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4 Ways Nonprofits Are Adapting to the Digital Age


By Allison Gauss

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In the song “The Times They Are A Changin’,” Bob Dylan wrote, “You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.” Although he wasn’t singing about nonprofit fundraising, it’s still an apt warning for development professionals. In two decades, we’ve gone from car phones to smartphones, from QVC to eBay, from analog to digital, and no industry is immune. Judging by their presence on social media and the proliferation of online fundraising, most nonprofits are taking steps to adapt to the digital revolution.

In this post we’ll discuss four major transitions emerging in the nonprofit sector. Adaptation, of course, is a continuous process and there will be more changes to come. In the meantime, you can use these common changes to measure how your organization is evolving—or stagnating—with regard to digital marketing and fundraising.

1. Direct Mail to Email

There are a number of reasons nonprofits have decreased their direct mail output and increased their use of email, the first of which is purely economical. To send a direct mail appeal, you need to write the appeal, design the layout, choose graphics and colors (which adds to printing costs), pay for printing, and pay postage. An article in the Harvard Business Review explained, “Direct mail has a higher response rate than email. But note that direct mail costs about 100 times as much.”

Furthermore, unlike direct mail, email can provide links to your website or landing pages and with email you can see how many people actually opened the message. When you shift your communications toward email, your greatest challenge in reaching your audience remains the same. Open rate is still a key metric and now your subject line and email sender are the primary variables.

2. Print Newsletter to Blog

An ink and paper newsletter presents similar production and transportation costs as direct mail. With a blog, you’re free from the constraints of a printing budget. This allows you to make your stories more visually engaging with pictures, graphics, and even videos.

Another advantage blogs have over print newsletters is that they can be updated at any time. This means you can post timely content in response to achievements, crisis campaigns, and media coverage. Having a blog for your nonprofit means that you can be the first to get your latest news out, whenever it happens.

3. Door-to-Door to Peer-to-Peer Fundraising

The idea of reaching out to your fundraisers’ personal networks is nothing new. From selling Girl Scout cookies to asking people to sponsor you in a walk-a-thon, fundraisers have been reaching out to neighbors, friends, and family for decades. The difference is that now, instead of knocking on your neighbors’ doors, you invite your social networks to donate to your personal fundraising page.

Online peer-to-peer fundraising makes it easy for friends and family to go from checking their Facebook page to donating to your cause in just seconds. While there’s still a place for face-to-face asks, personal fundraising pages are there to take donations 24/7, so even if a fundraiser is at work or in class, they can still accept funds for your organization.

4. Paid Advertisement to Inbound Marketing

This transition toward a more content-driven marketing strategy is fueled by the adaptations listed above. Email, blogging, and peer-to-peer fundraising all conform to inbound marketing’s focus on offering value to your audience so that they opt in to your communications. This strategy is growing in popularity among both nonprofit and for-profit businesses, in part because consumers are increasingly tuning out or ignoring traditional paid advertisements. In fact, a recent study by Goo Technologies found that 82 percent of Americans ignore online ads .

Fortunately, most nonprofits have a large pool of stories to draw from when they set out to create content. And when you post a case study to your blog, you don’t have to pay anyone for the space. Why buy invisible ads when you can produce colorful content?

How Do You Measure Up?

Although these methods are becoming more common, it’s important to remember that many nonprofits can benefit from a balance of the old and new. For example, email may take over most of your donor communications, but you may find that save-the-date postcards tend to boost event attendance. You can even run A/B tests to see which practice is more effective. Tracking the success of a new initiative can also prove to your board or staff that making a change is worth the effort.

To get an idea of where your organization is adapting and where you might be dragging your feet, consider how your organization is handling the transitions above. Digital marketing and fundraising offers a wide variety of tools to help nonprofits expand their reach and optimize their communications.

If you need some help with the jargon surrounding digital strategies and tools, download our Glossary of Digital Terms for Nonprofits.

Every Campaign. Every Channel. #Winning

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Image Source: Unsplash.com

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