Solving the riddle of donor fatigue for nonprofit organizations

For those of us who live in the universe of nonprofit fundraising, donor fatigue and donor retention are some of the biggest challenges we face. That’s particularly true when building an effective direct response program.

The issue often comes to a head in the first quarter of the year, as nonprofit managers assess the performance and impact of their year-end fundraising campaigns. December is often the best time of the year to raise money, but it is also usually the time when email unsubscribe rates are at their highest. Simply stated, the high volume of email literally drives people away. And some of those people are your donors, or could have been.

This high unsubscribe rate during December is just one symptom of the challenge of donor fatigue and ultimately of donor retention. The reality is that donor retention has been terrible for decades among U.S. nonprofits. And now nonprofit managers are more aware of the issue and are focusing on how to address it.

There are three factors that have exacerbated the issue of falling donor retention over the past few years.

What Makes Donor Fatigue Worse?

1. Trying to Get Donations in the Door Now, No Matter What

The first factor is the relentless focus by fundraising professionals on maximizing short-term revenue at any cost. They probably learned this strategy from their colleagues in retail and other for-profit industries.

It’s led to practices such as relentless year-round email messaging and fundraising campaigns, including year-end fundraising oversaturation. The recent emergence of Giving Tuesday appears to have made things worse, because it adds an even earlier start to the traditional year-end fundraising season.

2. Neglecting Cultivation and Stewardship of Donors

A second factor is neglecting basic practices of cultivation and stewardship, leading to an imbalance in communications, in favor of fundraising. I see too few organizations that strive to achieve a meaningful balance between stewardship and fundraising.

Achieving such a balance requires the will to understand your supporters and donors, to see things through their eyes, inboxes, and social media news feeds. Organizations can use surveys, events and focus groups to listen and learn from their constituents, so they can determine how best to communicate and how often.

3. Focusing on Acquiring Lists

A third factor is the relentless pursuit of list acquisition, which is achieved through both earned and paid techniques, in a variety of marketing and media channels. List acquisition has become easy and affordable in the digital age. It’s now seen as a means to replenish and replace subscribers and donors that are dropping off our lists at an increasingly alarming rate. List acquisition is increasingly viewed as a means to stem donor fatigue, by simply replacing one lost donor with one found donor.

There’s a problem with the paradigm imposed by these three factors. The churn rate imposed by low donor retention is weakening efforts by nonprofits and social causes to create deep communities of people who want to create meaningful and lasting change.

The Solution: Strengthen the Relationship with Your Existing Donors

The solution to the challenge of donor fatigue and donor retention is to understand that it’s more cost-effective in the long run to retain a donor than to acquire a new one. Donors are looking for an open door and an opportunity to engage their passions to take on a social cause. Donors want to stick around to make a difference.

Recently I’ve noticed a renewed interest by nonprofit managers to address donor fatigue and donor retention head on; I meet many who are focusing their efforts on how to address it. This is an important cultural development in the nonprofit sector that I admire and encourage.

I believe that organizations can shift their approach to communications and fundraising to build stronger relationships with constituents and donors from the start. Nonprofits can nurture those relationships to reduce the volatility of their donors’ participation.

That nurturing process includes creating a healthy balance in the type of messaging, and reducing the amount of email messaging so it doesn’t overwhelm subscribers. It includes creating meaningful on-boarding experiences, and offering subscribers a choice in the volume and types of email communications.

We need to be practicing email segmentation so we’re not emailing the whole list each time, and investing in messaging on social media channels. We also need to find ways to involve constituents and donors in critiquing and developing our communications practices.

This article was originally published on on March 21, 2017.

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

Harness the latest giving trends for digital fundraising success

Published in TheDatabank Blog on March 14, 2017

With all the seismic shocks that are occurring across the political and social spectrum this year, nonprofit organizations have their hands full engaging their volunteers, donors and stakeholders to plot their best path forward. Concerned citizens and activists across the country are busy mobilizing to take action on causes they care deeply about.

While plenty of people are out in the streets holding rallies and visiting their elected representatives, the digital landscape has become ground zero as a prime organizing and engagement channel. Nonprofit organizations are pushing the envelope on their digital efforts to engage activists, grow the size of their email lists, and raise money online.

In the area of digital fundraising, numerous giving trends are driving strong performance among nonprofits that are hoping to capitalize on highly engaged constituents.

