Study: Email Opens Down, But Email Fundraising Revenue Is Up

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April 20, 2016; AdWeek

Nonprofit online fundraising continues to evolve as the form becomes more ubiquitous. A recently released study reports the growth of nonprofit fundraising email revenue was up 25 percent even though email metrics such as open and click-through rates are down. We caution readers, as the report does, to use the findings here as a starting rather than an ending point, but checking your own performance against the groups studied—which, advisedly, include such mega-groups as the American Cancer Society, PETA, and AARP—will provide much food for strategic thought. Part of any good fundraising strategy should be testing the methods that work for others before investing heavily in them.

The report, entitled “Benchmarks X, 2016”, surveyed 105 nonprofit groups with a total of more than 69 million list subscribers and was prepared by M+R, an online fundraising and digital media consulting firm with the support of The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN).

One potential pointer that can be drawn for your own practice is that the groups that were more successful in raising funds appear to spend more on paid digital advertising combined with sending more fundraising appeals. “They aren’t reaching new audiences telepathically; they are investing more in paid advertising,” say the report’s authors. The top performing nonprofits invested significantly—about six times more—in advertising than groups at other levels.

We did not find many large-scale differences between the Top 25 and their less-successful peers in how their emails performed (and believe us, we looked). The truth is, top nonprofits are not the X-Men; they don’t have superpowers. They aren’t defying gravity to achieve dramatically higher email response rates; they are diligently sending more fundraising appeals. They aren’t reaching new audiences telepathically; they are investing more in paid advertising. There are no shortcuts here.

Any nonprofit with an active online strategy that includes fundraising and advocacy will find things to consider in this report. Of course, the study comes with appropriate cautions. And like many such studies that focus on larger groups, tools and approaches used at industrial scale do not always work the same when used by smaller or local groups. Nonetheless, a careful reading could reveal useful insights or approaches a single nonprofit could pursue to grow its online fundraising. The nonprofits studied in the report include significant representation of organizations with a strong advocacy mission as opposed to groups with a direct service orientation.

The 67-page report is available for free download. A special webinar featuring a discussion of the results will be hosted by NTEN on April 26th.—Kevin Johnson