DonorsChoose.org Sees Success With Textbook Email Practices

There’s an old saying that goes, “It’s better to give than to receive.” If online charity organization DonorsChoose.org wants people to give donations to benefit public schools, then it needs to ensure that its donors receive an optimal experience. As a result, the nonprofit relies on old-school email practices, such as series and segmentation, to generate donor loyalty.

DonorsChoose.org allows public school teachers to post requests for educational resources on the online charity’s site and then donors can shop for the causes that they care about.

Charles Best founded DonorsChoose.org in 2000 after serving as a public school teacher in the Bronx. Best would talk to his fellow teachers about the school supplies he needed or the field trips that he wanted to take his kids on that strapped resources just wouldn’t allow. At the same time, he would attend charity events in New York without ever really knowing where his money went. As a result, Best founded DonorsChoose.org with both the teacher and the donor in mind and built the brand based on a customer focus.

“We need to give the best philanthropic experience on the Web,” Katie Bisbee, CMO of DonorsChoose.org, said at the Salesforce ExactTarget Marketing Cloud Acquisition Anniversary Event in San Francisco.

Although DonorsChoose.org is a nonprofit, the organization has more of an e-commerce mind-set, Bisbee said. Just like etailers, Bisbee’s goals are simple: get customers to purchase and then come back and repurchase. But instead of buying material items, customers are paying to help those in need. “You don’t get a pair of shoes or tickets when you donate,” Bisbee said.

DonorsChoose.org launched before the big social media boom, so the company relied on press stories to generate awareness. To help grow its business, the brand turned to email. But it wasn’t until years later that DonorsChoose.org began leveraging targeted messages.

Bisbee recalled launching an annual holiday campaign about three or four years ago in which DonorsChoose.org tested two different types of emails: one that featured general holiday creative and one that showed a specific classroom in need close to where a subscriber lived. The latter email performed three times better.

“[We] saw the power of email,” she said.

For DonorsChoose.org, the customer journey starts after someone makes their first donation. The nonprofit collects customers’ email addresses when they purchase or create an online account. The organization can also acquire this information when people log in to their accounts through Facebook. 

DonorsChoose.org then sends donors a series of emails through its “feedback loop,” Bisbee said. The first is an optional thank-you email from a teacher that’s typically sent within 24 hours of purchase. The donor will also receive another thank-you note once the project is fully funded, which could take a day to several months to occur. Once the teacher receives and uses the donated materials, the donor receives an “impact letter” describing why the project that the donor funded was so important to the students’ education. This message can take up to six months after the project is funded to send. Finally, DonorsChoose.org sends pictures that the teacher uploaded of students using the donated resources shortly after.

“The photos are the most successful [for] both opens and driving donations,” Bisbee said.

As for getting people to donate again, DonorsChoose.org sends targeted messages based on donors’ ZIP Codes and subject areas that they’ve implicitly or explicitly expressed interest in, such as through previous searches or by flagging certain projects as “favorites.” Today, one in five people give again, Bisbee said. The charitable organization also engages donors via social media, which helps generate awareness through word of mouth, she added.

Last school year DonorsChoose.org distributed more than $65 million in school supplies across the country. The success of the nonprofit’s email program also led Bisbee to bring on another email marketer—increasing her email team from one person to two.

Still, the organization faces challenges. For instance, Bisbee said that DonorsChoose.org is highly seasonal. The online charity sees the most donations around the beginning of the school year in August and September, as well as in December because of the holidays and end-of-the-year tax deductions. In fact, December 31 is DonorsChoose.org’s largest donation day “by a large multiple,” Bisbee said. Furthermore, like many e-commerce companies, DonorsChoose.org is experiencing lower conversion rates on mobile.

But these challenges aren’t causing DonorsChoose.org to close the books. Bisbee said that she’d like to send more messages that congratulate donors for major milestones, such as when they make their third donation. As long as DonorsChoose.org continues to keep its customers at the center, it’ll make the grade.

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