Proof Positive: Nonprofit marketing guidance for the digital age

June 13, 2021
14 minutes
Three colored bars stretch across a grid, indicating revenue growth in a bar chart. The farthest right bar is so tall that it extends out of the image into oblivion—so much revenue!

Quick, before we jump into the good stuff: If you're a nonprofit marketer and you haven't seen what happened when Action Against Hunger added Funraise's pop-up donation forms to their website, do yourself a favor and take a look. (We'll wait.) The results they saw are so incredible that you'll immediately understand why Action Against Hunger's Digital Lead, Andrew Chappell, said it was the single biggest contribution to their successful revenue gains in 2020.

And boy, does Andrew have some awesome advice based on those gains! Get ready to take notes and set up your own smart opportunities for nonprofit growth, an immensely improved giving experience, and infinitely increased donations. You won't want to lose a moment after you hear what he has to say.

Prefer listening to looking? Check out Andrew's conversation with Funraise CEO and Co-founder, Justin Wheeler, on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast.

Justin Wheeler: What would you say are some of the unique challenges that you experience running digital marketing at a nonprofit versus a corporation?

Andrew Chappell: I would say at a nonprofits we deal with a shortage of resources. We're all wearing a lot of hats. We're trying to do a lot of different things. Coming from the corporate sector to nonprofits, I noticed that we had some data gaps—there were a lot of things that we didn't know and that we needed to find out.

One of the other challenges we face in the nonprofit space—and you might have a similar experience—is selling the value of digital marketing. There's still sometimes a sense that we don't want to run ads.

JW: I've seen a lot more on the digital front from Action Against Hunger in the last few years; how has that transition been for the organization? How have the results followed as you've gotten more into the paid media and other digital marketing?

AC: We ran our first pilot in digital advertising in 2019. Previously, like a lot of nonprofits, AAH was invested heavily in direct mail rather than digital. So coming on in digital, the processes of getting your creative in line, figuring out what's going on with your donors, and deciding how or whether to target them can take some time.

At Action Against Hunger, we struggle with low brand awareness. While we're very well-known in France, our brand awareness is much lower compared with other US orgs in this space. This led us to the two-fold goal of bringing on new donors, as well as raising brand awareness and increasing our reach.

We found that as we ramped up the digital program, our results were very good. We were able to quickly add new donors and then we increased our spend. And then in 2020, we had our highest revenue year ever, largely due to our efforts in digital.

JW: I've worked with and talk with a lot of nonprofit organizations and a lot of times, big or small, I see a silo between marketing and fundraising. How does Action Against Hunger look at the function of marketing, the function of fundraising? How do those teams collaborate, work alongside each other? I'd love to understand the way you operate internally within those two teams.

AC: To me, marketing is fundraising. And fundraising is marketing.

Marketing is telling the story of the organization. It's introducing yourself to potential donors as well as acquiring new donors. So it is a direct ask. Direct marketing. Fundraising.

I'm sure a lot of nonprofits experienced this in the last year due to the pandemic: some of your other sources of fundraising were no longer viable. So if you were doing, for instance, face-to-face fundraising, you couldn't do that anymore. Or if you depended on a big gala, it wasn't an option. We were fortunate that we had invested in digital and that we were ready for that. I think going forward, that will become increasingly the way forward for fundraising.

JW: The pandemic accelerated the necessity for a digital-first, virtual first fundraising strategy as a nonprofit organization. You mentioned Action Against Hunger has low brand awareness. How do you think about digital marketing differently for brand awareness versus fundraising?

AC: Particularly in social, about 85% of our budget goes to direct acquisition, toward getting a conversion. 10% of our budget goes to awareness-raising and 5% goes to lead generation.

That 10 percent we put toward awareness-raising is meant to introduce users to the organization, kind of raise our profile. And we also optimize for clicks on Facebook there. What that does is get us in front of a different audience [than the direct acquisition audience].

This helps us get in front of as many people as possible, drive as many people as possible to our website, and enter them in our marketing program so we can target them and cultivate them to become donors.

We served about 50 million impressions in 2020 and aside from the primary benefits of that, which is bringing on new donors as well as getting in front of new people, there are secondary benefits that are a little bit more intangible and a little bit difficult to measure.

For instance, we saw a large uptick in corporate partnerships than ever before. That led to some marketing opportunities and synergistic marketing with big brands that we may have never worked with otherwise.

JW: When you say a large portion of your budget goes to conversion, or acquisition, is the goal to get an immediate donation or is it collecting an email address, nurturing, and then ultimately converting donors? What does that funnel look like for you on the acquisition side?

AC: We have a multilevel funnel with a prospecting audience where we're really trying to drive them to the site, tell our story, get them interested in us. We also, of course, have direct asks that we use to bring new donors on.

One of the nice things about Funraise is as we make that direct ask and we get that donation, we can actually collect the email address as well. So when they do become a donor, we can then turn them into a repeat donor, and then a loyal supporter down the line because we can steward them that way.

JW: Can you share a little bit with our audience about the conversion rate test that you ran?

AC: The landing page and whether it's converting is a pretty critical element of any fundraising campaign. In this case, we were trying to improve the landing page to convert as many users on-site to donors as possible. And one of the really cool things about Funraise's forms is you can open them anywhere—you don't necessarily need to send a user to a traditional donate page.

So what we asked is, what if the form just opens right off that Donate Now button in our header navigation rather than the traditional route, which is to send a donor to a donate page and then try to make the conversion there.

With this variant method, the donor can make a donation anywhere on the site. If they're inspired to give, then they can open the form and they can complete that transaction as quickly as possible.

