What We Learned From Making Secret Online Donations to Public Media Organizations

Membership, email, online giving

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The disruption in listening and giving habits during the pandemic have made public media online giving and engagement mission-critical.

We know that the online giving experience that we create for donors directly affects the number of completed donations, size of gift, and the decision to give again.

In order to help public media organizations raise more revenue online, our colleagues at NextAfter Institute for Online Fundraising made online donations to 69 public media stations of different sizes across the country, and then observed online interactions for the 45 days that followed. 

There were many interesting findings and stats. We organized them into a “scorecard” that also offers concrete and essential ways every public media organization can improve the online giving process in order to raise more money online.

Here are the most important findings that all stations can act upon:

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Staying Donor-Centered in a Time of Upheaval

Membership, direct mail, email, COVID

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In the last few weeks, each of us has made a complete pivot in all aspects of our lives. In our work, that dramatic shift has upended the even the most detailed annual donor plans, requiring that everyone (including us at Greater Public!) rethink and rewrite scripts, letters, and acknowledgement copy. 

What we must not forget is to keep donors front and center in all these adjustments. It can be easy to drift inward and focus on what we need. But when we focus on donors, the framework is always “what you make possible.”

In workshops, I often tell attendees to take off their development hats, and put on their donor hats. Then I ask the following questions: Who are the donors? What do they care about? Why do they use (listen/read/view) this particular station? I invite you to recreate this exercise with your team, adding “In the face of this pandemic…..”

There are three main principles to remember in order to keep copy donor-centered:

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What the Latest Data Tells Us About Calendar-Year-End Giving

Membership, calendar year-end, email

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Original data presented by Karen Hopper, senior data strategist, M+R.

Each year, the online marketing and PR group M+R conducts Benchmarks, a study of 154 nonprofits focused on their online strategy and performance. This year's findings about calendar-year-end giving were particularly illuminating. 

First, M + R wanted to know how much December giving would fluctuate from 2016 to 2017, since many organizations experienced a significant bump in year-end giving revenue after the 2016 election.

For the 22 organizations for which M+R has year-over-year data, most saw a 12% increase in year-end giving over that of 2016, which was the same increase as the year before (from 2015 to 2016). But the growth wasn't evenly distributed. The nonprofits that became or remained very political after the 2016 election experienced an exceptionally high giving increase that year. Those organizations had a harder time sustaining their giving increase in 2017. These groups actually saw an average 3% decline in end-of-year revenue from 2016.

There Is Nothing Like a Deadline

Behold: the typical inbox on December 31 of someone who belongs to a lot of email lists:

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Online Fundraising: How Public Media Measures Up to Other Nonprofits in 2018

Membership, email, online giving

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If you have wondered if your last fundraising email could have been more effective or if your online fundraising is performing at its best, we have good news. The 2018 M+R Benchmarks report offers a look into where public media's online fundraising performs relative to that of other nonprofits. The resulting data can provide an easy list of areas to tackle at your organization.

This mardi gras of metrics compiles data from across the nonprofit sector for a close look at the activities that constitute online fundraising: email, website performance, and social media. The M+R Benchmarks report sheds light on the details that contributed to last year’s 23% growth in total online revenue. (Specifically, a decrease in email open rates and conversion was countered by increasing email subscribers, more fundraising messages, the growth of subscription giving, and ever-expanding social media audiences). 

For the first time the report highlights public media organizations and describes a few major differences of our sector versus other organizations raising money online:

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Secrets to WETA’s Record-Breaking Year-End Email Campaign

Membership, #GivingTuesday, calendar year-end, email

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It’s not uncommon for a station to generate about 30% of its annual fundraising between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. But does your email during that period generate 60% of your annual email revenue? In 2017, WETA’s year-end email campaign did just that.

WETA’s 19 calendar-year-end email appeals generated 60% of all email revenue for 2017. The station saw a four-year 142% rise in CYE revenue that resulted from a comprehensive strategy beginning with Giving Tuesday and running through December 31.

Consider the following three recommendations that could significantly amplify the results of your own year-end email campaigns:

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The Best Ways to Personalize Your Fiscal-Year-End Mail and Email Campaigns

Membership, direct mail, email

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As you finalize your station's fiscal-year-end mail and email campaigns, consider these best practices for effective appeals.

