Ep 14: Will Valverde: Benchmarking Your Way to Fundraising Success

This is a transcript of Erica Mills Barnhart’s interview with Will Valverde on the Marketing for Good podcast. You can listen to the episode here and listen to more episodes on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts. Enjoy!

KEY WORDS

nonprofits, people, data, revenue, gifts, writing, growth, audience, donor, benchmarks, channel, organization

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Will, welcome to the show.

Will Valverde 

Thanks for having me.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, thanks for being here. So before we dive into the report finding, so today, we’re going to talk about the M&R Benchmark Study and the wonderful report that you pulled together for the 2021. And I know that listeners will be anxious to get there. However, before we get there, I want to ask you, did you write the report and do the data ,share with us?

Will Valverde 

Well, benchmarks is a big group effort and it has only gotten bigger and groupier as we go year by year. But yes, I’m the lead writer of Benchmarks. I’ve been the lead writer for the last six or seven additions of it. This is our 14th benchmarks.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

It is?

Will Valverde 

Yes. So I have been leading the writing for the last several years. But the team that contributes sort of what we think is going to happen and the analysis, and definitely the data analysis is something that like, I don’t have to do on the spreadsheet stuff, I get to just talk about what we think about and what we think is important.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

So listeners, just in that response, I probably caught onto something You have a very lovely way with words which I’m deeply appreciator. It’s like groupier and groupier. Like that’s funny, right? I just I want to read a little excerpt just to give to give listeners like a flavor for for those of for those of you who haven’t read the report yet one, I totally encourage you to read it. It is one of the most engaging pieces of research every year and definitely this year. So let me just read it a bit so folks can get a sense for it. So, and this is from the intro, and early on. So ‘it comes down to this we can’t chart a new path forward unless we understand our place in the universe. That’s how we keep pushing boundaries and exploring new frontiers. That’s how we endure darkness and glimpse the dawn. That’s how we’ll keep rising. Now. Take your protein pills and put on your helmet. Here we go for launch’. And then a little bit later you say ‘some changes are easy to spot. They stand out bright and unexpected, like a supernova bursting against a placid black sky. Let’s start there’. Let’s do start there. That is just straight up great writing.

Will Valverde 

Thanks.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

I mean, it’s like who doesn’t want to, I want the new frontier. Let’s do all that stuff and then the bright supernova, you know, against the placid black sky. And so you have a writing background?

Will Valverde 

I was a creative writing major in college and I definitely come to this work primarily as a writer and have a lot of experience of writing for nonprofits. Yeah.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Okay, so you, you are a writer by nature. Okay. I always ask this to folks who are writers, by training. Do you think that people are born good writers? Or can you become a good writer, great writer?

Will Valverde 

I think that it takes a lot of work. I think sometimes I’ll see an email that I wrote for a client along you know, if I’m going back to look for a sample from even a couple of years ago, it’s like, oh, I would never do that now. I don’t think that you you stop improving, hopefully, if you’re still working at it, but I think certainly some people have some natural ability, but it takes a lot of practice to get better at it.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, I agree with that. I mean, I get that question because I write a lot and my answer is always like I write a lot, therefore it improves.

Will Valverde 

That’s it, it takes a lot of time.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah. So, this voice is very unique voice and this like excellent standard of writing is something that I always admire in M&R, you know, across all like your blogs are always like that. So as an organization, as a company, do you have a defined brand personality?

