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Are We Sure An Automated Email Welcome Series For New Donors Is A Good Idea?

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The following is an excerpt from Robots Make Bad Fundraisers – How Nonprofits Can Maintain the Heart in the Digital Age by Steven Shattuck, published by Bold & Bright Media.

The “email welcome series” is a frequently-recommended tactic for communicating with new donors while saving staff time in the process.

The idea being that when a donor makes their first gift, they’re queued up to receive a series of emails (three, five, etc.) over a period of time (a few weeks, a month, etc.) with each email spaced out appropriately.

But is this really a good idea?

I think that, in general, automation and stewardship are mutually exclusive. Automation is great, but it can’t compete with or replace the personal touch (at least not until the robots are smart enough to wipe us out entirely anyway).

New donors, whose donor retention rates are typically around 20%, are perhaps the worst cohort of constituents to automate any type of communication towards for three reasons:

  1. research tells us that personal touch points increase first-time donor retention rates
  2. they are the donors you likely know the least about – among your new donors might be very different motivations, interests, etc.
  3. the series may exceed the “honeymoon period” when an ask for a second gift is ideal

Unless your organization has a high volume of lower dollar amount first-time donations, a multi-touch email series immediately after the first gift would not be my recommendation, even if it did also include a formal thank you letter in the mail.

Here is my take:

1. The personal touch reigns supreme

There is a mountain of research that says a personal touch point within 24-48 hours of that gift is the best first touch:

  • First-time donors who get a personal thank you within 48 hours are 4x more likely to give a second gift. (McConkey-Johnston International UK)
  • A thank-you call from a board member to a newly acquired donor within 24 hours of receiving the gifts will increase their next gift by 39%. (Penelope Burk)

I don’t think an automated email or emails that every new donor gets can be considered a personal thank you. We’re talking a phone call, handwritten note, voicemail and even a 1:1 email.

In today’s digital age, these touch points will stand out among the hundreds of emails we receive daily.

John Lepp from Agents of Good tells recently told me the story of a friend of h is in the donor love department at UNICEF Italy that ran a test on sending a handwritten, heartfelt card within 48 hours of getting a gift (from any donor) and a call on the anniversary of giving or on a birthday.

The results were a 30% yearly increase in retention and a 50% increase in donor lifetime value.

Andrew Olsen, CFRE recently told the story of a hunger relief org he worked with that eliminated paper thank you letters to online donors to save money on print and postage. They lost $300k to lower retention and fewer gifts the next year.

2. Not all new donors are built the same

There’s no better donor to get to know than a first-time donor. Without knowing the motivation for their gift, or what in particular they are interested in with regards to your programs/services, I’m not sure on what basis you would populate the content for an automated welcome series.

You’d either have to make assumptions about all of your new donors, or be forced to cover every single topic all at once and hoping that something sticks.

This is particularly problematic for organizations that have a wide service offering. If you’re an environmental organization, how will your email welcome series account for donors who are interested in wildlife versus those who are interested in the forests? Sure, it’s safe to assume that the donor will care about both, but targeted communications will always win out over a one-size-fits-all approach.

Even those with a very targeted mission focus run the risk of missing the mark with a donor.

Two donors who each made their first gift online and each gave $25 can be very, very different types of donors. Consider a donor who gave to you because they had a loved-one die from the disease you’re trying to eradicate, versus a donor who donated because they saw that a college roommate was raising money for you, or gave a memorial gift at a funeral home, or saw a television ad and donated in the moment.

Communicate to these donors the same way at your own peril!

Not only will gleaning and contextualizing donor motivation and gift channels reward you, but donors also like to be asked!

You’ll also see this emphasized in research from DonorVoice (of the top seven reasons cited by loyal donors for why they keep giving, the #4 item was that “the donor receives opportunities to make views known.”

