Michael Stein, Senior Account Executive for Donordigital, is a veteran nonprofit technology strategist whose areas of expertise include online fundraising, email messaging, email list growth, blogging, website content, mobile messaging, and social media. With Nick Allen and Mal Warwick, Michael wrote the groundbreaking 1997 book Fundraising on the Internet: Recruiting and Renewing Donors Online.
The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal ofand a frequent contributor to the .
MKC: How did you get into this field?
Michael: About 20 years ago, I was working for an environmental group just as the Internet started to emerge. I got in on the ground floor, building bulletin board systems for Greenpeace activists and others tracking toxic chemical emissions around the U.S. I helped build the pioneering Internet provider called IGC.org that trained nonprofits to use the Internet, which then morphed into the first experiments in online fundraising on the Web for Rainforest Action Network. In the mid-1990s, I hooked up with legendary direct mail fundraisers Mal Warwick and Nick Allen, and we started to think about what the future of fundraising might look like with the evolving Internet. Together we wrote the first book about fundraising online.
Since then, I’ve worked for a couple of tech companies that serve nonprofits, notably Groundspring.org and GetActive, and had a stint as a journalist covering nonprofit technology. Now I’m working at Donordigital, one of the Mal Warwick companies, helping large national nonprofits raise money online. On one side of the building we have the folks raising money in the mail, and on our side we have a dozen people furiously raising money over the web, Facebook and email. Multichannel fundraising is the name of the game these days, so it’s an interesting place to learn and innovate for our clients.
MKC: Integrated and multi-channel are things people talk about a lot. Is anybody really doing them well?
Michael: If you’re a nonprofit that has a large direct mail program, and a staffed Internet fundraising program, then you have to do some integrated fundraising or else you’re going to confuse your donors. Basic integrated fundraising involves synching up messaging calendars, so you’re telling the same story and making the same calls-to-action no matter what medium your supporters are engaged in. The top charities in the U.S. are doing that pretty effectively. The next level up from there is even more coordination of messaging and audience, such that emails go to targeted supporters who will also be getting mail pieces. That’s harder to achieve and requires help from specialty agencies like ours. Results are frankly pretty varied, but we do know that there’s a core of donors that will respond in multiple channels, giving both in the mail, online and on the phone. There’s a lot of experimentation and testing going on all over the industry right now as nonprofits try to determine the best way to fundraise.
MKC: Is it too early to talk about best practices in integration if everybody’s still at the experimental stage?
Michael: There is a lot of experimentation, but there are definitely some best practices that are emerging. Probably the most basic best practice is the one I mentioned before, synchronizing the mail and online messaging calendars. The second level is audience segmentation and targeting through your email list. The other arena for best practices is targeted online advertising. Search engine marketing, Web remarketing, and Web display advertising are all playing important roles in allowing nonprofits to get their messages in front of existing donors and recent website visitors, in the hope that it will increase giving both online and in the mail. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of testing going on to see if online display advertising will increase giving in the mail, a nice example of multichannel testing.
MKC: I know that you work for some sophisticated and large nonprofits. Is there something in integrated marketing that small, local nonprofits can do?
Michael: Smaller and local nonprofits often have very good success with integrated marketing, and I’ve seen much higher response rates from smaller organizations. Local nonprofits are physically closer to their supporters and donors, so direct mail, online communications, social media and events tend to be highly relevant. Local nonprofits also benefit from high levels of participation by volunteers plus lots of face-to-face contact. All of these factors are good news for engagement and fundraising. Schools are a perfect example. They do a lot of fundraising, and the amount of multi-channel communications that occurs is high. They’ll put something in the mail, send an email, post it on Facebook, send out a tweet, do a friends-asking-friends fundraising campaign on Donors Choose, etc. I’m always encouraging smaller groups to get creative and to try different things. You don’t need an agency to do that, you just need some creative volunteers to try things out.
MKC: Were you blogging before the Donordigital blog?
Michael: Yes, I started blogging way back for organizations like TechSoup and Dot Org Media, trying to profile good practices by nonprofits on the Internet, calling out smart fundraising campaigns, reviewing products. I’m still fascinated by what we’re constantly learning – what can you expect from a fundraising appeal, how many people are going to stay on your donation page, what’s the average gift size – is it going up? Is it going down? What was last year’s year end fundraising. What are new techniques for raising money from friends. In the commercial world, there’s a huge industry of people that spend a lot of money figuring this out. In the nonprofit world, it’s a smaller universe, so there’s a lot of sharing of ideas. I’ve always felt very strongly that blogging and tweeting and contributing ideas this way is critical in the nonprofit sector. It’s especially important for the smaller nonprofits that can’t usually afford to hire an agency. I felt it was my responsibility, now that I work for an agency, to keep the writing going and to share as much as I can.
MKC: Do you have a sense of what is the next thing coming in fundraising?
Michael: I think one area we’re still waiting to emerge is for social media platforms built by Facebook, Twitter and Google to emerge as strong social fundraising platforms. It was only recently that Facebook has allowed secure fundraising pages to be made available to collect credit card payments. There’s a big future ahead for nonprofit fundraising on Facebook. People can organize revolutions on Facebook and Twitter, so why not fundraising?
Another arena that’s exciting is the mobile medium as a platform – donating money via the phone, either with an app or a text message. There was a big flurry of experimentation during the last earthquake in Haiti, but not much since and it clearly has a future.
You can follow Michael’s blog posts at the Donordigital blog.
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.