Will Valverde 

We do, we have some brand values. And when it comes to benchmarks, it is I think, the purest expression of who we want to be in the world because we want to, we are really data driven as an organization. We believe that data can really guide strategy and should and needs to so much of the work that we do is about direct response. It’s about people clicking to give or signing a petition, and all of that really needs to be data driven, which is why benchmarks is what it is, which is the most comprehensive data set that we are able to compile each year. And we also know that data isn’t enough, it has to mean something, it has to be interpreted, it has to be analyze, and that it’s not enough to actually motivate people to change their behavior. And one of the things that we know from the work that we do is that if you just tell people there are a million people who need help in place X, there’s a big, big statistical problem. Global warming will kill us all. That’s actually not enough to really get people to take action, storytelling and making it be relevant, making it be authentic, making it be something that matters on a human level is a big part of it. And there are lots of ways of getting at that, there are lots of ways of sort of making that human connection. But one of the ways that we do it is through creative and so that is what we try to really live. Benchmarks is, I do a lot of writing every day for clients and I’ve written gotten to write for all sorts of different nonprofits, all sorts of different voices, all sorts of different signers. I really love it. I like to adopt somebody’s voice. This is my chance to sound like the way that I want to sound and the way that I want M&R to sound and so this is a chance for us to be our own client, which is a really rare thing for a consultant to get to do. So yes, I think we we really give it our all and when it comes to benchmarks, we also want to make it be fresh and different every year. So the segment that you read, I think, if you have not seen the benchmark study this year, it is space themed. So everything that we do from the from the visuals to the graphics, and the language we use is about space exploration and supernovas, and all of that sort of stuff. That’s stuff that I’m personally nerdy about. And so I really embraced it. But last year, it was something else. And the year before something else, we had one year, that was music themed. And so there were a lot of music quotes and lyrics kind of quoted throughout as we, as we told our story we have, we did a version that was in 3D. And so everything was about the visuals were in three dimensions that came with a set of 3D glasses a few years ago, and the copy reflected that by talking about death by talking about dimensionality by talking about looking beyond the surface. So in a metaphorical sense, we address it. And then also, there was a more subtle sort of literal sense. There were triplets of D words spread throughout the copy, and so on like, that, I think makes it more interesting for us to produce it, I hope that it makes more interesting for people to read it. But I think what it also does is it gives us a structure. And so, you know, if you’re, if you’re sitting down to write a blank verse poem that can feel really intimidating because you can do anything. If you’re sitting down to write a sonnet, at least, you know, here’s here’s the rhythm, here’s the structure, and you can work within it. I’ve always found that to be a lot easier.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, the triple D’s. I’m like, oh, that’s amazing.

Will Valverde 

I hope that anybody noticed that I was doing that. But it was, it gave me something to do with a copy and it sort of drove the process forward a little bit. It probably was not noticeable. I don’t know that anybody ever mentioned it, but-

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah. So, I think that’s not inconsequential. In terms of like keeping your attention and interest as somebody who you know, writes and by the way, I’m not only talking if you’re listening, and you’re like, well, but I don’t produce the blah blah, blah, yeah, you’re writing emails every day, probably. Right. You’re like we are all in communication in that way. And I mean, I do a lot of work with leaders around kind of finding their voice and and how that you know, personal brand and how that melds into organizational brand and all of those things. And it’s it like every time once I’m like, just find your like, let’s work to find your voice. Because you will show up differently and more authentically. And you’ll be more interested in, in how you’re communicating how you’re writing, you’ll be able to stay interested in a different way. But if you are someone who’s just producing the content, it gets boring. I mean, I’ve had that I’ve had that job. And it’s kind of relentless. I mean, it can be super fun. So I think you can build in things like that, like, go for it, right.

Will Valverde 

And I think the audience feels that when you get bored. I mean, a lot of what we do is not everything gets a bit as big, fancy, elaborate production. A lot of what we do is routine it is here’s a welcome message from it, here’s another membership drive, here’s another December 31 last chance to give kind of deadline message. But if you treat it like oh, here’s another one then yeah it will feel that way, if you’re writing it, then it’s going to come across and it won’t be as effective. So effective trade I think a lot of it does rely on if you don’t care it’s really hard to make the audience care and so it helps to put a little bit of your heart into it and it helps to do that even if nobody notices even if nobody notices the buried in joke that is six paragraphs and nobody will ever read it that’s fine if nobody realizes that the 3D version of benchmarks had triplets of D words spread throughout like that is okay it made me more excited and more engaged with the work while I was doing it and hopefully that translates to the reader experience.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

I’m hundred percent going back and finding all those D’s just let you know right here right now.

