We were told that we needed to reach everyone to create the change we need. Maybe that’s a problem.
This piece started as an explainer on how nobody is reading your organization’s emails and if/how/why you might care about that. And what to do.
That still seems like a good topic. Nonprofit open rates average around 25% for newsletters. Most other message types are lower. And open rates are inflated/totally misguiding so far fewer folks are reading anything. Heck, for many groups, 10% or more of all email is going to spam.
The real issue here is that people are busy, buried in content, and have priorities. There’s no one solution. Sending fewer (or more) messages probably won’t fix this. Moving to Mastodon won’t fix it. A preference center won’t fix it. A multi-channel (or omnichannel?) strategy won’t fix it. And, good god, P2P texting won’t fix it.
We’ve gone so far with scale, reach, and attention that we’ve forgotten why we’re here: to help real people with real problems.
A list of the engaged, excited and passionate people with agency to create impact.
I propose that we see every person who engages in our organization or list as unique individuals with experiences, interests, and needs. We would get to know each of them.
This seems unlikely – and at scale downright impossible.
Why this won’t work.
We can come up with several reasons this is a bad idea. 😉
Organizations aren’t set up for this.
- We have big legacy lists that churn through people and need volume to succeed.
- Recruitment strategies that sometimes start with personal contact but have no ability to follow up. Canvasses, for example, start with one to one conversations at the door or in front of Trader Joe’s. Then we hand off that person to an email list with no relationship building strategy. It’s no wonder people think it’s all about money.
- Staffing is not oriented towards people skills – customer service, engagement, organizing. We do give extra attention to large donors. Again, money earns attention.
- We rely on paid staff for everything. We could never hire, train, manage, pay for the staff needed to engage with people at this level. It’s all hubs and centralization. People and cost are bottleneck to everything.
It hurts fundraising, budgeting and planning.
- We have data on acquisition, fundraising and marketing costs. We more or less know how many people will respond, the average gift we can expect, and how many people we will lose or churn through each year.
- This model is predictable and manageable.
- Any change might cost more, lower response, result in fewer gifts, etc.
People don’t want or need it.
- People are busy. They don’t have time to do more than click on an email or social post.
- People join our list and give us money so that we will take care of the problem and keep them informed.
- We already do things to work people up the ladder of engagement. We upgrade donors. We invite people to take bigger actions. We even have a volunteer program.
Or, actually, this is already how we do it.
- We segment our list by interest, geography and donation amount. So we only send everything to most people most of the time. Not all the time.
- We have regional offices that run local events.
- We do surveys asking people what they think of our newsletter and what information would be helpful.
Look around (waves hands)…things are dire and we need everyone on board!!!
Problems like climate change, authoritarianism, inequality, racism, homelessness, and a health care that’s cracking up big, complex and systemic. We need millions of people to take action and press leaders for change. We need millions of people to change behaviors that uphold systems.
Reaching everybody means communicating at scale. We should grow our lists quickly. Send compelling messages expressing the importance of our solutions and urgency of taking action on them. We should encourage people to share messages and find ways to help them. We should go viral. We should spread our reach by working to change messages in art, TV, film and music. We should find and support influencers who can deliver this urgent information.
Given that, can we communicate one to one? Can we find out what people and their families need or want right now so they can eat better, get better jobs, pay their bills and access health care?
We need scale. But the way we run campaigns and organizations at scale is counter productive. We are great at creating content. But all that content is turning advocacy into entertainment instead of tangible progress.
People become wary of messages about change and progress. They hear it and see it every day and don’t see results. Change becomes faceless. Change is just another message – another fundraising email – from another organization.
Treat people as though they have agency. It could work.
The hypothetical problems listed above are driven by fear of change and a scarcity mindset. There’s little if any funding for experimenting with community building and communications, particularly when an organization’s only source of unrestricted funding is at stake.
But it’s imperative that we rethink community, engagement, membership and even fundraising. Especially when the need for action is urgent and the competition for attention is increasing exponentially.
Some thoughts on how we do this:
Only communicate directly with people who we’ve spoken to directly.
No, sending an email to someone doesn’t count as speaking to them directly.
We optimize for growth knowing that only a small – tiny, really – percentage of people will give money, send a petition, come to a public meeting or call their congressional rep or mayor’s office.
This means most people are being conditioned to ignore us. When something great or important does happen they aren’t likely to read the email and follow up.
Instead, place an emphasis on inviting people in through opportunities for direct action and conversation. Instead of sending actions to rented email lists, use trainings, webinars, and open conversations (online and in person) as recruiting events. Distribute online polls and surveys. Advertise training materials, reports and guides for download. Require contact info to download the material and follow up in person.
Create space for a conversation before adding to an email, text or phone list.
This could be one on one. Or in a group — a zoom call for new supporters about what we do, how to get involved, and expectations, hopes and norms. Begin relationships in community and you’ll grow from there. It’s a stronger position if you want co-creation and meaningful engagement.
“Our brains evolved to be social: We need frequent interaction and conversation to stay sane,” says Dr. Thalia Wheatley, a social neuroscientist at Dartmouth College. Organizations that create conversations are offering a service that’s of value and hard to find.
More connection and less content.
Many (most!) organizations (and politicians and government offices and companies) are creating content for internal reasons. Not as the result of a considered and evolving content strategy.
Get out there and talk to people. Run ideas by people. In person. Most of your blog posts aren’t creating awareness or getting attention.
Change funding structures and incentives.
Individual contact and fundraising is usually a the only form of unrestricted funding for organizations and campaigns. It’s hard to mess around and take risks with this work. And there is no incentive for leadership and fundraisers to try something else. This puts us in the position of using crisis and urgency in messaging. And not having time to listen to people.
There’s a role here for funders – foundations and large donors. There’s also a role for leaders. We need to shoot straight with people. Maybe be more transparent about how what actually creates change. We need to invest in communicating with people, not at them. There’s also a role here for nonprofit institutions – the kind that host conferences – and companies making money off nonprofit fundraising and data. Organizations do need models, systems and tools to support their work and consultants, technologists and vendors can nudge if not push towards change.