What Can Google Teach Nonprofits About Direct Mail?

While Google is king of online advertising revenue, it still uses direct mail for a very good reason. Direct mail is still relevant and still gets results. GoogleMail1edited

I had several emails from Google over the summer about this special offer regarding a free ad credit if I spent money advertising my business through them online. I received my first piece of direct mail from Google in August. 

I received another in late September and then, below, you can see the post card I recently received reminding me of their offer of free ad credit if I spend $50. While I am a long time advocate of online giving and communications, print still plays an important role.


An important thing to notice is how the first piece is customized. It calls me by name, it mentions the town I live in twice. Nonprofits would do well to follow this example. The days of “Dear Friend, Thank you for your recent gift” are over. Addressing a donor in this old manner makes them feel like one of a large faceless group you are addressing, not an important contributor to your organization’s success. Through mail merges for print and data exports for emails, it is easy to change such generic greeting to one that is more personal, i.e., “Dear John, Thank you for gift of $250 on November 7th”. That helps the recipient feel that you are noticing the details of their support and acknowledging them in a specific way, not in a generic “one greeting fits all” way.

Print vs. Electronic

I’ve heard from some nonprofits that they have cut out their print newsletters in favor of electronic newsletters. I understand that moving to an e-newsletter saves money. For most organizations it costs around $2.00 to send a piece of direct mail and about 20 cents to send an email. However this decision does not incorporate the opinions of the recipients, who are the reason these communications exist in the first place.

A better practice is to encourage subscribers to a print newsletter to sign up for the electronic version – relentlessly. You must continuously ask, prod, cajole and entice subscribers in order to get them to move to a different channel. Even with this effort, you may end up with a group of folks that will not budge and that want your print newsletter. I recommend you respect that choice. You never know when a major donor may be among those who love your print newsletter, will never sign up for the e-newsletter and who you may lose as a supporter if they stop hearing from you via print.


Online giving continues to grow as a percentage of donations for almost all organizations (see the Network For Good Digital Giving Index). This is good news as more folks become comfortable with giving online, as it is a more cost effective way to accept donations. At the same time, for many organizations the majority of donations still come in through check. I assisted with the Monterey County Gives! project a few years ago and 70% of the donations for that community fundraising effort came in through check, despite a robust website and much encouragement to give online. This is the reality now, so those that are working on growing their individual donor base would do well to use both direct mail and email in their fundraising campaigns.

Google_pcard editedI am an online donor and I know how much more expensive it is for nonprofits to send me a direct mail piece. I especially hate when they send me address labels – who sends letters anymore? But when I ask the nonprofit staff, they report that when they send out those labels, they get a higher response rate and more donations than when they send out a request without them. Of course that has to do with the demographics and age of their donor base, but most money in this country is still given by folks over 60 who have used checks and traditional mail for most of their lives, so it is important to keep them in mind when deciding how to manage your print vs. electronic communications.

Take a tip from Google and ensure you have a coordinated effort across your print and electronic communications. The emails I get from Google about their special offer almost directly match the print pieces they send through the mail. Being coordinated across channels is the best way to ensure your message gets through and folks take the actions you desire.

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Beth Kanter and #TheBethEffect

Beth Kanter has been inspiring me for over a decade, so I am grateful to be hosting an event in her honor online and at the David & Lucile Packard Foundation offices on Tuesday October 29th.

NTC06BethMSteinJKI had heard about Beth's work for several years from nonprofit technology colleagues and seen her work online before meeting her in person at the 2004 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Philadelphia. I sat in on her training session and was captivated not only by her command of the material but her inviting, inclusive way of teaching. Like many people, most of my experiences with trainings had been the "sage on the stage" lecture that was never very entertaining or engaging. Beth's style has always been one that draws you in, invites you to participate actively in your learning and brings her good nature in as well.

NTC09KanterKenyonAt that same 2004 conference Beth gave my confidence a big boost. She attended the first session I had taught at a large national conference (prior to that most of my trainings were given in classrooms with no more than 30 folks from San Francisco Bay Area nonprofits, so this was a big step for me). I still remember after my session, Beth was one of the first folks to come up and she told me what a good job I had done. She especially appreciated my humor in answering some of the audience's questions and encouraged me to include more of that humor in my presentations. Coming from someone I respect and like so much, that encouragement went a long way to giving me confidence to continue focusing on being an educator. Not long after that I was asked to guest lecture at the University of San Francisco for their Masters of Nonprofit Administration degree program, where I later became adjunct faculty.