Will Valverde 

They are all available for download as is this year study at MRbenchmarks.com, that’s MRbenchmarks.com, go check it out.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Okay. Let’s turn our attention to the report itself, this years. I know listeners are anxious to hear about the findings. So wait, so we’re recording this well sheltered in place. I can’t wait for the day where I don’t have to do that like thing, caveat, but here we are. So I know folks are anxious to hear about you know, so what does it mean in terms of COVID? and post COVID? You know, because right now we are in this moment of like a little bit looking forward, really super weird, a lot of uncertainty I want to get there. However, if you’re open to it, actually, what I’d like to do is walk through the the key findings first, and then sort of look at them in the context in which they were rolled out. I know that you were writing these as COVID was sort of unfolding. But the data itself was gathered prior, correct?

Will Valverde 

Right.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah. So let’s look at the findings. And then we’ll turn, we’ll sort of have some time to talk about what they might mean for our new world order. First, share with us who took the survey? And based on who took the survey, how generalizable is it to the entire sector and those sorts of things?

Will Valverde 

So the benchmarks data comes from a pool of nonprofit participants, anybody is welcome to sign up and join and we encourage all nonprofits to participate because we I think it is helpful for the nonprofit. Actually, if you have to be confronted with your own data, I think it helps you to actually have a better sense of it. But also for us to produce this report and have it be reliable and useful, we really need a big data set, the bigger the better. And so this year, we had 201 nonprofit participants, that’s by far the biggest pool, we think our previous record was 150 some. So it’s really great because it means that we have more data to share and we are less likely to be skewed by somebody’s individual strategic choices or like sort of one group swaying it. So we have an over, as we report on our data in a couple of ways, we report the overall average. So if we’re talking about what’s an average open rate for a fundraising email message, that’s looking at every one of the 201 participants who submitted data, then we break things down by sector. So we have I think, nine of them this year. I think one of them is others. But if you are an environmental nonprofit, you can look at that cohort of environmental groups. And if you’re a Public Media Group, you can look at those. We also break down by group size. So we have small, medium, and large groups, and that is, it’s about how your revenue. So a small group is a nonprofit with annual online revenue under $500,000, medium is from $500,000 to $3 million. If you’re raising more than $3 million online, we call you a large group. And that should help. And so we encourage people when you’re looking at it, look at the overall number that matters. But oftentimes, you’ll see that your sector is really different. So it may be that in general, the numbers are moving in a certain direction. But when you look deeper, you say, oh, but for international nonprofits where I am, it’s a really different experience, because our fundraising results are so dependent on is there a humanitarian crisis somewhere in the world, that’s what drives giving. It’s not about the electoral cycle, which may be more relevant other types of groups. So there is so it should be relevant to everybody, I think. We try to make it be that but it’s especially if you look at some of those those breakdowns by sector inside you can really find your peer groups in that way.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, I find that so helpful. I know having done research for this project called, being called the wordifier.com. Sorry, I’d like to share with you and for listeners for what it’s worth, if you hear squeals of laughter in the background, my daughter who’s almost 16 is a dancer and her she, has not been able to see her dance mentors in however many months and they just came to the door. And they are so, they are distanced, they are physically distanced, but they have brought her her end of year present, which they do every year. She’s in a pre-professional program so that’s what you’re hearing in the background is a whole gob of joy.

Will Valverde 

I have not heard it, but also if you hear smaller children screaming, that’s my kids. They’re five and seven. They don’t need a reason actually, or any particular joy to be loud.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Okay, close the door. And that was my 12 year old. Okay, we’ll see if Jimmy wants to edit that out or not. But I just I feel like we’re low on joy moments these days. And so when it happens, I just I had to share plus, I didn’t know you could hear it or not. Okay, I did some research a couple years ago to figure out which specific words were being used and really what I was looking for was overused by nonprofits building on research about brain novelty. And because when something, our brains love novelty when they, you know, if something is no longer novel, then it sort of we don’t pay attention. So that ended up, we ended up pulling every single word off of 2503 nonprofit websites that gave us a database of 11 million plus. And with that, we produced a tool the wordifier.com, and so you can go and put in a word. Getting and we broke you and it’s broken down by sub sector. And so I want to note and appreciate that extra step that M&R takes it is not inconsequential. It takes some coding, I blessedly did not have to do that. Nobody wants me touching spreadsheets. And it’s such a gift in terms of how actionable the data is because, we you know, anytime it is aggregated, it really does lose that texture. So just for listeners, that’s like one yay, gives you much more information and in in the report itself, you can play with a lot of the charts and so that’s super fun as well. All right, the findings. So online giving has had a bit of a wild ride the past few years. You want to talk to us about that?

