the donor to experience a broad variety of communications and engagement activities.

Consider doing a communications audit with your current donors and email subscribers to assess how people currently perceive that balance. You’ll find it invaluable to involve constituents and donors in critiquing and developing your communications practices.

Offer Your Donors a Choice in the Volume and Types of Email Communications

Not all donors are alike, and the reality is that they have different interests and different levels of commitment. It’s important to not overwhelm your donors with too much communications or with content they have no interest in.

Create a communications plan so you can offer a choice in the content of email communications. Your donors will often respond positively to that choice with deeper engagement.

Rethink Your Email Newsletter as a Donor Engagement Tool

The email newsletter is the most dangerous tool in your email communications arsenal. The danger comes in underestimating its potential and wasting it with casual monthly “news” content delivery.

The true power of this monthly opportunity is to rethink your email newsletter as a donor engagement tool. Focus your messaging efforts each month on how the organization is achieving its mission, who is being helped, and how donor support matters. Your challenge is to reframe the e-newsletter so it’s focused away from news delivery and towards deepening donor engagement.

Invest in Messaging with Donors Through Your Social Media Channels

Your donors are very interesting people, and you should be keeping tabs on them via any social channels where they are active. Consider your donors as a special class of “social media influencers” and be sure to retweet their content and engage in direct messaging with them. This sort of cross-channel communications will allow you to deepen relationships with donors.

Donor Retention Is the Responsibility of the Entire Organization

The challenge with donor retention is to find ways to break it out of the traditional silo of the “development department.” You want to move toward a broader conversation among your whole staff, board, and volunteers.

Have quarterly discussions at staff meetings and board retreats to explore the issue of donor retention. Invite donors to visit with you during a staff meeting.

Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist for progressive social causes for over two decades. He is the author of three books and numerous articles chronicling the rise of digital marketing, mobile, and online fundraising. He works as a consultant and coach to nonprofits, foundations, and educators, with a focus on marketing and fundraising in a multichannel and multiscreen world. Find Michael on Twitter at @mstein63.