Growing your nonprofit’s email list | Interview with Children’s Medical Center

February 27, 2012

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Mark Miller, Director of Philanthropic Marketing & Communication for the Children’s National Medical Center.  Their recent “Send Your Valentine to a Child in the Hospital” campaign seemed like a savvy approach to engage potential new donors.  What take-aways could your organization learn?

Q:  I loved the Children’s National Medical Center’s “Send Your Valentine to a Child in the Hospital” campaign.  What a wonderfully donor-centric way to engage prospective new donors!  Mark, can you tell me the strategies behind the campaign?  Who came up with the idea?  

A:  The idea was pretty simple – we wanted to make Valentine’s Day more fun for children in the hospital and get more people involved in our mission. In 2010, we experimented with a new fundraising campaign – inviting people to donate $25 and send a card. That didn’t work so well. So in 2011 and 2012, we focused on building our list, with no required donation, and it’s been one of our most successful campaigns.

The campaign was led by the hospital’s foundation, and I worked with Margaret Cohen, who oversees e-philanthropy, to design and execute it. The campaign started with an email communication to our existing list, and we strongly encouraged everyone to share it by email, Facebook, and Twitter.

Q: I first became aware of your campaign through a friend on Facebook, promptly sent a card, and shared it with my Facebook friends.  Did you track new subscribers via Facebook and Twitter?  What kind of metrics can you share?

A:  Yes. The integration of social media has been critical to this campaign’s success. We used source codes to track new email names that came from Facebook and Twitter. Those new names accounted for 78 percent of our list’s growth. The remainder of the new names came from email share tools, email forwards, blogs, and other sources. Our own Facebook and Twitter posts were productive, but the real power of the campaign was peer-to-peer sharing.

Q:  My regular readers know that I’m “all about the list” — and believe strongly that email is a highly underutilized tool in a nonprofit’s marketing funnel.  How many new names did you add to your organization’s list? How will you be moving forward to further engage new subscribers?

A:  In total, we added 6,570 new names to our list, for a growth rate of 35 percent. Everyone who we added to our list through this campaign will receive a welcome email thanking them for sending a valentine and welcoming them to our online community. This email will share some of our most heartwarming stories from our patients and provide ways that people can get further engaged.  We’ll also send them our electronic newsletter.

Our communications are already very personal and focused on patient stories and impact, so we probably will not use distinct messaging for these people, but we’ll track them as a group to monitor donor conversion.

Q:  Can I ask if you used an outside agency or copywriter in this campaign?

A:  We work with Watershed on both strategy and execution for our e-philanthropy efforts, and with their help we’re expanding our list, leveraging social media, and raising more money online each year.

Q:  Mark, what words of wisdom can you share about how other organizations might grow their own email lists?

A:  Five key factors that made this campaign successful may be helpful to other organizations.

  1. Invite people to make a personal, tangible impact. The campaign gave people a way to engage with children in the hospital in a very real way. We think people were more motivated to participate and tell others because of that personal interaction. That’s also why we sent photos to everyone who sent a card to illustrate the impact they made.
  2. Offer user-friendly share tools. With Watershed’s help, we provided simple Facebook, Twitter, and email share tools on the campaign landing page, and those were the major drivers of new names.
  3. Set a deadline to create urgency. February 14 worked as a natural, urgent deadline for this campaign, and studies show that this kind of urgency best motivates response.
  4. Offer an action that corresponds to the real world. Sending Valentine’s Day cards is something that everyone has done, so it didn’t require any explanation. We tried a similar campaign for people to send cards to children during Halloween, and it wasn’t nearly as successful – probably because sending cards is not a traditional way to celebrate Halloween.
  5. List growth leads to more list growth. Our 2011 Valentine’s Day campaign grew our list by 14 percent, and our growth rate for the entire year was 25 percent. We think the success of the 2012 campaign was partly due to the enthusiasm and social media savvy of those new list members.

And I’ll add another tip:  inspire with joy!  Check out the follow-up flickr photographs showing the children with their Valentines!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE February 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm

I really appreciate your sharing these real world cases, Pam. I can’t wait for the next installment, to hear how and if these new contacts might become donors.

Pamela Grow February 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Thanks Gayle. It was, to my mind, such an engaging way to bring in new potential donors! And I love that Mark shared failures as well (the Halloween card campaign, the donate $25 and send a card campaign). It’s important, IMO, for organizations to be vigilant about continuing to grow their email list. I would love to see a more targeted follow-up, perhaps one that engages these new names in a variety of ways and venues.

Sherry Truhlar February 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Email is a grossly underused tool in fundraising auctions, so I’m always interested in reading about how nonprofits are growing their list and using email to thrive. Thanks for sharing!

Pamela Grow February 29, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Thank you for commenting, Sherry. I think that email is grossly underused in nonprofit – period.

Kirsten Bullock, Nonprofit Coach March 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Thanks for a great creative idea! So often we get stuck when we start to think of new ways to involve people in our organizations. Thanks!

Sandy Rees March 4, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Great interview. The thing that stands out for me is that they invited people to do something very tangible (sending the Valentine to a child). People always respond better to something they can easily understand and visualize.

Sandy Rees

Pamela Grow March 5, 2012 at 6:22 am

So true Sandy. Nonprofits tend to think that they’re going to send out a letter or slap a “Donate” button on their site and the gifts will pour in. It takes a bit of engagement to get them to that point.

Pamela Grow March 13, 2012 at 8:09 pm

As marketers, we know the power of list-building. I love to see very tangible ways that nonprofits are building their email lists. Thanks for commenting, Kirsten.

Leave a Comment

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: