Five Reasons Why Nonprofit Media Should Ask Their Audience for Support via Email More Often

Jesse Littlewood
The Single Subject News Project
6 min readAug 7, 2018


Last week I hosted a webinar for the Shorenstein Center’s Single Subject News Project and clients of the News Revenue Hub to highlight a few of the key findings from the annual M+R Benchmarks Study, the most important digital metrics reporting for the nonprofit sector.

I use these yearly metrics to help craft a digital strategy for Common Cause, a collective of Americans working together to build a democracy that works for everyone. Understanding where our program falls short compared against sector benchmarks helps us modify and improve our digital growth. As a result of our data-driven strategy, we were able to increase our members and supporters from 250,000 to over one million in under three years, while raising millions of dollars online from small and individual donors.

Below, you’ll find five of the major fundraising takeaways from the 2018 M+R Benchmarks Study, which together demonstrate why nonprofit newsrooms can and should ask their audiences for support via email more often. For additional insights, the full 2018 M+R Benchmarks Study can be found here.

1. Email is still king for donations.

Email remains the most important driver of actions, including donations. While Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms can grow your audience and presence online, it can be difficult to convert these followers into donors at the same rate as with email. Most organizations are best served by a “donor pipeline” that converts social media followers into email subscribers before they make a donation.

According to the statistics:

  • Online revenue for nonprofits (across all digital channels) increased by 23 percent in 2017. Email revenue (which was up 24 percent in 2017) is a major driver of revenue. Other digital revenue channels (web, social media, and recurring monthly giving) are important, but less scalable than email.

2. Monthly giving is where it’s at.

Monthly giving continues to grow and is becoming a larger part of all online revenue (accounting for 16 percent of overall online revenue, up from 14 percent in 2016). The public media sector, the closest peer to nonprofit media, shows the largest portion of online revenue from monthly giving among all other sectors in the report — 34 percent in 2017.

Monthly giving is a stable, consistent source of funding. Some ideas on how to grow your online monthly givers include:

  • Matching gift campaigns. Ask major donors to allow their gift to be used as part of a matching gift campaign targeted toward new monthly givers. Even better: Sign up for NewsMatch and use its matching funds program to increase your regular givers.
  • Turn a strong appeal into a “monthly giving only” opportunity. Set the only option to give on your donation page to a monthly gift. (Note — a strong appeal can easily answer “what’s the impact, why me, and why now?”)
  • Use social pressure in your email or landing page. For example, “most people are giving monthly.”
  • Suggest a low, monthly donation amount: $5, $8, $10, $15, and then “bump up” monthly givers with future emails or phone calls.

3. Revenue via email is growing, but it takes sending more emails to get there (largely because open rates and click-through rates are shrinking).

Email revenue increased 24 percent last year, and accounted for 28 percent of all online nonprofit giving in 2017 (in 2016, email revenue was 26 percent of total online revenue). For every 1,000 fundraising emails a nonprofit delivered in 2016, it raised $36; in 2017, the figure grew to $42 per 1,000 fundraising emails delivered. However, response rates declined slightly to 2.2 percent. Similarly, open rates dropped a bit to 15 percent, and click-through rates also sank some to 2.5 percent.

How did online revenue increase against this backdrop of declining rates?

  • Lists grew in size and the frequency of email increased. Lists grew by an average of 11 percent and emails sent per subscriber also increased by 11 percent. The average nonprofit group sent 66 emails per subscriber over the course of 2017. On average across sectors, 25 of those emails were fundraising appeals.
  • Keeping up with the Joneses. News organizations that don’t maintain this volume of email correspondence with their audiences run the risk of being drowned out in the inboxes of subscribers who are likely on multiple nonprofit email lists.

You might be worried about turning subscribers away with too many emails. However . . .

4. Unsubscribes have fallen from the previous year, despite increasing email volume.

Unsubscribe rates actually decreased to 0.12 percent across all nonprofit sectors in 2017, down from 0.16 percent in 2016. I interpret this to mean that more people are receiving more email, opening less (and therefore unsubscribing less), but are largely behaving the same once the email is opened.

Do not fear, the average fundraising email is not really more damaging to your list in terms of unsubscribes than the average newsletter. Compare:

  • Newsletters: 17 percent open; 1.4 percent click-through; 0.14 percent unsubscribe.
  • Fundraising emails: 15 percent open; 0.42 percent click-through; 0.18 percent unsubscribe.

5. Sectors vary. Compare your site by looking at the public media sector.

  • The public media sector outperforms on email fundraising: $104 in revenue for each 1,000 emails sent (versus an overall average of $42).
  • Still, I don’t think the sector sends enough fundraising emails. It receives only 10 percent of its online revenue from email, compared to the overall average of 28 percent.
  • When public media outlets do fundraise via email, it seems to go well. The average one-time gift for public media was $120 (from email-recruited donors) versus $76 overall across nonprofits. And the average monthly gift for public media was $109 (from email-recruited donors) versus $18 overall.
  • Take a look at the chart below taken from the report: Public media sector nonprofits are sending far more newsletters, but fewer fundraising emails than most groups.
Image from the 2018 M+R Benchmarks Report.

So what does this all mean for your organization?

If your metrics are underperforming or even on par with the public media sector, your organization is likely underutilizing your email list as a source for members and donors.

By asking for support more frequently over email, you can grow your base of individual funding (especially among those ongoing monthly givers).

Currently, initiatives like NewsMatch encourage nonprofit groups to ask readers for donations that get matched by various foundations and through other avenues of major donor support.

Here are some ideas on how you can maximize your asks to NewsMatch participants:

  • Learn by doing. Run tests on email appeals to learn what works.
  • A/B test subject lines or change the “From” name. Instead of “Jesse Littlewood, Common Cause,” try variants (name only, organization only, or something other than a name like “Matching Gift Alert” to increase opens.)
  • Test timely “hooks” based on the news cycle—unfortunately, there are many opportunities these days to call on donors to protect the freedom of the press—versus more evergreen content.
  • Test a celebrity signer of your email. It doesn’t have to be a movie star; just someone known to your audience.

As you continue to craft excellent email appeals, test increasing the volume.

  • Re-ask: If an appeal was successful, send it again! You’ll be surprised at how many people will give on the second ask.
  • Recent donors are your most active supporters and most likely to give. Ask recent donors to go one step farther and make another contribution (or become a monthly giver).
  • Matching gift campaigns — beyond NewsMatch — are always helpful.
  • Be aggressive during year-end giving campaigns. This can require weekly or twice-weekly emails throughout December.
  • Highlight meaningful anniversaries or Membership Month campaigns. Both have shown to be successful.

Always be sure to say thank you.

Fundraising is the art of asking, but also the art of saying thank you in a meaningful way. Honor the importance of your audience’s contributions.

  • Make a truly personalized thank you with a phone call, a signed letter from someone inside your leadership (especially for big donors and monthly givers), or a short thank-you video that names the donor directly.
  • A small act within 48 hours of a gift will make a major impact on the success of recruiting a donor to give again, even weeks or months later.

By continuing to adapt and expand your membership marketing playbook, nonprofit news organizations can develop a stable source of funding from individuals.

Further reading:

Read the full M+R Benchmark Study at

Check out Roger Craver’s book Retention Fundraising and “The Agitator” blog at



Jesse Littlewood
The Single Subject News Project

Campaigner, digital strategist, redhead. Campaigns & Digital w/ Common Cause (; former Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School & Tufts