Here’s my review of 9 key trends and opportunities for digital fundraising success

Email Is Back: Email is re-emerging as a communications channel that is trusted again. With the over-saturation of social media, people are turning back to receiving email from organizations they trust. 2017 is a great year to re-envision and reboot your efforts to keep in touch via email with your constituents, volunteers, and donors. Some things to consider:

  • Does your everyday email template or your email newsletter need a creative refresh?
  • How does it look on mobile?
  • Is it time to rewrite your welcome email for new subscribers?
  • How can you improve the look and feel of your next email fundraising appeal?

Make Mobile Great: For most organizations in 2016, mobile dominated email opens and traffic to websites, and that trend is continuing in 2017. Movable Ink reports that across industries, 69% of opens were on mobile device, highlighting the importance of creating a great mobile experience, from email subject line to website landing page. For fundraising, this means making sure your donation page is mobile friendly, so you don’t miss any donors who want to make donations via their phone.

Keep it Personal: For years, email messaging has been about blasting the same content to your whole list. This year, your focus should shift towards sending smaller batches of email to people who fit certain interest criteria. The key to success with online messaging is relevant content and email list segmentation. You need to send the right content to the right segment of your email file at the right time. They might be people who attended an event, downloaded a PDF from your website, donated a one-time gift, or signed up as monthly donors. More personal engagement and stronger cultivation leads to better fundraising response.

Embrace Automation: It’s important to use automation effectively during key transactions such as email subscription, event signups, and online giving, since these often the most opened and read emails. Review all your thank-you emails on a regular basis to make sure the language is personal and fresh, and never miss the opportunity to suggest another follow-up action. The most important automated emails are for new email subscribers and also for donors.

Graphics & Video Increase Performance: Testing and experimentation by thousands of nonprofits have shown that use of graphics and video make a strong positive impact on fundraising response rates. Metrics show that images on social media platforms perform 300 percent better for social sharing. Put simply, it’s time to write less and show more. Write better headlines and shorter copy. Use a graphic to present a call to action. Embed a video to replace a paragraph. New technical developments in email — notably the ability to embed HTML5 video in emails — offer some new opportunities to showcase your video content. This requires more forward planning to execute, but the rewards are worth it. (This handy Email on Acid article lists the email providers that support HTML5 in emails. Databank clients, see our support document, Can I Embed a Video in an Email?)

Focus on Monthly Giving: Last year saw skyrocketing growth in monthly giving among donors. 2017 is your year to increase the prominence of monthly giving options for your donors. Not only does monthly giving provide an easier on-ramp for donors with tighter budgets, it also increases the long term value of a donor, since most stay on your donor file longer, and often make additional one-time gifts. Be sure to feature monthly giving on your main donation page, and do a special campaign annually to recruit new sustainers.

Reboot Your Donation Page: Completion rates on donation pages average around 25%, which means most nonprofits have some opportunity to improve their fundraising revenue. Review your donation page to look for ways to freshen up your main call-to-action headline, use a new photo to engage prospective donors, and remove any clutter on the page that might be distracting. Test your page for improvements throughout the year, so you’re ready for success at year-end. Read a recent article of mine on this subject on TechSoup.

Think Peer-to-Peer: There was strong growth in 2016 for organizations that used “social fundraising” and “crowd-funding” to engage with donors, particularly among disease fighting charities, faith organizations, and school and alumni networks. This trend will continue to grow as “micro-donations” become a more acceptable type of digital fundraising. Recruit a new donor with a $5 ask, and watch them grow.

Invest in Multi-Channel: There’s a lot of scrutiny about whether social media presence has a positive impact on fundraising. Social media platforms have evolved into hybrid community, content, and advertising platforms that require financial investment for optimum results. We’re learning that making an advertising investment on social media platforms during a digital fundraising campaign often has a positive impact on revenue coming in through email and the Web. In December 2016, more nonprofits were using social media advertising to reach their donors and email subscribers as a means to promote their fundraising campaigns and seek higher response rates. This “multi-channel effect” is an important development which nonprofits need to adapt to and invest in in the coming years.

I have little doubt that 2017 is going to be a breakout year for many nonprofits, as we witness a historic surge in civic engagement. Now is the time focus on stronger constituent engagement, faster email list growth and higher fundraising performance as your organization mobilizes its supporters, fans and donors for mission success.

