Content or Table of Contents?

Cygnus’ latest North American research on how donors are managing their philanthropy (The Cygnus Donor Survey) revealed several interesting trends on donor communication. Among the findings, half of all American donors and 60% of Canadians now prefer to receive information from charities they support via email. Not surprising, the younger the donor the more this holds true. 66% of Americans under 35 years of age and 76% of young Canadian donors chose email as their preference for donor communication.

While not-for-profits are eagerly complying (cost, timeliness, and other efficiencies being the motivators), they are also importing two old habits from the print era into the electronic age that are diminishing the effectiveness of their communications.

First: presenting donors with a Table of Contents as a substitute for genuine content.  Everyone, not just donors, moves through the task of vetting emails with lightning speed. They delete, they forward (my personal favorite), they respond quickly to efficient requests. And then there’s a fourth category – the longer, informational emails that don’t require readers’ immediate attention. Of course, they’re urgent to you, the sender, just not to the recipient. Informational emails are at the risk of being “red-flagged” (well-intentioned-plans-to-read-later-that-somehow-never-materialize) or dumped outright because they fail to capture the reader’s interest quickly.

The email above is an example (click the image to enlarge). A simple line of copy followed by a link, then another, and another.  Lists are not compelling; they are just lists. “Report from the President” tells the reader nothing except that you have a President (who doesn’t?) and that he or she wants you to read something.

Great email copy pulls something enticing from the President’s report, showcasing it in a few compelling words that make clicking the link irresistible. “Life Savers: President Carl Smith follows your donations to Darfur to monitor your dollars at work”, gives readers something they can get excited about. Which would you click?

Oh, and if you can’t find anything in the President’s report that can be turned into a compelling  one-liner, donors have a solution. “Please don’t go to the trouble of sending it.”

Second: Internal politics. For everyone outside the Development office, your email to donors is their opportunity to piggyback on your communication. Fundraisers need to resist this as strenuously as possible. Among my ten rules for communicating effectively with donors in this age of information overload, this one is the most important: the more you try to tell your donors at any one time, the less they will absorb and retain.

The best advice I can give you is this: Every time you want to send an email to your donors, ask yourself these three questions: Is it short? Is it exciting? Is it essential that my donors know this?

Editor’s Note: Penelope will be discussing donor communication in more detail in upcoming seminars in Washington, Boston and Seattle. For more information, click here.

Showing 2 comments
  • Peter Hoppe

    Hi Penelope:

    The increase in donor preference to receive information by email very exciting. However, I still find that a very small percentage of donors who receive email appeals actually respond to them. This forces our clients to send donors both an email and a direct mail package. Please let me know if this is your experience as well.

    Thank you.


  • Duncan

    Hi P,

    One thing you don’t mention is that it is risky business listening to the responses of the masses, as we all know what people say they respond to isn’t necessarily what they do respond to……and this is where testing comes into play.

    We have found that yes while online donors from email do give higher average gifts, they are much less inclined to give than if they had received a direct mail piece. And this is true of those who have specifically requested email communication from us!

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