3. The Honeymoon Period

There is no reason to wait an entire year to ask for a second gift. In fact, asking within 90 days of the first gift is a research-based recommendation. However, if a first-time donor is getting automated emails from you that do not ask for a second gift, you run the risk of missing that window of opportunity.

Analytical Ones found that the amount received in a second gift drops the longer you wait to ask for it:

Our own Bloomerang data confirmed as much, specifically in cases when that new donor is called within the first 90 days:

There is definitely a honeymoon period for new donors, but success is incumbent upon doing a good job thanking the donor personally, telling them stories and getting to know them so that you contextualize and personalize that second ask (rather than just automated an appeal on a set schedule that every single new donor gets).

So what should you do instead?

Lori Jacobwith has a great first-time donor communication plan that, while hard to automate, does check all of the boxes that research tell us, and sets you up for an effective appeal:

  1. Board thank you phone call (within 3 days)
  2. Thank you letter/note in the mail (within 1 week)
  3. Monthly email newsletter
  4. Tour invitation (within 6 weeks)
  5. Appeal for 2nd gift (within 90 days)
  6. Thank you letter if second gift received (within 1 week)
  7. Donor survey (within 6 weeks of second gift)

I think this is pretty solid; but you could definitely push a survey sooner. The tour invitation is a great idea if you have a facility or location that can be toured. Not only will they see your mission in action, but you’ll inevitably make small talk and possibly learn about their motivation (replacing the need for a survey).

Thinking again about that “90 day honeymoon period” it might be wise to create a stewardship plan that zooms in on those first three months:

Even though that sounds like a lot of work, it’s worth it. The retention rate on first-time donors is around 20%. So if your cost per acquisition is more than the donation amount from the first gift, you have negative ROI right off that bat. You have to get a second gift to get back above break-even. So spending time here is financially justifiable.

Is automation making things worse?

Not only is the first-time donor retention rate an abysmal 20%, but it’s been on the decline over the last five years:

Could it be that we’re leaning more on automation to communicate with these new donors?

Or is because more first-time gifts are made online, where retention rates are typically lower than gifts made offline?

One way to truly make automation work for you is to make sure that the automated communications online donors receive from you are less transactional and more appreciative.

Pay special attention to:

1. Confirmation page (the page of your website donors are redirected to after donating)
2. Automated receipt email (sent from your donor database/payment processor/online giving provider)

These two things can be optimized to thank the donor warmly, tell a story, preview future impact and maybe even collect information through a survey (“what prompted you gift today?”). These should be generic enough to apply to all donor frequencies (since every online donor will see/get them) but still communicate impact.

All that being said, If I was running a development department and wanted to increase my first-time donor retention rates, I would do the following:

  • Make sure the website confirmation page and automated email receipt are engaging and not transactional (one-time fix)
  • Create a standing report of new donors this week (or today if gift volume is manageably low)
    • View that report daily or weekly (whatever frequency is chosen)
  • Have board members ready and available to call those donors within 24 hours
    • Equip them with a call list and loose call scripts/guidelines
      • If no board member availability, fall back on staff members
  • Get a thank you letter to new donors within a week
    • Make sure the letter recognizes them as a new donor “welcome to the family!”
    • Include a handwritten note/signature (just to let them know we spent some time on the letter after printing
  • Get them subscribed to the monthly email newsletter
  • Send a personal, 1:1 email to the donor inviting them in for a tour
    • Again recognizing them as a new donor that we want to get to know

If you absolutely cannot do this for new donors, then an automated email series might be better than nothing. But you’d still run the risk of sending content that is one-size-fits-all.

Will automation win out someday?

Probably, but not yet.

Someday our software will have such sophisticated AI and machine learning that we’ll be able to deliver one of several automated emails cadences based on a specific combination of a donor’s gift amount, gift channel, gift method, geography, demographic and motivation (assuming it can collect or infer that at the time of donating), but until then (and maybe even after) I’d put my money on the personal touch.

Have you had success with an automated email welcome series and think I’m wrong? Tell me why in the comments below!

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