Last Wednesday, I was pretty hard on nonprofits for not getting the basics right with respect to online fundraising, instead using scarce energy and resources to plow into the hottest new thing, like Twitter. That post generated some interesting comments, which I hope you’ll go back and read.

When I wrote that post, I had just spent a week or so browsing about and reviewing a handful of nonprofit websites that I thought might have lessons to teach. But I also had the advantage of previewing a report, now published below, describing the pitfiul findings of our Guest Agitator, Lisa Sargent, as she far more methodically set out to synthesize some email fundraising best practices by examining nearly 300 nonprofit sites … a search limited to the wealthier nonprofits, I might add.

Here’s the bad news from Lisa:

The Scary State of Nonprofit Websites and Email Marketing

The trouble started back in February.

Based on an Agitator post, Did you say half a billion?, I decided to visit the websites of 99 US nonprofit organizations and sign up for their email newsletters and e-appeals.

The goal was to see how well they were capturing email addresses, and to track the email communications that they sent to donors and prospects… thereby building a massive email “swipe file,” along with an e-news best practices checklist to use for my copywriting business.

So I began with the biggest nonprofits — those spending more than $1 million on fundraising annually. (Overall, fundraising expenses ranged from $1.1 to just over $64 million. Per year.)

Armed with more financial resources, I assumed, these bigger nonprofits would be doing more with their websites, email newsletters and online fundraising.

I was wrong.

In order to even find 99 nonprofit e-newsletters to subscribe to, I had to visit more than 200 nonprofit websites. What a struggle!

Worse yet, by the time I’d subscribed to e-newsletter #20, my list of bulleted notes about nonprofit websites and the sign-up process itself was 17 pages and growing… along with my supreme frustration at the entire sign-up process. (Especially acute thanks to incessant blaring of the social media siren song: Have online fundraisers completely forgotten the basics? I wondered.)

Barriers to online fundraising, Tom? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Nearly 300 nonprofit websites later, I’ve catalogued the sign-up process for about 100 of those, and achieved the goal of 99 nonprofit e-news subscriptions. As of this writing, my research inbox holds 1,736 emails from nonprofits.

Your readers can download the complete report via a link at the end of this post. Meanwhile, sample the bitter taste of my research findings (remember: these NPOs are BIG)…

1. No e-newsletter at all. Nearly every college and university website I visited didn’t have an e-news sign up box. (Two exceptions: Amherst College and Baylor University.)

I wonder, what happens to the poor prospective parents who visit the websites? Other common offenders: zoos, operas and foundations, who love RSS but shun e-news. Another NPO (not a college) had a wildly active forum with over 16,000 posts… but no e-newsletter. Egad!

2. E-news offered, but no sign-up box on home page. Or, sign-up box buried below the fold. If goal #1 or #2 of your website is to capture email addresses, why keep it a secret?

3. Linearitis: NPO assumes everyone enters from their home page. (Read as: zero sign-ups on lower level pages.)

4. Kitchen sink sign-ups: NPO asks for too much info on sign-up form. Several actually wanted my full date of birth.

5. Murky calls to action. On one site, the email sign-up call to action was to “Join eClub.” At another, “Become a Friend.” Huh? When I clicked, I was whisked away to 1,336 words of Security Warnings, Terms and Conditions.

6. Asking me to confirm if I’m “in your system” on the redirect page.

7. Making me click through four separate sign-up layers to subscribe.

8. Using System Administrator and Web Master as the sender address for the welcome email. (Yes, it’s true.)

9. Redirects that never say thank you at all, or recycle the same copy on the sign-up page.

10. Offering an e-newsletter, but… requiring that subscribers either log in or create a password in order to complete the sign-up process.

In closing, I return to The Agitator’s “half-a-billion” post, to ask a follow-up question: if even the most basic stuff was fixed on nonprofit websites — from simple sign-up boxes and regular, relevant emails to easy-peasy SEO-like title tags and description metas — how high do you think online fundraising would climb then?

The mind reels.

Lisa Sargent

P.S. The research never did become a best practices checklist. But it is, as of now, a two-part report. So if you’re ready, download the free report on nonprofit websites, online fundraising and email marketing: 99 Nonprofits. (And yes, it really is free: you don’t even have to leave your email address.)

This article was posted in: Communications, Copywriting / creative, Nonprofit management, Online fundraising and marketing, Research, Social media.
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