UKJKBethAbaI have worked with Beth in many ways over the years, co-designing and co-leading workshops, working on committees, writing and consulting. Every time we work together, I learn something that helps me to improve my teaching methods, my writing or my consulting approach. Beth is so generous with her time and materials – as evidenced by her 447 slide presentations available on SlideShare – that there are few people I meet in the nonprofit sector who have not heard of her.

JKBKWalkingDebriefOne of my favorite experiences with her was this year in Australia when we both taught Masterclass sessions before the Connecting Up conference. For the last segment of our classes, we brought the students together to share what they had learned with each other and had a walking debrief from the sessions along the beach boardwalk. So much fun – and educational!

I am grateful that the folks at the Packard Foundation will be honoring Beth next week for the work she has done both with their grantees and internally for the organization, showing the respect and love Beth has earned through her work there.

I hope you can join us for the online hangout and feel free to post reflections, insights or questions for Beth on Twitter using #TheBethEffect hashtag. See the event page and the details on the Google hangout page for more information.

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How Nonprofit Data Is Like Debt

During an online fundraising seminar I was presenting, we were on the topic of email addresses. I always advise folks to pay attention to their email “bounces” – when an email address is found to be bad and your email can’t be delivered. Your bulk email software reports it like this:


One of the seminar attendees shared that she had a LOT of data issues in her donor database – duplicates, outdated contact information, etc. All of that data needed cleaning up before she could tackle the bounces in her email database. It was overwhelming, so she was not taking any action. That’s when it occurred to me that ignoring that data was like ignoring debt – it doesn’t get better it just gets worse!

Data issues, like debt, continue to pile up unless tackled head on.

Debt The Eyes of New YorkYou’re busy – and how important is that email bounce data anyway? Well, what if, hidden in that email bounce data is the email address of a major donor – or two? What if that person has not heard from you in weeks or months because they changed their email address and thought they told you? Or better yet, they setup an auto reply in their old email box, but your emails come from a “do not reply” address so that message never came back to you. New or casual email subscribers and online donors can take that as marked disinterest.

If you are not on top of your data you could be harming good relationships with your donors. Online fundraising continues to grow every year and at some point I believe it is destined to overtake giving via direct mail, so paying attention to email addresses is critical.

Your organization can get on top of tasks like reviewing email address bounces. This can be a good task for a volunteer or intern with a little basic training on running searches in your databases. The data on email bounces is pulled from your email system. In your donor or other databases, you then do a search for folks who bounced. First look for an alternative email address – someone may have gotten the new one and just didn’t remove the old one. For those that you don’t have alternative email address, consider creating a postcard you can mass mail to say “We are updating our records and would love to stay in touch – return this postcard, go online or call us today!”. After a month, for those you don’t hear from, you might even call folks whose phone numbers you have. If they say no or don’t return the card, that’s fine, people’s interests change.

Walk away andreasnilsson1976An excellent practice is to keep a spreadsheet with the names of folks that bounced and you did not hear from after the postcard and/or phone call. Review the list of major donors every year or 6 months and compare it to that list. If you find a major donor, you might want to dig around in other files or in your network to see if you have a secondary way to contact that person, saying that “I’d like to keep in touch, feel free to email or call me” and leave it at that.

Don’t let valuable email subscribers and donors walk away feeling forgotten. Mine that data, keep them engaged so they might give another day!


(Flickr photos TheEyeofNewYork; andreasnilsson1976)

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Nobody Owes Your Nonprofit Software

At a recent seminar, a member of the audience, a nonprofit staff member, was
visibly angry that "none of the discounted databases on TechSoup come with
free technical support". While I can understand how frustrating it is to
try to learn how to use the mostly non-intuitive database programs out there, I
was struck by the thinking behind that comment. To me, it is like being angry
that a car someone donated to you did not come with free gas and repairs for

Bullshitfree marsmet481Like a car, a database (and most technology for that matter) needs regular
care and maintenance. It requires resources, both human and financial, to
maintain it in good working order. Like a garden, there is planning to ensure
you use your space well and get out of it what you need, weeding to remove
undesirable elements, watering and feeding to provide needed inputs, as well as
appropriate harvesting to glean what you need. All of those tasks require spending
money on human resources to carry them out. It may also require spending
resources on tools, education or consulting. The point is, if you have no
resources to put into managing a database, you will get very little out
of it that is of use.