Will Valverde 

Yeah, sure. So like I said, this is our 14th benchmark study. And this is a seven-ish one that that I’ve been the lead writer on. And over that time, we’ve gotten really used to seeing and reporting certain things. And so one of the baseline most fundamental truths that used to be true was year over year, you could expect low double digit growth in online revenue. So we report like 12% growth year over year, one year 14%, the other year and 11%. But in the sort of narrow range, it just felt like well, this is sort of the long term trajectory. We’re getting bigger, part of that is the economy growing part of it is you know, online being a bigger part of the pie relative to some of the other channels over time, but it felt like that’s, that’s where we’re going to be and that’s the path upward, these programs continue to grow. And then in 2016, there was an election, which you may recall. And I believe, and a really big reaction to that. And so what we saw was that when this really extreme volatility began, so in 2017, we suddenly saw this really dramatic growth. So this like huge spike in revenue, and it was led by environmental groups, by LGBT rights groups, by reproductive choice groups, by groups that were the resistance essentially, groups were either their their causes felt like they were at risk, or they were particular organizations were targeted. There was this outpouring of like, we need to save them, we need to fight for these causes we care about. But it wasn’t only those groups, sort of generally we saw this really broad based spike in giving as people just started throwing money at the causes they cared about in 2017. And then in 2018, we saw essentially flat growth. So that just all came to a screeching halt. And it was, it was a sort of very worrying thing. We were so used to reporting double digit growth. And then it was it was 1% growth of what we reported last year from 2018. And it became, well, is our model broken, are people just not going to give any more? Can we, is growth finished is this sort of how we plateaued? And then a lot of sort of different explanations sort of floated for it. It was there was a new tax law that made it less, made people sort of less inclined to to itemize their deductions, which might have an impact on giving, the stock market in 2018, sort of like, right around the middle of the month in December, right when the really big end of year fundraising, which is the most important couple of weeks for almost every nonprofit online, the stock market just tanked. And that really, really hurt end of your giving. And then the broader context for us, as we looked at it last year was that that all feels true, and it’s probably not one explanation. But what it really looked like was maybe what happened was we had essentially two years worth of growth in 2017. And we just couldn’t keep building in that momentum, all the 2018 growth happened, it just happened a year early and we sort of caught up to that. And so we went out on a limb, which we almost never do, benchmarks is very much it is our place to see the things that we know and things that have happened. It is not a place where we like to make speculations and predictions of what will happen. But we went out and we said, if this is all true, if our interpretation of this data is correct, then what we expect to happen next year is 2019, will report a return to that long term path of low double digit growth. And that’s what we saw, we saw a 10% increase year over year from 2018 to 2019, kind of back on track. So if you blur the numbers, if you look at a five or 10 year curve, it looks pretty smooth. It’s only if you look year by year that it looks really spiky. But if you smooth that out, it feels like we’re back on track, which is, gives me hope, as we were coming, as we were writing this and this was in February, we were writing this data is really when the COVID situation started to turn dire. And so the data we have is 2019 data is January through December and looking back before that, so it all predates the current crisis that we’re in, which I think offers sort of a really interesting snapshot of like, what it was like before. And so that prediction, but what it felt, at first, it was like, oh, great, we’re right back on track. When we first saw that data is like, well, we can just say we’re back to normal now. That’s very nice. And, you know, barring another election. And clearly, that’s not the case, I think we’re going to see a lot of volatility in really unpredictable ways we’re already seeing it. There are going to be some nonprofits that come that are right now, in this moment, seeing a big surge in generosity, because especially those that are on the frontlines of dealing with the COVID crisis and sort of the impact it’s having on communities, those groups are probably going to see maybe a really amazing amount of growth that also can’t be replicated. Other groups are really suffering. And I think in particular, about groups that rely on in person events, especially those that rely on ticket sales. So if you’re a museum right now, you’re in trouble. You know, you’re really or if a big part of your budget is an annual gala that you can’t hold anymore, you’ve got a lot to figure out. And so that way, that’s all going to shake out, I think there’s going to be a really tough time this year, it still gives me I think, some sense of perspective and a little bit of hope to think, yes, this year was going to be wild for a lot of groups. And it’s going to be really difficult for a lot of nonprofits. But I still expect that over time, we will return to that long term growth trajectory because it is because nonprofits are building their programs bigger, they are doing a better job, the donors do want to be giving online and people are not going to stop caring about the causes that they care about and stop supporting them. So it’s going to be a really difficult time or in some cases, maybe a really thriving time, at least in terms of revenue as challenging as everything is. But I do think that that that long term growth is still going to be there. It’s just I can’t I can’t wait to get all this data, my hands on all this data from this year next year and do it again and what it’s going to be it’s going to be really complicated.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

