Last year, I made the mistake of subscribing to the email newsletters of the top 100 nonprofits in the United States for end-of-year giving.

The summary version of this story is that the average organization sent ten emails during December.  And the emails were tough to differentiate by organization.  For #Giving Tuesday almost every organization used a match. For the very end of the year, one in three emails featured a match in the subject line . (No, I didn’t read them all to discover who had it in the body text, but not the subject.  I’m not that much of a masochist.)

The conventional wisdom is that it’s best to use a volume-based, match-based strategy from Thanksgiving until the ball drops.  I’d like to challenge this on a few points.

A volume-based business model has significant costs.  “What?” I hear you cry through the computer screen.  (You really should consider turning off remote access to your microphone.)  “Email isn’t mail – there’s no marginal cost of an additional email.”

Au contraire, mon petit pamplemousse. (Now would be a good time to mention I don’t speak French.)

The excellent 2017 EveryAction Nonprofit Email Deliverability Study found that 30% of December 2016 emails went to spam, compared with about 10% for January of the same year.

This isn’t surprising. If you had to personally filter emails for spam, you’d see that an email was the third from an organization in one day and the 12th from any organization with the word “match” in the subject line and you’d drop it into the trash. Same thing with the computer spam filters.

The report went on to say:

“For #GivingTuesday specifically, the data showed modest growth in email sends and open rates, but the spam figures revealed something shocking: the rate at which fundraising emails were rerouted to junk folders nearly quadrupled.”


“Using our research and benchmark figures, we found that a nonprofit with a list of 100,000, the average spam rate of 36.68%, and sending the average of 3 emails loses an incredible $6,184.47 on #GivingTuesday as a result of spam.”

That doesn’t just hurt your email reputation for the end of the year.  It makes it so that every email you send is less likely to get where it is going.  For every 1% of your email that goes to spam, you lose $1,309.  Thus, you should guard your email reputation as jealously as you would your actual reputation.

A volume-based business model isn’t all that effective.  An organization that will remain nameless spent a whole year mailing and emailing some of their constituents less frequently.  When we looked at a year’s worth of numbers, they had sent 30% fewer emails to this test audience.  The drop in gross online revenues?  Two percent — within the margin of error.

You are paying– internally or externally– for someone to write, design, and send those emails.  And don’t get me started on the approval process.  Imagine what you could do with the extra time you could save doing 30% fewer emails.  My guess is it’s better than “increase digital revenues by two percent.”

Similarly, M+R’s benchmarking study found that volume of fundraising emails went up 24% from 2015 to 2016. And click-throughs went down 12%.  Like a treadmill, if you increase the speed, you must run faster just to stay where you are.

Matches aren’t all that effective.  I used to think they were because I tested them against non-matches.  However, when tested against lead gifts —when you announce there is a significant lead donor and don’t use that as a match— they tend to lose.  Steffen Huck and colleagues found that lead gifts work better than matches.  And you can even improve on this as Uri Gneezy and colleagues did when they tested the claim that the lead gift covers the overhead for the campaign.

You might also be emailing a match to your entire email file.  That’s a no-no.  Dean Karlan and colleagues found that matches improve performance among active donors. They have no impact or a negative impact among lapsed donors or acquisition donors.

Technique-based appeals often crowd out the “why” of giving.

To the last point, match appeals probably only work for active audiences because they don’t tell you why to make a gift – -they tell you when.

Here’s an actual December email, with only the name of the organization and the amounts taken out:

“All gifts doubled. Give now >>

“December is a big fundraising month for XXX, and right now, we’re behind. The 15th of the month is almost here, but we’ve only raised XXX—leaving us XXX behind.

“Will you help?

“2017 is going to be a big year for us, but only if we can hit our goals. The mid-month milestone is a pivotal moment for our fundraising. And if we start the second part of the month behind, it will be hard to catch up.”

If you can guess the organization who sent this, you are a better person than I.  I’ve run digital campaigns before.  The person two doors down from me didn’t care if I hit my goal.  Why do you think someone in Smyrna, Georgia is going to care if you don’t explain why?

We had the pleasure of seeing results from a seven-email, matching-gift campaign that ran recently. The differences between the emails were wild—some emails from early in the series performed five, even 10, times better than others. They explained that they’d used some of their most effective messaging from earlier in the year in those emails, whereas the others were messaging they were simply trying.

Not shockingly, message trumped technique.  There are even more reasons to tamp down your match fever here.

I know.  Believe me, I know.  You don’t want to mess with your formula as you enter The Most Important Digital Fundraising Season of the Year™.

But I would encourage you to test.  Take a cohort out of one or two emails.  Try writing one of the email tests like a human instead of an Excel spreadsheet that gained sentience when lightning struck it.  Or test a new behavioral science technique, like some of the ones we’ll be talking about later this week.

Remember, Santa leaves coal for the nonprofit direct marketers who aren’t looking to try new things.