Hug programmer deviantart 280dgMany software programmers out there donate hundreds if not thousands of
hours to make free and open source software, like CiviCRM, Drupal and many others.
Those folks could be making lots of money working for commercial operations but
instead make less money and contribute to the nonprofit community in some powerful
ways. Providing technology tools that work for nonprofits is a difficult job
that comes with very little tangible reward. As I've heard many well-respected
nonprofit software experts like Robert Weiner and Allen Gunn say, free software
is free like puppies. The puppy might be free initially, but the vet visits,
shots, medicines, food, time spent training and caring for the puppy are all
not free – just as it is with software.

So, if your organization does not have the resources to both acquire and
maintain your database, the problem is not with the software providers and
their lack of free resources. It is the responsibility of every nonprofit to
raise the proper funding to properly maintain the organization, and to me the
lifeblood of an organization is its data and the systems used to manage that

As I have often said, "after people, data is your most important
resource". You'll get out of it what you put into it. If you don’t' have
the resources needed to do a good job of maintaining it in good order, then the
first order of business is raising more or reallocating funds. The more
realistic organizations are about the costs of technology and software, the
more appropriate they fund those tools, the happier they will be with their
tools and the more benefit they will derive from their use.

(Images Flickr: marsmet481, Deviantart: 280dg)

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The Arts and Mobile Marketing

Mobile Report Arts cover_SMI am honored to be featured in a new special report from Musical America Worldwide entittled "Mobile Marketing: The Arts In Motion".

The report includes wonderfully helpful information for performing arts organizations about engaging audiences via mobile, mobile options, vendors and – best of all – case studies of organizations using mobile.

Analytics and Texting

Two of the points I make in the report are about using analytics and being thoughtful about texting.

A review of your website metrics is helpful when building a mobile-friendly site. The analytics can tell you what pages are most popular among those accessing your website via mobile devices. This helps you make sure those pages are included in your website's mobile version.

Being thoughtful about texting is important because mobile is so personal that unwanted texts can feel like an invasion of privacy. Simple announcements, such as tickets going on sale, the release of a season's schedule or a "Save the Date" announcement for special events like fundraisers are some the more appropriate ways I've seen arts organizations using text.


The report is full of useful advice and examples that every arts organization should see. Thanks to Susan Elliott and Dina Gerdeman for incuding me. The Muscial America Special Reports page also has links to other good reports on fundraising, ticketing and other issues important to arts organizations.

You can read the report in sections online here or download the report here (pdf)

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Opinion: QR Codes and Foursquare Not Worth Nonprofits Time

I am seeing changes in the technology world that lead me to believe that QR codes and Fourquare are not useful tools for most nonprofits.

I often include a section in my nonprofit technology trainings about "up and coming" technology trends for nonprofits and one year ago, both of these tools were included, but about 6 months ago I stopped including them. From what I've been reading, I think nonprofits don't need to put effort into these tools anymore.

QR Codes

QR Codes, those little boxes that look vaguely like barcodes have been appearing on everything from restaurant menus to bus stop ads and even on Mercedes cars. As I mentioned to a colleague last year, in my experience, if a technology is too difficult for your grandmother to understand, it is not something that is going to catch
on with a wide audience. So far the data I see has supported this.

Qr code flow chartQR codes have seen very low levels of uptake from
consumers (estimates range from 3 – 12% of folks having used a qr code once,
repeat numbers are even lower). As this article from Invoke describes, the issues are that
they create a barrier instead of a simplified user experience and the effort
outweighs the benefits. Personally, I deleted the QR code scanner from my
smartphone months ago and have not missed it once. If you followed the link to the story about QR codes in Mercedes cars above, you saw they reported that even that application would be obsolete in a few years.

Recently this image on the right went around on Facebook, which sums up my feelings.


