Nonprofit Email Marketing 101 | Case Study

August 6, 2014

The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection is one of the organizations that has been a standout so far in my ‘Two Gifts a Week’ unofficial online giving study, thanks to their ease of giving and excellent email follow-through. I sat down recently with Kathleen Kennedy, Development Director for the Sonoran Desert Protection to talk about how the organization’s online giving has increased and their processes.


Q.  Kathleen, tell us a little bit about The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and your job. What’s your background and when did you start?

The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection works to protect open space, vulnerable wildlife and wildlife habitat, and threatened wildlife linkages in the Sonoran Desert of Pima County, Arizona. We are a group of 41 environmental and community organizations that speak as one voice for the Sonoran Desert (if you’re unfamiliar with the Sonoran Desert, think big saguaro cactus with arms).

With the help of a committed group of citizen supporters, we accomplish our goals by working with local governments to create, improve, and implement their environmental policies and laws (such as requiring certain amounts of open space in new developments or protecting important creeks and streams). We are the primary conservation “watchdog” group in our region and our influence is significant. Because we all speak as one voice and represent tens of thousands of people, local government staff listens to us and seeks out our opinion and input.

We are an advocacy organization based in Tucson and have three paid staff along with an Advisory Committee of six member group representatives. One of our member groups, Sky Island Alliance, is our fiscal sponsor.

I’ve been working for the Coalition since 2007 and started out working strictly on our various programs (open space protection, wildlife linkages, water resources, etc.). That involves a lot of reading reports and documents, researching issues and policies, and writing comment letters and recommendations to our local governments (and sometimes state and federal agencies). A few years ago, I expanded my role when I took charge of our fundraising plan and have recently branched out further to take on our marketing and communications. I have a B.S. in Geology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies, so I came into this job with a good background in the natural sciences and, to some degree, the social sciences. However, everything I’ve learned about fundraising and communications has been on-the-job through trial and error. I try to stay on top of industry best practices through reading blogs and books and participating in webinars.

Q.  Tell us a little about the history of email communications for the Coalition. How long have you had an email newsletter, and how long have you been growing your list of subscribers? Can you tell us about who your audience is, how often you mail your newsletter, if you have a set formula, etc.? How do you segment your list?

When I first started working for the Coalition in 2007, our email newsletter was literally an email we sent out to our database of supporters. No formatting or anything! We eventually started using an email service provider that allowed us to make our email newsletter much better-looking. We also began to segment our database, track open and click-through rates, and experiment with different formats and schedules for sending things out.

We send our email newsletter out to all our donors and anyone else that signs up on our website or at outreach events. Up until this year, we didn’t have a regularly scheduled email newsletter. Rather, we sent out our emails on an as-needed basis. When there was an issue we needed our supporters to help with (e.g. attending a public meeting to show support for our position on an issue), we would send out an email and maybe wrap in a few other updates or announcements. Sometimes these were sent out to everyone and sometimes they were segmented to a smaller group, usually based on geography. Now, we send out a regular email newsletter to everyone in the middle of each month called The Desert Scoop. We sometimes send out Action Alerts in between email newsletters if something comes up that needs more immediate attention and we continue to segment these if it’s appropriate.

This year, we also developed a separate communications plan for our recurring donors, our Desert Champions. They now receive a special quarterly email newsletter with timely updates that haven’t yet gone out to our larger group of supporters. We have one large volunteer project, a remote camera wildlife-monitoring project, and two smaller volunteer projects, a quarterly road clean-up and “mailing parties” for our bi-annual fundraising letter. We send out special emails to these groups with updates about the projects and letting them know how much we appreciate them. In the case of the wildlife camera project, we also share how we are using the wildlife photo data in our work. Recently, we received a couple small grants to expand the wildlife camera project so we immediately sent our volunteers an update with the good news.

Q.  I really enjoyed your last email campaign with the match. Can you tell me how that came about, how it evolved, and the flow of the campaign? How many emails did you send out total? How did you incorporate other channels (social media, direct mail, etc)?

Thanks! We were really pleased with this fundraising campaign. We started by asking one of our major donors if they would be willing to pledge a matching gift for the campaign and we were delighted when they agreed. Our mid-year fundraising campaign typically generates about $8,000-9,000 in donations but we decided to set a more ambitious goal this year. This particular major donor believes that we often set our fundraising goals too low so we decided to take on their challenge. Their matching pledge was $12,000 so our goal was 1.5 times what we’ve generated in the past.