We ran the test in early 2020 and the results were pretty amazing. We got a 78% lift in conversion rate—we jumped our conversion rate from 38.3% to 68.3%. One-time gift conversion rate increased 88%, a total value increase of 23.3% for one-time gifts and 65.8% for monthly gifts.
All of that is just to say it was really a gamechanger for us. It contributed, I think, to tens, if not hundreds of thousands of additional revenue during the year just because we were losing donors on that donate page. Of course, you also want to test and iterate on your donate page, but it was just really pretty critical gamechanger there for us.
I think it was probably the single biggest contributor to our successful revenue gains in 2020.

JW: Every page is a donation page. Every page inspires a donor a different way. We often refer to it as contextualized giving. When an individual is compelled by something, there should be no distraction to get them to convert to donate. And so it's amazing to see those results and to hear your success.

AC: One other kind of interesting thing that we did with the Funraise forms is we created what we call a contextual CTA. So it's a button that can be dropped into any content piece, any story. You can customize the copy on it so that it's in line with what the content piece is and then if a donor is inspired to give while reading through, you've got this button right in the content piece as well, which again, just opens the form.

Another thing that was helpful to us was increasing the number of payment forms we accept. So we were able to add Apple Pay, and PayPal recurring gifts, and providing these additional options for donors was really helpful in terms of increasing revenue.

JW: Any other tips or tricks that you've learned as a marketer that you think would be worth sharing with our listeners?

AC: I have a few! For a successful fundraising campaign, you're really looking at three elements: you've got your creative, you've got your targeting, and then you've got your landing page.

It's really important that all three of these things are working well together and that they're all optimized. Look at your metrics as you're running these campaigns. You might see with your creative that you're not getting very good engagement. So your metrics can kind of inform where in that journey you might be going wrong.

If, for instance, instead you're seeing high engagement on an ad, you're seeing a high click-through rate, but then you're just not converting, then you might want to look at your landing page.

Another thing that's worked really well for me in my experience is just video. So I'd recommend, if you can, because not all nonprofits have the resources to produce it, but if you can produce video, it's dynamic, it's visual, it gets users' attention right in the feed.

And I'd also note that most of our donors are coming from mobile. So make sure you're optimizing in an aspect ratio that looks great on mobile, takes up the most owned real estate there, or device real estate, that can help as well. So those are a few of the tricks, a few of the tips I can give there.

JW: Let's talk a little bit about budget, because obviously when you're distributing content and you're trying to get good results, you've got to pay for it. How do you plan your media budget for a given year and what sort of return is expected from your team as a result of that budget?

AC: What we do is project out. This is another thing I should add here: it's not really enough just to look at the performance metrics of your ad campaign. It's also really critical that you understand who your donors are for targeting purposes, but also that you understand their behavior.

You need to understand their giving behavior: when they're giving, how much they're worth generally on average, how long they're retained. Then you know, for instance, an average donor is worth this amount, which means you can acquire them at this amount, which means that into the future, projecting out, that  they'll be worth this amount down the line.

So we have those revenue targets and then we budget accordingly based on trying to hit those revenue targets into the future. And you need to leave yourself some wiggle room there. And I think you need to also make it clear always to the executive team that it is a projection—you may or may not get there.

Once you see some success, make sure that you can scale that effectively. Because a common mistake that I've seen in my own career, as well as at other nonprofits, is you start to have some success in your paid media and then you put some more funds into it, but then you're not able to scale effectively because you can't just put as much more budget as possible into something. Think about not just scaling vertically in terms of putting more budget into the ads that are working, but scaling horizontally in terms of finding new audiences.

That's a mistake a lot of nonprofits make: "Let's just try some ads." We don't really know necessarily what our donors are worth, how often they give, how long they stay on file. You're sort of flying blind if you don't know that.

JW: In terms of the acquisition, the paid budget, you've got a huge file of donors. How much of the paid media goes to targeting those donors? You already have their information and trying to get them to donate versus net new acquisition of new donors they don't even have in your file. How do you separate sort of the budget, if at all, to accommodate the two different audiences?

AC: We don't currently have a budget set aside for retention. Although you will find, I think, as you run paid advertising, that you're not just acquiring new donors, but that you're actually reactivating donors that you may not have been engaged with for a while.

One of the strategies is to pull a lapsed donor file from our CRM and show our ads to donors who we know have given in the past. A lot of the time we bring them back on, and in some cases, we've even brought back on major donors.

Another strategy for retention—so your retention budget versus your acquisition budget—is you can often just use posts that are working in your organic social. A lot of the times with Facebook's algorithm, those organic posts, depending on the size your audience, may not be being seen. You can take those successful organic posts people are engaging with and just turn them into retention ads because you know your audience likes them.

JW: I hear a lot of organizations say that digital fundraising media spend is "low dollar fundraising". It's only going to attract annual donors, individuals, not the major donors. Is that is that true or are you seeing a pretty diverse demographic of donors giving through your marketing efforts?

AC: No, in our case, it's not true. Your average gift is often going to vary by channel, so that's an important thing to measure as well. You might have, for instance, lower dollar donors coming in on social than you do on some of your other channels. But we've seen low-dollar individuals, we've got some mid-level donors, and then we have major donors coming in as well.

I'd also say don't be afraid to go after those new major donors in your acquisition. Use the targeting tools on Facebook, for instance, to target by income level or lifestyle, or perhaps different cultural interests.

After hearing how Andrew achieved such amazing results for Action Against Hunger, it's obvious that his advice can be a proven gamechanger for nonprofits ready to increase donations.

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