I used to be a regular Foursquare user, checking into places
via my smartphone, earning badges and seeing where other folks in my network
had been. Ever since Facebook added their own check-in feature, however, I have not used
Foursquare. Even when I did, I struggled to see much widespread application for
nonprofits. It made some sense for nonprofits with a physical location, like a
museum or store, but beyond that it was just another channel to maintain added
to the many other communication channels nonprofits are tasked with maintaining

A Business Insider article from January reports on PrivCo saying Foursqaure will fail buy the end of 2013.

Where to Focus

So while I don’t have anything against Foursquare or QR codes,
as I see their usage flat or declining I strongly urge nonprofits to put their limited resources
into tools and technologies that are proven to have an impact and staying
power. Most nonprofits would do better putting resources into
improving their content, website and email communications along with select social media
channels. Thinking about your nonprofit's strategy for mobile devices is a much more solid investment for those interested in the leading edge.

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Interactivity in Technology Training

Effective technology trainings need to be much more than listening to an expert speak, especially when the class runs for 6 hours. There is so much valuable knowledge and experience among the participants, it is important to promote ways to get them out of their seats and help them interact.

SharePairAURecently I presented a Masterclass in Technology Planning for the 2013 Connecting Up conference in Australia. I used several techniques to promote interaction among the participants. The classic is the "share pair" where you have two people pair up to share their thoughts. I like using an active share pair – not just turn to the person next to you and share – but get up, get your feet moving, meet someone new and share with them. I used this several times, once in the beginning when I asked folks to think about 1. What they needed to learn about for their organization and 2. What they personally wanted to learn about. I gave them a few minutes to think and jot down their answers, then had them stand up, find someone at a different table and share. It's wonderful to see the room erupt in conversation when you do this. This also helps folks think about what interests them, rather than just what their job requires, so it adds a nice personal slant to the days learning.

Later in the day, after talking about options for using the Cloud, I had folks share one new way their org might use the cloud. One of participants brought his laptop over to share with two folks how he had moved his infrastructure to the cloud, a wonderfully concrete example from a peer that really opened up their thinking.

MarchellaNameTagMy class was happening simultaneously with Beth Kanter's masterclass (she shares her insights in her Trainers Notebook post here). We used two ideas that Beth has been incorporating for some time in her trainings. The first was to give folks nametags and have them write a word or two about what they would be taking away from the class or and "aha" moment they had. Participant Marchelle McMath, shown here, is an example – she learned about the importance of prioritizing her many tech projects. We then had folks find someone from the other class and share what their name tag meant. We had folks do this three times with three different folks.

WalkingDebriefAUWe then were able to use the tags for a "walking debrief", where folks again found a new partner and we left the hotel, walked along the promenade next to the beach and as they walked they again shared what their takeaways were and heard from the other person what they had learned. It was a great way to cross-pollinate the learnings and for folks to find similarities around areas such as culture change, addressing resistance, and prioritizing. I heard some great conversations happening during the walk – and we had them switch partners half way through to get yet another perspective. Of course we then took a picture of us and our combined classes to share.

So as you plan your next technology training session, think about ways to get participants moving and sharing their knowledge, their questions and even their struggles – it makes for a much richer experience than sitting and listening to a "sage on the stage".


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Should Nonprofits Prioritize Mobile Over Their Website?

A recent report by the UN agency International Telecoms Union "ITU World in 2013" found that by the end of 2014 there will be more mobile subscriptions than people in the world (Read the BBC report or Download the pdf). The report predicts that the current level of 6.8 billion subscriptions will pass 7 billion next year. There are 7.1 billion people on the planet.

The same report found that only 2.7 billion people – around 40% of the world population – is online. Europe had the highest penetration (75%) followed by the Americas (61%), Asia (32%) and Africa (16%). ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure said "Two-thirds of the world's population, some 4.5 billion people, are still offline. This means (they) are still locked out of the world's biggest market".

Twophones garryknightSo what does this mean for nonprofits trying to meet constituents where they are? Most of the mobile subscribers don't have "smartphones" but many have "feature" phones that allow them to use texting and some limited applications. So while apps are not the place most organizations should start, mobile and texting strategies require attention. (Flickr photo: garyknight)

My advice to nonprofits about where to put their effort when it comes to online presence over the last few years has generally been: 40% to their website, 40% to email and 20% to social media. So if they had 2 hours a week to devote, they would on average devote around 50 minutes to website and email and 20 minutes to social media. This has always been a very rough guideline, as each nonprofit is unique – some organizations have their website in good shape and can/need to devote more time to the other areas.

