9203 Mike Garcia Dr, Manassas, VA 20109 540 428 7000 info@grassrootcommunication.com

Special Interview with Lisa Sargent of Sargent Communications: Pt 2

Special Interview with Lisa Sargent of Sargent Communications: Pt 2

DC: Six years ago, social media was picking up a head of steam in our culture, but non-profits were still getting on the train; SM communications were often “siloed”. You spoke about the perception among non-profit professionals of “fragile followers”. How has this changed or how is it changing? And do you have a personal feeling about the future of SM for non-profits?
LISA: Before we talk social media, if you’re interested in digital channels with fundraising clout, think email. Direct mail still trumps it, and email’s overall donation response rate is only 0.07%, on average, but according to M+R’s 2016 Benchmarks Study3, more than a third (34%) of all online revenue for the top 25 nonprofits [in its study] can be tracked directly to an email appeal. And for the remainder of its study participants, the average is 27%. List churn – or the “fragility” of followers, if you will – remains an issue, just as it does for direct mail. Attrition is a fact of life: the goal is to minimize it, across whatever channel you’re working … and that holds true for social media too: if your feed is boring or “we-focused,” you won’t have many followers for long. Silos, too, remain an issue across every channel, and are still just as damaging to overall quality and consistency of messaging, and eventually, results. As M+R’s study put it so beautifully: “Our job is not to block the exits; ours is to throw the doors open and welcome people in.”
As to how social media is changing, you’ve got everything from crowdfunding to text-to-give, to the coming-of-age of peer-to-peer. So if you want your finger on the pulse of it, look to and follow folks like Nonprofit Tech for Good, Beth Kanter, and NTEN.org, and pay attention first to the channels that are working for others. For example, let’s look at some stats, the first two via Nonprofit Tech for Good4:

  • Nearly 1/3 of all online donations are now made through peer-to-peer fundraising (which is, as we know, driven by things like email, text, and SM);
  •  Text donors are most likely 49-59 years old, female, and college educated;
  •  Facebook still rules (most popular social network worldwide, according to Statista, it’s also where your older donors are, according to Pew’s Demographics of Social Media Users).

My feeling about the future of social media for nonprofits is that I wish they would get the basics right first. Because if you’re broken or misinformed when it comes to direct mail or email or online, you’ll be broken and reactive when it comes to social media: in other words, YouTube and Pinterest and Instagram aren’t going to save you no matter how appealing the “but it’s free” argument is. Your message must be emotional, consistently delivered, conversational, story-based, donor-focused, clear, concise, readable, understandable, digestible, authentic, true; all those things we’ve been talking about for years. Nonprofit Tech for Good recommends that to be successful at social media, you should be active on “at least two social networks and experimenting with a third” – and doing basic things like creating promotional graphics using free tools like Canva, integrating calls-to-follow into your online giving process (and I’d add, direct mail). And your nonprofit website should be responsive (i.e., works and scales to any-size device): responsive donation pages = 34% more gifts than non-responsive pages, according to Mobile Cause (via Nonprofit Tech for Good).
Now that I’ve gone and stepped in it, let me give you a social media exception: Thailand-based Soi Dog Foundation has raised nearly $8,000,000 through Facebook, and Sean Triner5 tracks and writes and trains on these techniques regularly which, interestingly and tellingly, include how “direct mail style” ads and posts are what work best.
DC: In your report you stated confidently that offline communications (specifically direct mail) would still be a workhorse for the long haul. Six years down the road, is that prediction holding true? And what do you see for the future of direct mail?
LISA: The short answer … yes. The prediction still holds true, and in spades. Direct mail remains a huge channel contender, and nonprofits that opt to ignore or write it off do so to their extreme detriment. This is especially true as direct mail emerges as a driver of online giving.
But instead of preaching about it, let me give you three specific examples of why I stay so passionately and steadfastly in the direct mail defenders camp … then let you decide.
In January of 2013, the monolithic American Cancer Society (ACS) moved to suspend its direct mail acquisition program in order to focus on an organization-wide consolidation. Nearly three years later, here’s what happened:

    • Their new donor ranks dropped by eleven percent;
    • New donor revenue plummeted $11.3 million in the first year;
    • ACS predicts the three-year direct mail break (and this is acquisition only we’re talking about right now) will negatively impact income by $29.5 million over five years;
    • What’s more, the absence of direct mail appears to have hurt other channels as well – for example, its “Relay for Life” event raised $25 million less than the previous year, and – this reported by The Agitator6 – since direct mail donors give more than $51 million in planned gifts (bequests, etc), the damage done to that most critical income stream is yet to unfold; and,
    • Before you write this off as some one-time event, I can tell you: I wrote for a number of years for a large US nonprofit organization that made this very same move (and for the record, I begged them, at least monthly, to reconsider). It took four years for income to fall far enough that they reinstituted direct mail acquisition, and who knows how many bequests they lost over time as a result.


Another charity, approximately $4+ million in annual revenues at the time, was regularly questioning its direct mail agency over poor results – while simultaneously praising its online vendor. I asked if anyone had checked the channel attribution for donations, and a savvy staffer decided to look into it. While she couldn’t directly trace all donations back to their source, of the small subset she could track, she found – in a single year – that direct mail drove $225K of their online income.
Last example. In 2008, I began working with a charity called Merchants Quay Ireland in Dublin. Together with its then Head of Fundraising, US-born CFRE Denisa Casement, and my design colleague Sandie Collette at S. Collette Design, we overhauled MQI’s direct mail donor communications program – from acquisition to post-acquisition thank-yous, new donor welcome packs, appeals, donor newsletters, and more. In just over five years, and pay attention to these numbers, here’s what happened using a donor-focused, direct-mail centered (and now integrated w/ other channels) program:

  • Fundraising revenue increased more than tenfold;
  • Active donor ranks increased from 500 to 16,000;
  • MQI’s donor newsletter raises €7 for every €1 it invests in producing the quarterly publication, with response rates (again, on a newsletter) as high as 14%;
  • Donor retention increased from 57% in 2010 to 69% in 2015 (soundly and concurrently busting the “donor fatigue” myth);
  • Bequests and major gifts are up across the board, as is attendance and engagement at special events.

As to what I see for the future of direct mail, you can probably guess. Still strong. Not dead. Not even on life support. And I’ll step up this prediction and say that it holds true for every generation … including millenials. In fact, a study conducted by the US Postal Service7 over the 2016 election cycle found that twice as many millenials read their political mail as non-millenials, and what’s more it drives them online and spurs them to action: 54% visited the candidates website as a result of direct mail, and 66% were more likely to research the candidate. That said, unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, it’s pretty clear that direct mail has and will have to work hand in hand with other channels – especially email and website comms. One more prediction regarding direct mail: the organizations that abandon direct mail in favor of digital-only will see dramatically reduced donor ranks, retention, and bequests (many they won’t ever know they lost), while the nonprofits that invest in and value consistent, high-quality direct mail to work in concert with their other channels will soar.
1 http://conference.afpnet.org/2016/ConferenceHandouts.cfm
2 https://michaelrosensays.wordpress.com/tag/casement-quotient/
3 http://mrbenchmarks.com/
4 http://www.nptechforgood.com/2015/09/16/20-must-know-fundraising-and-social-media-stats/
5 http://www.seantriner.com/2015/08/what-works-on-facebook-old-fashioned.html
6 http://www.theagitator.net/uncategorized/american-cancer-society-flops/
7 https://about.usps.com/news/national-releases/2016/pr16_035.htm