THE INTERVIEW: Wendy Marinaccio Husman on year-end fundraising, monthly giving, testing & more

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This week, I had a chance to catch up with my former colleague Wendy Marinaccio Husman who is an Account Director at the Mal Warwick Donordigital agency which has offices in Berkeley, Calif. and Washington, DC. Wendy is one of the smartest digital strategists that I know, so it was a treat to be able to check in with her, starting with her reflections on year-end digital fundraising in 2018.

Question: What are your general reflections on year-end digital fundraising 2018?

Year-end digital fundraising was a bit confounding throughout and ultimately a bit disappointing, especially for larger organizations with more robust digital fundraising programs. We’re still analyzing results, but I can already share that this is first year in my 11 years of specifically digital fundraising experience that December returns have been widely down.

Question: We’ve seen continued increase in the number of email appeal efforts sent during year-end. Has that trend continued, increased, or decreased this year?

The trend increased significantly this year overall in the November-December timeframe, especially around Giving Tuesday. The trend of needing to be more aggressive to bring in less direct revenue from email also held this year. Email appeals in the final week of the year (and especially on December 31) were already quite aggressive, with many organizations sending two or three emails on December 31 in 2016 and 2017—I’m not certain that increased this year.

Question: How important was monthly giving this year? We’ve seen a lot of growth in previous years. Has that trend continued?

Monthly giving promotion throughout 2017 and 2018 has proven to be critical, as the volatility in digital donors’ behavior over the last year was tempered by ongoing donations from sustainers. As email and web giving spiked up and down in unexpected ways, sustaining donations—many of them secured in the wake of the 2016 election—were often the reasons organizations hit their monthly digital revenue goals throughout 2018. The trend has continued as organizations have become more comfortable with promoting monthly giving at the expense of initially larger one-time gifts; more nonprofits now understand the data proving that monthly donors have a higher lifetime value.

At year-end, organizations can always anticipate organically bringing new monthly donors on board. Many people simply choose a monthly gift rather than a one-time gift, especially when organizations have worked on optimizing their donation form and are offering a special match or goal—but even without that, December typically results in the largest annual spike in monthly giving. If your organization did not experience that trend, I’d recommend taking a hard look at your program to determine why donors aren’t motivated to choose monthly giving.

Question: What digital fundraising techniques can you highlight with the clients at your agency this year? I’m thinking of techniques such as the use of thermometers, countdown clocks, etc.

I believe that an organization’s mission and work, its ability to tell its story and let donors know they are valued partners in that story, is more essential than any technique. At the same time, elements like a match and special Giving Tuesday campaign go a long way toward year-end fundraising success.

This year, we recommended introducing the mobile channel for fundraising and stewardship, incorporating peer-to-peer texting for many of our clients. Strategies differed, but top-level, we worked with organizations to match up donors and prospects with mobile number and send text messages to them throughout Q4 with awareness-building and engagement messaging, stewardship messaging, and later ramping into fundraising asks. In terms of timing, these were often tied to a mail in-home date, Giving Tuesday campaign or Year End match announcement.

We also introduced a couple of new tools that helped make our clients’ year-end campaigns even shinier—one is called NiftyImages, and it allowed us to build countdown clocks and other dynamic content more easily than in past years.

Another technique for organizations to consider is what we call an “un-designed” email. Once in a while, sending a message that looks more like a receipt or invoice will help boost deliverability to the inbox and open rates. It lands in the inbox more often because it can bypass ESP’s bulk email controls—but it shouldn’t be overused. You may want to try it as part of a renewal campaign or a triggered campaign to lapsing donors.

Question: Do you think that changes in tax regulations relating to charitable deductions had any impact on online giving this year?

It’s very hard to tell! Anecdotally, questions and comments have come in from donors expressing general confusion. I think many people assumed that if the tax law had an impact, it would primarily be on the behavior of mid-level and major donors—as these are the ones who are more likely to actually experience major differences in the way they handle their 2018 tax returns. Many donors giving $50 or $100 on December 31 wouldn’t have itemized their taxes anyway, so the changes to the tax law shouldn’t have impacted their giving. But perhaps the greater awareness that the tax-deductibility of their gift wouldn’t benefit them on their tax returns did change their behavior. On top of that, because of the way the tax law was rolled out, regular people are not really noticing the benefits of the tax deduction—they’re just getting slightly less taken out per paycheck. Personally, my guess is the volatility in the market and political landscape at the end of the year put a damper on people’s giving spirit, and this had more of an impact than the tax law—but at this point I think it’s anyone’s guess.

Question: How have you integrated testing into year-end digital fundraising for your clients this year?

For most clients, we don’t recommend testing during year end—we test consistently throughout the year leading into October, aiming to utilize all the best results in the year-end campaign. Sometimes we’ll do a test or two in the very early stages of a year-end campaign to hone in on something that will benefit the entire campaign, like what the language on the call-to-action button should be in our campaign emails.

However, for some small clients, year-end is the only time of year they can achieve a statistically significant response, so we do incorporate some testing into their campaigns. That said, no matter what time of year it is, we conduct ongoing testing in social media and digital advertising campaigns.

Question: How much investment have you recommended that your clients make in social media and search engine advertising to complement other digital efforts?

This year-end, more clients than ever devoted budget to a social media spend, search/display spend, or both. This was one area where we’ve seen consistent year-over-year improvements in revenue and ROI.

Question: MWD has unique expertise and success with multi-channel fundraising for its clients. What can you highlight from multi-channel integration at year-end in 2018?

We’ll know more once we complete our multi-channel analysis of our clients’ year-end campaigns. In part, we do this by matching back unsourced web gifts to the campaign touches constituents received in other channels, identifying the role mail, phones, text/mobile, and email played in motivating people to give. (Unfortunately people don’t give on our beautiful source-coded links as often as we would like them to for attribution purposes…and with efforts like digital advertising, it’s difficult or impossible to attribute individual motivation!)

When fundraising is more difficult, going back to the fundamentals is even more important. That’s why I am confident that the numbers will show that integrated fundraising continued to be critical to organizations’ success during year-end 2018. Once the numbers are in, additional trends I’ll be looking for include: the lift provided by adding peer-to-peer texting as a channel, and the impact of social media and display advertising budgets on new donor acquisition.

Wendy Marinaccio Husman is an Account Director with Mal Warwick Donordigital. A fundraiser for over 17 years, her favorite topics are digital fundraising, monthly giving and data. Her MWD clients have included Mercy For Animals, Corporate Accountability and Project HOPE, among many other organizations doing fantastic progressive organizing. Wendy has an undergraduate degree in Science, Technology and Society from Stanford University and a Master’s in Performance Studies from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Prior to her work with MWD, she worked as Membership Director for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and Development Director for Alonzo King LINES Ballet. She is currently a proud member of AFP-Minneapolis and has served as VP of Membership for AFP-Golden Gate.

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