As I have watched the number of nonprofit supporters who access websites, read email and use social networks on their phones increase, I have increasingly been recommending a greater emphasis on mobile. This includes a mobile friendly website, emails optimized for mobile viewing, greater attention to social media and the new channel of texting.

In a world where significantly more folks have mobile phones than internet access, it may be time for mobile strategy to deserve more attention from nonprofits. This is especially true if your organization works in Asia or Africa where a majority of folks still are not online.

Should you prioritize mobile over your website? Not yet, because a website is still the transactional hub for most organizations online. But I think that all nonprofits would do well to devote time to thinking through a mobile strategy – having a mobile-friendly website, testing emails for being mobile-friendly and thinking through how they might use text. As the trends mentioned above indicate, your audience might be more likely to find you or engage with you via mobile than through a traditional website – you want to be ready when they do!

There are some great resources about mobile strategy on the NTEN website (webinars, recordings of sessions from past Nonprofit Technology Conferences, blog posts, etc.). The recent article by Stanford Social Innovation Review "Six Mobile Marketing Strategies for Nonprofits" is also a good place to start.

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Training with Beth Kanter: Time for Reflection

KanterKenyonNetNon10Next week Beth Kanter and I are teaching simultaneous master class sessions prior to the Connecting Up conference in Australia, hers on social media and mine on technology planning. I'm very excited that we worked together to find a way to bring the classes together at the end of the day to cross-polinate the learnings from the day and give them some time to reflect.

It is so important to give folks you are teaching time to digest and reflect on the knowledge you are sharing. I know when I began to do a lot of education I felt that I had to spend the majority of the time sharing information – mostly talking with some discussion. What I have learned from Beth and other educators is how important it is to give students time to think about the information you are sharing and how they can apply it.

Exercises where they can apply what they just learned – even in a brief exercise – goes a lot further in helping them digest and really learn the information, which does not happen as well by them just listening and taking notes. By asking folks to share with each other what they have learned and what they plan to do with the information, it not only helps it stick for them, but provides others with reminders of the content and ideas about application.

Whenever you are building an education session, whether online or in person, try not to have just stream of information from you to the students and some discussion. Try to include activities where students can process and act on the information you give them, then time for reflection. I know when I am a student, time to work with the knowledge I'm gaining and reflect on ways to apply it makes the expereince much richer and more valuable.

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Nonprofits and the PICNIC error

PICNIC error – "Problem In Chair Not In Computer" is defined on Wikipedia as "slang in technical circles… that implies a lack of computer savvy on the part of a user". While critics of the term argue that the issue actually arises from systems not designed intuitively, there is another issue common in nonprofits that contributes to it as well – lack of technology training.

NTENITRptThe latest NTEN Nonprofit Technology Staffing and Investments Report includes data on this issue. Of the many interesting findings in the report, one is that responses "indicate
that nonprofits feel relatively
confident that they have the tools to
do their every-day work, but are less
confident about having enough
skilled staff or training to effectively
use their technology for their work."

Adequate training and support are key to getting more "bang" for your technology "buck". Staff wasting effort trying to create reports that could be done easily if they had the training are just one example I have run across many times in my nonprofit technology career.

This issue also relates to examining work processes. Why do 6 of the 8 staff in an organization need to enter data from a donation in 8 different places? Ususally because the organization has not stopped to look at their business processes. How many times have I heard "We've always done it this way" or "That was how the person before me taught me how to do it". Spending some time making sure you have the best process in place can free up time best spent elsewhere. Applying technology to a bad process usually results in a slightly faster bad process, not the significant increase in efficiency that creating intelligent processes can have.

Nonprofits have limited resources to spend on technology. Two of the best ways to improve your return on investment are:

1. Invest in regular technology training that helps you use the tools in efficient and effective ways

2. Examine business processes and do your best to eliminate inefficiencies

There are lots of resources for good training on nonprofit technology. Once you identify what the needs are, search through the offeriengs of NTEN, TechSoup Global, Idealware and the many other online (and local!) resources to help you make better use of your technology dollar. GIYF (Googling is Your Friend)!

So let's not be quick to blame the person in the chair for the error, when some training could go a long way to reducing those errors. Build those skills and everyone benefits.

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