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

Grow Your Email List Without Spending Money

Growing the size of your email list is an important strategic goal for your nonprofit’s marketing, communications, and fundraising programs. Even with average email open rates under 20 percent, email is consistently the best performing communications tool for most nonprofits. It requires significant effort and discipline to keep building your email list, month after month.

And yet, it’s important to make the effort, because email “churn” eats away at the size of your file as people change email addresses, close accounts, and change jobs. Also, to maintain the strong attention span of that core 20 percent of your list, you’ll need to keep bringing on new engaged subscribers every day.

There are several effective free techniques to grow your email list using the current digital assets and online properties your organization already has. So before you spend money to rent email lists, distribute an email offer through a media platform, or work with a paid co-registration service such as, consider the following. These free ideas and strategies will build your email file by tapping into your current website traffic and social media follower community.

Optimize the Email Signup Offer on Your Website Home Page

Your home page is usually the page that receives the most visitor traffic on your website, so it’s critically important to optimize its email signup offer. Optimizing entails determining the best location for your email signup widget and the most effective language to drive the strongest signup activity.

The best location for an email signup widget is usually in the upper half of the page, either as part of the top navigation, or simply above the fold for larger screens. Furthermore, consider how people visiting your website with a mobile device such as a phone or smaller tablet will view the widget and fill it out. If your website is responsive for mobile devices, it will hopefully enlarge the widget for ease of use, otherwise the form will be small.

Be sure to check out Google Analytics to understand how many of your website visitors are using mobile devices and tablets. If your mobile traffic is over 20 percent, then it’s important to consider the mobile user experience when optimizing the email signup offer on your home page.

It’s also essential to determine the best language to encourage email signups. Too often, organizations use something bland like “Email signup” or “Get our newsletter,” without considering how other language might improve response. Focusing on an issue or program area or simply using mission-based language may make a bigger impact.

Try “Get our Monday Activist Bulletin” or “Get weekly vegan recipes” or “Get weekly tips to expose police violence.” This sort of language usually improves the signup rate.

Optimize the Email Signup Offer on Your Other Top 10 Pages

Although your website home page is your first priority, don’t neglect to optimize how the offer is presented on your other top 10 traffic pages. If your email signup offer is built into the navigation at the top of every page, that’s excellent. But otherwise, make sure that your email offer is clearly visible, either as part of a sidebar or a callout bar in the middle of the page.

Again, be sure to review how these pages will look on smaller mobile devices. If you have an appetite for more marketing data, you can set up a Google Analytics goal to measure which pages deliver the most email signups. Then you can focus your ongoing efforts to optimize the placement of the widget and the signup language.

Test Out a Digital Download to Capture Email Addresses

A proven technique to capture email addresses either from your website visitors or your social media followers is to offer a digital download. A visitor is invited to download the item you’re offering in exchange for their email signup. Easy-to-create digital downloads include high resolution desktop images for larger computer screens, or smaller images for mobile phone lock screens.

Other options could be exclusive essays or a collection of article reprints in PDF format. Additional popular options include exclusive audio interviews or video compilations. Try testing a series of these digital downloads over several months to assess what works best.

Don’t forget to test out these digital downloads with your social media follower community. Use a graphic image to display the offer and then create a trackable link to a page on your website where the download activity takes place. Be sure to use a Google Analytics goal to measure the impact of your social media offers.

Consider Using a Pop-up Lightbox on Your Website

Once you’re comfortable offering a digital download and you’ve optimized your messaging techniques, consider using a pop-up lightbox on your website to present it more directly in front of your audience. While this is a more forceful marketing technique, it’s also highly effective, and may be something you could use a few times a year.

Try a List Exchange or a Chaperone Email to Reach New Audiences

Another free technique to build your email list is to work with a like-minded organization, a publisher, a media property, or a corporate partner. All of these entities can help get your message in front of new audiences.

The “list exchange” is a reciprocal agreement that two organizations will each send an email message to their list, introducing a project that the other organization is engaged in. This sort of movement building activity is an effective way to seek out new email subscribers. It’s common for two organizations to agree to email the same number of constituents and sometimes to exclude active donors from that list.

A variant on this technique is a chaperone email. A publisher, media property, or corporate partner will promote your campaign via email, website feature, or social media posting, as part of a strategic partnership.

Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist to 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 multi-channel and multi-screen world.

