March 25, 2021

6 Things to Know Before Automating Your Donor Outreach

The underlying principles of fundraising have remained unchanged for decades. Even as the nonprofit landscape changes, core concepts like the importance of donor relationships and outreach are not going anywhere. However, the application of these principles has changed dramatically over time, especially with the rise in digital technology and online fundraising in recent years. 

Fundraising professionals are adopting new technological methods to connect and engage with donors, from hosting virtual events to using automation and machine learning. As we look to the future of fundraising, we’re likely to see a continued emphasis on online giving and the development of new, highly-efficient fundraising innovations. 

Fundraising tech like marketing automation is most effective when it is implemented in tandem with a solid, human-engineered strategy. These new tools can handle repeated tasks quickly and easily, leaving your team more time to focus on the most important areas, like strategic thinking and stewardship.  

At SalsaLabs, we equip nonprofits with innovative engagement tools to amplify and optimize their fundraising and outreach efforts. Before you dive headfirst into a time-saving tool like marketing automation, there are a few questions you should consider:

  1. Is your data organized and clean?
  2. Do you have a strong message?
  3. Are you sending the right message to the right group of people at the right time?
  4. Do you have a plan to optimize engagement?
  5. Are you defining and measuring success?
  6. Does your marketing platform integrate with your CRM?

It may be tempting to pinpoint the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as a key catalyst for online fundraising. However, powerful digital tools were in use long before the start of 2020 and will continue to advance far into the future. With this guide, you will be empowered to make the best decisions about how to implement automation technology in your organization. Let’s jump in. 

1. Is your data organized and clean?

When you automate your outreach, you leverage the data and contact information you have on hand to tackle a large volume of emails, text messages, or direct mail appeals in one fell swoop.

For this to work effectively, you need clean and organized data.

Take the time to assess your current donor management software. Do you have all the built-in and custom fields you need? Your CRM likely comes equipped with the most common fields like demographics and contact information. Would additional fields benefit your fundraising capabilities? What characteristics do you want to target with specific messaging? Your nonprofit may want to add fields to accommodate those characteristics. 

Are you able to track online and offline donations and engagement? Are you starting to outgrow the number of possible records? Your donor database should be comprehensive, organized, and scalable.

Once you’re satisfied with the software solution you’re using to store your data, it’s time to turn your attention to the data itself. Do you have an ongoing process in place to ensure your data is clean, rather than dirty?

According to AccuData’s guide to data hygiene, “Dirty data is data containing errors, whether it’s outdated, incomplete, duplicated, or simply incorrect.” Poor data quality can result in negative consequences for donor relationships or wasted resources. For example, if there are clerical errors in donors’ email addresses, your emails might not reach the intended supporter. If the names within emails are incorrect and/or misspelled, that could mean sacrificing a donation or potentially a lifelong supporter. 

Before automating your outreach, ensure you have a plan for maintenance and standardization across your donor database. 

2. Do you have a strong message?

As we’ve covered already, automation is not a substitute for thoughtful marketing strategy. It can augment and accelerate your work, but it’s not a magic spell that can turn a dull email into an appeal that will inspire immediate action.

To get the most out of your fundraising outreach, you must craft messaging that resonates deeply with your supporters. This requires a data-driven understanding of who they are and why they feel connected to your organization. 

If you know why a donor is motivated to give, you’ll be able to create a more compelling argument for support. You can use this information to drive your outreach via email, social media, direct mail, text messaging, your website, and other communication channels. 

Along with carefully considering the content of each message, dedicate attention to its display. Incorporate your nonprofit’s branding (including logos, colors, fonts, etc.) throughout all outbound communication, and double-check the formatting of every message on both desktop and mobile screens. On social media, be sure to include a variety of visually striking and contextually relevant graphics to capture supporters’ attention while they scroll through their feeds. 

3. Are you sending the right message to the right group?

One way to leverage your available donor data is to create segments of supporters in your CRM. Then, leverage these segments to accurately target each group with specific information that will relate to them—enhancing donor relationships and increasing revenue.  

This is the opposite of a catch-all end-of-year form email that says, “Thanks for donating, volunteering, and engaging with us.” In cases like that, it can seem like the organization has no idea who the intended audience is, or worse, that it doesn’t care! Avoid this negative impression by sending unique content to the various segments of your supporter base. 

