Does online engagement help nonprofits raise money?

At first glance, this seems like a pretty straightforward question: engaging potential donors with your nonprofit’s mission is one of the most powerful cultivation tools you can employ, so it stands to reason that offering people a way to get involved through online advocacy, and keeping them informed with an online newsletter, would naturally garner more money for your organization.

Of course, when deciding how to spend your staff’s time and your organization’s money, you want more to go on than “it stands to reason”. There have been a number of studies that address this question, but when we start to unpack the results, things get a bit murky.

Last year, M+R Strategic Services conducted the very useful eNonprofit Benchmark Study, which found that organizations with online advocacy programs had annual averages for online giving that were three times higher than organizations without such programs. When you combine this finding, however, with the fact that two thirds of the members of the e-mail lists of nonprofits who use online advocacy are classified as activists — not donors — it becomes unclear whether the success they have with online fundraising is because people who take online action are really more likely to give, or because those organizations simply have larger email lists.

Convio recently released the results of a study which found that people who received information both on and offline have higher long-term value, retention, and lifetime value as donors than people who receive information through only one channel (regardless of whether the channel was online or off). As they point out, however, the study used only one organization, the SPCA of Texas, and therefore the findings cannot be generalized with confidence. It is heartening, though, that these results seem to indicate that online giving does not simply cannibalize offline revenues.

Narrowing the focus a bit, Care2’s froogloops takes a look the finding of a 2005 study by Informz that recently acquired email addresses yield much higher click through rates than older addresses. Building on this, M+R Strategic Services tested a three part series of emails — starting with a welcome message, then a survey and finally a fundraising appeal — against an initial fundraising appeal, in order to measure what kinds of initial contact yield the best fundraising results. They found that the initial hard ask resulted in more people donating, and reduced list churn. This is a good reminder that a short lag time between acquiring a person’s email address and asking them to give remains an effective fundraising strategy, whether the medium is paper mail or email.