This article was originally published on on August 24, 2016.

10 Ways to Improve Your Donation Page and Raise More Money

Only 15 percent of prospective donors who reach a website’s donation page actually make an online gift. This stark statistic, revealed in the 2016 M+R Benchmarks Study, is a reminder of the challenge of raising money online. After all the work you’ve done crafting powerful fundraising campaigns, it’s a pity that your website’s donation page may be letting you down.

Maybe your organization was rushed when it created its donation page, or you simply haven’t had staff time to dedicate to the task. Now’s a good time to make improvements. Most organizations reap strong financial benefits by improving their donation pages through a few simple changes. By doubling the completion rate from 15 percent to 30 percent, you’re basically doubling your revenue through this all-important and fast-growing fundraising channel.

Here are 10 ways to improve your donation page:

Start with a Strong Headline

The single most effective way to improve a donation page is with a clear and compelling page headline. Your donors have seen (and filled out) lots of donation pages, so the headline has to really stand out, since it’s the first thing they’ll see aside from the photo. The best headlines are succinct and to the point but also tap into the reason your donors are motivated to give in the first place.

Here are some examples I like:
Donate to save an animal’s life today
Join us and protect what you love
Donate for consumer safety and unbiased, reliable product reviews — and receive a FREE guide

Present a Strong Value Proposition

Along with the headline, craft a few sentences to make the case for how a donation today will make an impact on the issue you’re fighting for. Make sure this messaging ties in with the overall theme of your campaign, such as when people are clicking from an email they might have received.

Display Powerful Images

Often images are more powerful than words when it comes to communicating how a donor’s gift can help others. Feature an image that reinforces your core message and mission, or is connected to the campaign theme. A good headline, photo, and value proposition will combine together to improve giving on the page.

Clear Away Navigation Items at Top and Bottom

Many donation pages are cluttered with navigation elements at the top, left, and bottom, plus sidebar elements. This results in much distraction and provides opportunities for visitors to leave the page before making a gift. Simplify your donation pages with as little extraneous navigation as possible, so the visitor sees just one choice: giving!

Offer Multiple Giving Options

There’s a wider range of supporters visiting your website, following you on social channels, and subscribed to your email list than ever before. Your supporters are all ages, using different devices, in many different countries, and from many different financial circumstances.

Make sure your donation pages provide both flexibility and clarity to meet a broad range of donor preferences around giving options (one-time gifts, monthly gifts, gifts in honor, and gifts of stock). Also give people flexibility in how they donate (via credit card brands, Paypal, and checking account debits).

Offer Monthly Giving as a Clear Option

Monthly giving is the fastest growing type of online giving. Donors are often comfortable increasing the amount of their annual giving if they can break it into 12 payments. Plus, monthly donors have a longer “lifetime value”: they give more over time. This win-win should encourage you to consider whether and how to feature the monthly giving option on your donation pages.

Display Security and Trust Seals

It’s helpful to display both security and trust seals on your donation page. These seals help make prospective donors confident that their personal information won’t be compromised. They also let donors know that your organization has been reviewed and accredited by one of the rating agencies such as,, or Be sure to place the seals alongside where the donor enters their payment information for maximum visibility.

Anticipate Multiple Screen Sizes

Take a look at your website analytics, and you’ll see the huge variety of devices and screen sizes that prospective donors are using when they reach your donation page. Make sure all your donation pages (from your main website navigation or from an email link) are optimized for all sizes of mobile devices, including small phone screens. Discuss this project with your donation page provider and make it a priority, since this can really move the needle.

Display a Colorful, Eye-catching Donate Button

Large and colorful donate buttons at the bottom of the donation page that look clickable and feature goal-oriented language are best. They often outperform donate buttons that are small, use pale colors, and feature generic language. So a button that says, “DONATE to help the kids” will perform better than “DONATE.” Either way, the button has to be colorful and highly visible so there’s nothing ambiguous about it.

Use Easy-to-Read Font Sizes and Colors

Small font sizes and pale text (grey is surprisingly common) can make reading your donation page a real challenge. Make sure your page copy (both headline and body text) uses a dark font (preferably black) on a white background. You also want it to be of sufficient size so it’s easily readable on wide variety of devices and screen sizes.

Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist to 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 multi-channel and multi-screen world.

This article was originally published in on June 20, 2016.