Recently The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg, in her column questioned Where Has All The Left-wing Money Gone? Citing “endless appeals, sometimes in bold all caps” of the seemingly endless the-sky-is-falling, guilt-tripping and flood of fundraising emails is a reason folks aren’t donating as much as they used to.
She argues the rivers of digital dreck “encourage a mix of cynicism and helplessness –precisely the feelings leading too many people to withdraw” from donating to campaigns and causes they might otherwise support.”
The comments from a reader of her column struck me as right on point with what Kevin and I and Kiki in her post Give Your Supporters a Break, have been warning about for several years.
Here’s what the Times’ reader has to say:
“In 2018 I made contributions to more than two dozen candidates for the midterm elections. I wrote hundreds of postcards to people in other states, from lists that I received through Zoom meetings.
“Shortly after that election, I began receiving texts and emails … fund-raising for the next election! Most of them were from candidates I had never heard of, and some didn’t bother even to tell me what office they were campaigning for, in which state. On top of the brashness of the appeals, they were often poorly written, alarmist, full of errors of fact. Who were all these people?
“Ms. Goldberg describes the effect on me: I stopped contributing to everyone. It will undoubtedly take me years to stop all the phone, text, and email political junk. I know they need money, but I need to trust them, and they have cried “wolf” so pervasively that I no longer do.
In Grandma Craver’s parlance: “Enough is Enough. Too much will make a dog sick.”
Of course, in this polarized and politically charged environment the fusillade of both post mail, but mainly the sheer volume of political and advocacy digital e-mail (personally I’m now seeing as many as 4 emails a day from some Democratic candidates and causes) is no doubt a major culprit.
If this overflowing sewer contained informative insights perhaps folks like the Times reader would be a bit more forgiving and not as turned off. But unfortunately, the confluence of promiscuous list sharing/renting…sky-is-falling copy that would put Chicken Little to shame…and the sheer shamelessness of far too many candidates, causes and their digital consultants have created this mess.
AND…their mess is polluting the waters of giving far beyond the immediate territory of the batshit-crazy messages and fake claims of the abusers and polluters.
Of course, as is so often the practice in fundraising when money is down the ignorant turn up the volume. Send more…and more…and more. The donors be damned.
Thus the recommendation from DonorVoice’s Chief Behavioral Scientist to employ Pulsing Strategies that generate greater total brand awareness and mitigate donor irritation build-up—strategies that lead to more profit. (For the basics of “pulsing” see this Agitator post.
When it comes to the digital blitzkrieg that’s transforming once good donors into non-responsive, highly annoyed former donors some argue there’s a plausible explanation offered by some digital consultants for why it has to be this way.
Mothership Strategies, is an online fundraising firm for Democrats and progressive causes. This is digital enterprise that will never be accused of using one hyperbole when a dozen uses of exaggeration, overstatement, magnification, amplification will do even better with in their digital embroidery.
In a Medium piece appropriately titled in their inimitable style, Dem COLLAPSING? WRONG! Here’s how we’re STILL raising money online [Must See—Don’t Skip] they offer a partly accurate and partly self-serving explanation for the reasons why hyberbole + high frequency= necessity in today’s online world.
“First off, let’s face it — it is harder than ever to fundraise right now!
- ONE: To state the obvious, donor enthusiasm dropped after Donald Trump left office.
- TWO:Digital fundraising is reinventing itself at an unprecedented pace. This will continue!
- THREE: And today it’s more difficult than ever to get an email appeal in front of prospective donors.”
I was particularly interested in items 2 and 3 that involve changes in the digital world. In my judgement they make some legitimate and powerful arguments. In their own words:
“Facebook is dead. For real. Stop trying.
“For context, look at spending in the 2020 Election cycle. Democrats spent hundreds of millions of dollars on direct response Facebook ads and raised even more. Today, after Apple’s iOS 14.5 release, Facebook is all but a ghost town except for the biggest household names.
“Email deliverability is HARD (and getting harder!)
“In 2021, Democrats suffered a series of devastating blows at the WORST. POSSIBLE. TIME.
- FIRST:NGP bought and killed Blue State Digital — the single most dependable digital platform, long used by President Obama and much of the Democratic Party. It had its flaws, but nothing else came close.
- THEN:All BSD clients were forced to migrate to a new platform.
- THEN (AGAIN!!!):Even worse, Apple ended 2021 with yet another major blow — the release of iOS 15. This release decimated email open tracking — our best and most scalable way to track active recipients.
“These weren’t just convenient tools to raise money. They were part of the DNA of the Democratic digital fundraising infrastructure. Combined, their destruction hampered progressive and Democratic groups from raising the money needed to fulfill their important missions.
“These problems have been compounding for a long time. And they reached their apex in 2023. We’re in a new reality!
“At Mothership Strategies, we’ve been working our tails off to overcome these challenges and thrive in this new environment. It’s the only way forward if we’re going to make progress on the issues we all care about.”
And thrive they do. But at what expense to the rest of the nonprofit sector?
Curbing the Abuses and Excesses. Holding Culprits Accountable.
I don’t pretend to have any cure-all recommendations and certainly none that is quickly implemented. However, I think it worthwhile to call-out some of the culprits or at least those who for the pure reason of monetizing weaknesses turn a blind eye.
Specifically, as Mothership notes in their piece, NGP Van/EveryAction/Bonterra play a big a role in the spam problem. The Agitator raised this issue two years ago With regard scamming, or the substance of the emails, their former CEO took the position in 2021 that it isn’t their place to decide what is and isn’t acceptable, and I haven’t seen any indication that they’ve changed their view on that. Action Item: For those organizations that are their clients now would be a good time to contact your account manager and ask for full clarification on their email, list sharing, spam and content policies and practices.
And then there are the third-party providers of email lists. Lists provided and often unethically sourced of contributors who have never given opt-in permission to be used by the organization renting or buying the list. Not only are they lousy performers, use of them is also a violation of 21 states’ privacy laws. Action Item: Before you rent, exchange, or even buy an email list, demand and explanation of how the seller/broker obtained the list and whether or not it was ethically sourced so there are op-in permissions for your organization’s use.
Finally, if you are a donor who’s being bombarded and pissed off, just stop giving. Or, if you feel you must give to that candidate (by midnight so they get the 60X Match) find the candidate’s own website and give directly. There simply are too many PACs, candidate committees that making promises they won’t deliver on or offering splitting contributions among candidates, thus weakening the effectiveness of your contribution.
Knowledge and Ethical Standards Are Best Antidotes
As in every mode of fundraising openness, transparency and knowledge are the best ways to protect your organization and help clean up the industry.
When it comes to the digital realm one of my personal favorite –and there are others—is The Civic Shout Foundation that helps train nonprofits on how to run email programs that help achieve your mission without guilt-tripping, spamming or scamming donor and prospective donors. (See this piece in Campaigner by Josh Nelson, the Foundation’s founder for more detail.)
At the end of the day we all need to be mindful, as we’ve warned over and over that donors need a break. Fundamental to these warnings is the knowledge that if we don’t give donors a break –if we don’t employ strategies like “pulsing” – we’ll wake up only to find the donors we were counting no longer have a pulse for giving.
P.S. For those readers who want to dig in more to frequency and how to avoid some of the pitfalls of treating all donors the same, RKD Group and DonorVoice have partnered to curate an exclusive experience tailored for senior, nonprofit leaders. We’ve reserved a handful of seats, submit your application today to attend the Shift. One night. Six speakers. Endless opportunity to create change.