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Does Your Nonprofit Have A Robot Problem?

I wish I could remember where I first heard this saying, but it goes, “if you don’t want to be replaced by a robot, stop behaving like one.”

I thought of it the other day when I got this marketing email:

When you see or hear your name you kind of perk up, don’t you?

I was reminded of it again when I spent 10 minutes on a software support web chat before I realized I was arguing with a computer. For the record, I still think the problem was on their end, not mine!

Warning. Warning. The Robots Are Coming

In the nonprofit world, we have our own “robot” dilemma when it comes to communicating with donors. Think about the vendors that tells you your organization needs to engage donors in a conversation and personalize the user experience. Then they tell you the solution is to use their automated gizmo. Something doesn’t add up here.

The problem we all are trying to solve is, on the one hand we know we need to have a one-on-one relationship with our donors, but on the other hand it is impossible to reach out to hundreds of donors individually. So we use tools like automation and merge forms to send mass emails or direct mailings and we try to personalize them to the best of our ability.

The “robot problem” starts when we confuse efficiency with genuineness. It’s like putting in AstroTurf because it doesn’t need watering and waiting for it to grow.

The problem is going to get worse as advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) allow programs to learn donor behavior and improve the user experience. Even now, the supporters of AI tools talk about people’s shopping experience with Amazon, where algorithms learn our tastes and show us the products we are most likely to want.

Ok, time to apply our BS detector.

  • I use Amazon all the time, but I do not for one minute think we have a relationship. It’s an insult to our supporters’ intelligence to think they think we wrote them a special email just because it starts, “Dear Fred….”

  • When the robocall says, “We are calling about your expiring warranty,” that’s not a conversation; that’s fraud. If I send an email that says, “Hi ___, we got some great news and it made us think of you” but I sent that to everyone on my list, isn’t that a kind of fraud.

  • Unless you are large enough to have huge numbers of donors, a lot of these tools are just more horsepower than you need.

That is not to say that personalization has some practical value, you just need to understand what you are accomplishing.

The power of your name. We use people’s names when we want to get their attention. That’s why you want to use a name in the heading of your email. Most of the time we read our email with our brains on autopilot, but studies show that when we hear our name, our prefrontal cortex lights up and we pay attention. The goal is to get people to read the email, not to fool them into thinking we are pen pals.

We engage with stuff we care about. Your most interesting stuff belongs at the beginning of a newsletter, but people are interested in different things. You can solve that by tailoring the message to the audience. The first sentence of the version for donors can focus on the impact of their financial support. The version for volunteers can start with a story about volunteers.

Hey, why are you ghosting me? Mailchimp says the average open rate for a nonprofit mass email is just under 25 percent. That means that you craft an email and polish it like fine silver, then three quarters of your audience don’t read it. Your problem wasn’t personalization. They just aren’t that into you. Once you get over the sting of rejection, do two things.

  1. Remove the deadwood. People who never open your emails make it harder to gauge what works and what doesn’t. If the people who never open your emails are removed, you are more likely to focus on strategies that move people who are interested to action. However, if the list is predominantly made up of people who aren’t opening your emails, you tend to waste time on the faint possibility that you can grab their interest. To understand this, think about the movie Glengarry Glenn Ross, where the sales guys spend their days wishing they had the “the good leads”

  1. See if your donors are reading your emails. If someone gives you money and never reads your emails, that tells you there is a problem. I met with a lapsed donor once and asked him why he stopped giving. “You never communicated with me” was his answer. We had been sending him emails that he apparently never read and so he never knew all the wonderful stuff we were doing. It was a lesson I have never forgotten.

But Ken, How Do I Stop Acting Like A Robot?

Know why you are doing what you do. Don’t confuse things that make your life easier, like automation, with things that make your donors happy, like feeling involved in your mission.

Be interesting. Engaging donors is about shared values, not how many times you use their name in an email.

Know your donors. It’s ok to prepare an email for a thousand donors, plug in a first name and hit send. However, you need to remember that each name has a face. They each come to your nonprofit for their own reason, but they tend to leave for the same reasons, usually because they didn’t connect with your cause.


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