For example, you could create segments of supporters based on:

  • Demographic characteristics. You may want to address supporters who live only in a certain geographic area when promoting your upcoming localized event. Or, perhaps you take a different tone when communicating with different generations of supporters.
  • Donor type. It can be helpful to create groups based on a supporter’s historical gifts. You might send emails just to those in your recurring gift program, or maybe you want to send a dedicated message to everyone who has contributed a major gift in the last five years.

You’re also not limited to these typical categories. Consider what criteria would be useful to your organization’s work. For instance, an animal shelter may choose to divide supporters based on whether they are a cat person or a dog person. Then, when you send out that next campaign email, you can use imagery and language that will more effectively pull at the recipient’s heartstrings.

After you’ve established your segments and integrated them into your marketing strategy, be sure to revisit them regularly. Segmentation is not a “set it and forget it” tactic. Rather, it should be an evolving system that aligns with your ongoing organizational priorities.

4. Do you have a plan to optimize engagement?

Automation makes it simple to reach a massive audience at a certain time or in a specified cadence. But in and of itself, pressing a button to trigger an email series or to post on Facebook won’t necessarily improve engagement.

Over time, you’ll need to adapt your outreach to align with what has proven most effective. This may include differentiating factors like:

  • Email send time or post time
  • Subject line length and content
  • Calls to action
  • Type of content
  • Level of personalization

Use performance data such as likes, comments, or clicks to see which strategies are most effective compared to your own historical data and industry-wide averages.

One way to collect data on effectiveness is through a process called A/B testing or split testing. In this practice, you send two versions of a message, divided only with the detail you’re testing for. If one version receives a much higher level of engagement, you’ll be able to reasonably attribute the difference to the better send time, subject line, or other details. Then, you can use what you’ve learned to optimize future outreach efforts.

5. Are you defining and measuring success?

Before automating your donor outreach, determine what your goals are and how you will measure performance against those goals. 

While broad goals will be similar across organizations, a nonprofit aiming specifically to increase sign-ups for a membership program will have a different marketing approach than one gearing up for a capital campaign. 

Choose a handful of metrics (also known as key performance indicators, or KPIs) to track and report on over time. There are dozens of important metrics to track, but you should choose the ones that are the most meaningful to your organization. On the Salsa blog, we dive into some of the most important nonprofit KPIs to incorporate into your fundraising strategy, including:

  • Donor retention rate. How many of your supporters remain invested enough in your cause to donate year after year? Since retaining donors is much more cost-effective than acquiring new ones, your retention rate is an important metric to keep in mind.
  • Conversion rate (for both email and social media). How many donors took an action (like donating or signing up to volunteer) when prompted in your latest outreach campaign?
  • Click-through rate (CTR). What percentage of recipients clicked on a link (like to your donation form, or just your homepage) you included in an email?
  • Outreach rate. How often are you getting in touch with your donors? This is one metric entirely under your control.

By tracking these metrics, it will be possible to demonstrate the impact of your marketing automation efforts on your chosen goal. Plus, you’ll have a measure by which you can compare different strategies. For instance, if you’re conducting an A/B test to see which email call-to-action is most impactful, you can compare the CTR for each type of call-to-action you use. 

6. Does your marketing platform integrate with your CRM?

Once your data, strategy, and objectives are all in place, you’re just a few easy steps away from maximizing the automation of your donor outreach. As you choose your marketing automation platform, be sure to determine whether it is compatible with your nonprofit CRM.

For the most seamless data flow, look for a marketing platform with a dedicated integration to your preferred donor database. Data collected and stored in your CRM should be immediately available to use in your marketing outreach.  Information gleaned in response to your marketing efforts should be placed automatically back into your CRM. That way your contact information and supporter records are always complete, clean, organized, and give you a 360-degree view of your contacts.

To take it a step further, you also might consider an all-in-one engagement and CRM software solution that enables you to store and use your donor data in a centralized location. With access to donor profiles and your engagement data in one place, you’ll be better equipped to analyze performance and detect big-picture trends.

Marketing automation can be a time-saving tool to advance your outreach efforts. By carefully considering your marketing strategy from the angles discussed above, you’ll be well-positioned to take maximum advantage of this new technology. Good luck!


Written by

Gerard Tonti

Gerard Tonti is the Senior Creative Developer at Salsa Labs, the premier fundraising software company for growth-focused nonprofits. Gerard's marketing focus on content creation, conversion optimization and modern marketing technology helps him coach nonprofit development teams on digital fundraising best practices.


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