I wonder, so I teach at University of Washington and one of the ways to indicate this not unique to UW but it’s happening all over the places to have an asterix on students transcripts as a reminder because you know it like right now it’s all we can think about in five years but somebody is looking at the transcript they may actually forget and you know, there could be volatility, so I feel like the asterix is gonna make a big, it’s gonna have a moment. I’m curious if it’s gonna have a moment for the benchmarks.

Will Valverde 

I mean, we try to, we try to it’s one of the things that, you know, the continuity from having done this for so many years, I think really helps because we have that context. So when something is is different and weird, we can be like, oh, that’s actually stands out from the historical trends. We’re not comparing every year we have a different pool of participants. So we never like line up like, what did you say last year? What did we say this year? Because it’s not really comparable data wise, but the experience and sort of what matters, that’s what we try to get through and refine it, we try to sort of identify like, why is it that this is the way it is so that we have that context.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, yeah. Okay. So I went through the report. And there’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 different sort of areas that you talked about. Facebook, web traffic and devices, text messaging, social media, digital ads. I want to walk through them. I want to say the one thing that jumped out most for me from each of those and see if you would have a counter to what you think folks should be paying attention to. All right, so for Facebook, in 2019, giving on Facebook accounted for more than 3.5% of all online nonprofit revenue for the health sector, Facebook generated in nearly 10 cents of every dollar raised online. Oh, striking.

Will Valverde 

Yeah, I agree. No, it’s a big deal. I think this is, last year was our first time reporting on Facebook fundraisers and we call it Facebook revenue the best it’s like 97% of Facebook revenue is actually fundraiser so that’s a peer to peer tool. So many people say my birthday, please support this cause I care about and yeah, it’s really 3.5% feels like well, that’s not gonna make or break your budget, 10% might, and, and 3.5% if you think about who those audiences are, and what that revenue is, in a lot of cases, those are not really supporters of your organization or your cause, necessarily. They are people whose friend is having a birthday. And so whatever it whatever they put up there, I’m going to support it. In a lot of cases, they are somebody who maybe is a monthly donor to your organization who might give otherwise, but they’re going to make an additional gift over and above their previous giving level, because they’re like, well, I’m already a monthly donor to whatever organization, but my friends having a birthday and like, well, sure, I’ll throw another gift of $30 on top of that. And so it is, in a sense, it’s sort of extra revenue. I think it is it is revenue that would otherwise be really hard to acquire through normal channels. And so I think that’s where a lot of the potential is. And when you look at health groups, yeah, if it’s if it’s 10%, their entire online revenues is Facebook fundraisers. That’s pretty huge.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Why do you think that is?

Will Valverde 

Why is it bigger for health groups?

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, yeah.