1. Keep the font in a readable size for older eyes. Keep the paragraphs indented and the margins wide.

2. Make sure your campaigns reflect your station! Highlight local content to connect more deeply with your listeners. 

3. Make your reply form clean, simple, and easy to fill out.

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Four Easy Ways to Grow Your Email List

Membership, email

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The average churn rate (people who unsubscribe plus email addresses that hard-bounce over a 12-month period) for email lists in public media is currently 14% (MailChimp). For your station to be effective at email marketing and fundraising, you must make a concerted effort to grow your email list year-round. Below are three of the easiest, most effective ways to do that.

1. Prominently feature an email opt-in on your website.

Email marketing services provide email opt-forms that can be copied, pasted, and embedded inside your station’s website. At the most, require an email address and first name to subscribe and position the email opt-in prominently on your website, not just on the homepage but on every page of your website. To clarify, the email opt-in should be located above the fold on your homepage and embedded in the top of the right/left column of your news stories and/or blog pages.

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Increase Donations Over Time With the Right Gift Ladders

Membership, direct mail, email

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Whether online or in the mail, the gift ladder is often one of the final items to be set before a campaign is launched. Or, in some cases, a gift ladder is the one thing that hasn’t been changed in years. But there is tested strategy behind how to encourage members to increase their donations over time.

It matters how your gift ladder is laid out, and what options you give prospective donors.

Here are seven strategies for building effective gift ladders:

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The Ultimate Cheat Sheet on Email Copywriting

Membership, email

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The essential prerequisite for effective e-fundraising is to have already built an e-relationship with your recipients. Once that’s in place, your messages should…

  • Keep it simple, direct, and to-the-point.
  • Employ short, bold, passionate copy, no more than three or four lines per paragraph.
  • Streamline your message, focus on just one thing.
  • Share an obvious reason to give right up front.
  • Include multiple clearly marked links in a variety of locations, including the header.
  • Make it look, feel, and sound like a personal email, not a marketing piece.
  • Assure ample white space to make it feel open and easy for the reader to absorb.
  • Use a single signer only, and include a P.S. just like direct mail.
  • Employ an intriguing subject line that will encourage more opens. (Subject lines that allude to fundraising usually receive fewer opens.)


You want your emails to be seen as “must-engage” messages. Always remember that it’s your non-fundraising messages that will set the stage for your appeals and their potential for success. So, to set things up right…

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How to Use Email as Your #1 Online Fundraising Tool

Social/Mobile, social media, digital revenue, email

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In the nonprofit sector as a whole, more online donations come from a click in an e-newsletter than from any other source. This is due in part to the fact that nonprofits are getting better at building their lists. But it’s also due to the sustained and growing use of email as an essential medium.

Email is not dead.

Global use of email is growing rapidly. The number of people using the internet worldwide is going to double in the next four years. This means more people getting online, more people signing up for social networks, and more people signing up for email accounts.

There are currently 4.4 billion email accounts worldwide and that number is expected to grow to 6.6 billion by 2019. This will bring the global adoption rate of email to 92%.

We have been eulogizing email for the last decade and let me tell you, this data shows us that email is the most important tool that you can use in online fundraising.

Given these statistics, I’m also perplexed by public media’s relatively low use of email fundraising compared with other organizations in the nonprofit sector. It’s often very difficult to find an e-newsletter subscribe option on public media websites. And the volume of e-newsletters from many stations seems to be low or non-existent, except during a member drive. This suggests an area of great opportunity.

Of course, you do need to know how to use email. 

Email is changing.

55% of email opens are now happening on a mobile device and more than half of traffic to NPR.org is mobile. Your email design simply has to be mobile compatible.

The term “e-newsletter” came from a time when print newsletters were being duplicated to send via email. Email publications are not print publications. Today, it’s better to think of your e-newsletter as an email bulletin.

Send shorter emails, more frequently.

Instead of taking the 20 stories you would have put in a paper publication and sending those out once every three months, you should send fewer stories, and send them more frequently. Send three stories every two weeks, for example. Or create a weekly update of the most important news happening in your station and local community.


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