We started by sending out a direct mail fundraising letter to 460 people in our donor database. Our Executive Director personally signed all of the letters and the envelopes were hand-addressed. Because we are a small non-profit, we’re able to do this fairly easily with the help of a great group of volunteers. The letter told the story of two large wildlife underpasses that were recently finished west of Tucson that we had a large hand in being built. Also, when we visited them in May, just 3 months after construction finished, we found bobcat and coyote prints in one of the underpasses, which was very exciting!

About a week after the fundraising letter was mailed, we started to send out a series of follow-up emails. The first email was basically a shorter version of the fundraising letter. The second email focused on some exciting news about another set of wildlife crossings that will begin construction soon north of Tucson. The third email was about bobcat prints we found in one of the wildlife underpasses and told a story about this bobcat. And the fourth email was short and sweet when we just had a few hundred more dollars to raise to meet our matching gift. We tried to emphasize the important role our donors play in helping make these projects happen and our genuine excitement about these milestones.

As donations came in, we removed people from the follow-up emails. However, at the end of the campaign, we sent out a thank-you email to everyone with the campaign results. We shared the good news that we met our $12,000 goal and thanked everyone for their amazing support. (And, of course, every donor got a thank you in the mail too.)

We posted on Facebook about the campaign but I don’t think this generated much of a response. We also created a page on our website about the campaign that was highlighted on the homepage. In general, direct mail and follow-up emails seem to be a good formula for us right now.

Q.  Loved the subject header, ‘A bobcat walks into a…’ Tell us about this particular subject header and your results. What kind of open rate did you experience?

BobcatsubjectheaderI’ve been trying to improve our subject lines for a while, with mixed results. Honestly, this one just popped into my head while I was sitting at my desk by myself. I had already decided to focus the email on the bobcat prints we found and wanted to somehow tell the story of this specific bobcat. Since this bobcat had literally walked through a large wildlife underpass to cross a busy road, I thought it would be fun to play on the well-known joke beginning, “A XX walks into a bar…” My hope was that people would be intrigued enough to open the email. And they were!

Our open rate for this email was 44%, which was significantly more than our typical open rates of 25-35%. A few people even wrote us back, complimenting us on the subject line and the email in general. Since our work can tend to be a little dry sometimes, I’m trying to infuse a little humor in it when I can and I think this particular email was a success in that way. It was fun and intriguing but also stayed true to the story.

Q.  Nice Welcome email! How long have you had that in place and what’s the response been like?

We started our Welcome email series this past winter. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. What really gave me a kick in the pants was writing down our first real Communications Plan and creating an Editorial Calendar in January. This forced me to really think through all the different people we communicate with and how I wanted to improve all those communications.

The first thing we had to do was switch our email service provider because the one we were using did not have a drip campaign function. We wanted the Welcome email series to be as automated as possible. Now we have a series of three Welcome emails that we send out to new donors and new email newsletter subscribers (they are similar but the language is a little different for each of them). The first email is fairly general, thanking them for their donation/involvement. The second email tells them a bit about our different program areas and has lots of links to our website. And the third email talks about more ways they can be involved, such as our different volunteer opportunities.

To be honest, we haven’t had a lot of direct feedback about the emails. However, I am approaching them as more of an investment. I hope they provide a really positive impression of our organization and help people feel included in our work.

Anything else you’d care to share with our readers?

Be willing to take risks and try new things. I’ve definitely tried new things and had them fail. But they always teach me something and help us improve our fundraising and communications. I’m lucky that my boss, our Executive Director, is very supportive of this and gives me fairly free reign to be creative and take risks.

Get to know your donors, volunteers, and supporters and be genuine when you reach out to them. Try to have fun and have a sense of humor if you can (I’m still working on this one, for sure!).

Learn from other organizations and always be on the look-out for good ideas or approaches they are using and adapt them to your own work. And be willing to share your good ideas too! One of our colleagues with another environmental organization really liked our subject line “A bobcat walks into a…” and he asked if he could adapt it for one of their fundraising emails. We said sure! And he did, very soon after – imitation is the best form of flattery!


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