Will Valverde 

So I think a couple of things. I think part of it is that Facebook fundraisers work best when they are personal. And so when somebody is saying it’s my birthday, or it is it is Giving Tuesday, and I’m gonna, I want I want to do a Facebook fundraiser, who should I do it for? A lot of people have a deeply personal connection to healthcare nonprofits. So you might be a survivor, you might be doing it in honor of a parent who passed away from cancer, whatever it might be, that personal connection is gonna make it be sort of the first place that you look. That’s part of it, another part of it is also these health nonprofits have a long history of peer to peer fundraising. So walk-a-thons have been a thing for health nonprofits forever, they have this sort of baked in peer to peer model, which means that there may be more effective than promoting it. I mean, it’s maybe a more natural sort of choice for somebody setting up a fundraiser. So that history I think really helps them as well. So I think it’s more than one thing, but I think it’s an interplay of like, what feels personal and authentic for the donor. And then also what is sort of a natural advantage that sector has in terms of their different fundraising models.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, yeah, that makes total sense to me. I actually ran my first marathon with the Leukemia Lymphoma Society with team and training. That was because my mom had at the time, she’s fine now, by the way, but my mom had cancer. She had stage four Lymphoma, so non Hodgkins Lymphoma, so yeah. Okay, so that’s Facebook, web traffic and devices. Half of all nonprofit website visits come from users on mobile devices. Holy guacamole.

Will Valverde 

We’ve hit that tipping point.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, right, 50%. So what says you about that? What does that mean?

Will Valverde 

I mean, this is, we were waiting for it. We were like this is the trend the direction been in this is not for nonprofits only. This is sort of where IA is going and how technology usage is changing. This is one of my favorite charts out of all the charts we have in the study, it is. Half of all traffic is now coming from users on mobile devices, as opposed to their laptop. That’s like 40%, I think is now desktop devices,  41%. There’s a little bit of tablet. But the tablet is not interesting, we’ll set that aside, half of all traffic’s coming from mobile users, but a third of transactions so actual donations are coming from mobile users and a quarter of the revenue is coming from mobile users. That’s why I said the data sounds made up because it’s so clean, it’s half a third and a quarter. And so what that means is somebody who visit your site on a desktop device is more likely to give than somebody who visits using a mobile device. And when they make a gift, they’re going to give a higher average gift if they’re on a desktop device. And so what we see is that the traffic share and the end of transactions or in the revenue share is all mobile is gaining on all of that there, it’s getting closer to parody in terms of conversion rates and average gift size. But it is still the case that a mobile user isn’t worth as much on average, but a bigger share of our audience is composed of those mobile users. And so this is there’s a lot to figure out there and a lot that we need to be doing as nonprofits trying to make the most of each visit, trying to try to increase our revenue to adapt to that reality, because we’re not going to go back people are not going to put down their cell phones.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

No they’re not. That has huge ramifications in terms of nonprofits thinking about their websites and making them mobile friendly.

Will Valverde 

I think we’ve gotten the message. I think most nonprofits have now done at least the basic thing of saying our website needs to load quickly it needs to look okay, you can’t just have everything sort of breaking if you’re on a phone, and we have mobile versions of our sites for the most part, and particularly for larger nonprofits. But yeah-

Erica Mills Barnhart 

I was gonna say I don’t know that, I wish I felt that to be true for the smaller ones but I think they’re still struggling and the bums me out because it feels like yet another way where if you’re a smaller nonprofit, you’re you’re gonna fall further and further behind.

Will Valverde 

It’s hard. There are tools out there, but yes, it’s, we’re seeing a lot more doing that. But now what what we’re seeing the large nonprofit, if you’ve got that figured out, if you’ve got the sort of mobile optimization side figured out, then there are still, I think, two big questions that are being sorted out. And we’re responding some changes happening. So one is about content. What usually happens with sort of the mobile version of a site s that the same content that is just sort of rearranged and restructured so that it loads properly on a phone. Maybe that’s the best way. But it may actually be that we need to be reassessing the actual content that we are displaying on our websites, even in our email, so that there’s actually a version that is making the case in a different way, rather than just saying, let’s make sure the columns shrink, so they fit on a smaller screen. So there’s a content question. And then there’s a whole tech question of, are you using PayPal? Do you have Apple Pay set up? These kinds of things are as they get adopted make it easier to actually complete that gift on mobile, even if the asked is just as powerful, but you don’t want to be typing in a little form with with your thumbs on the bus. Having those having access to those other platforms can really sort of make that process easier. So I think we’re, that’s that’s sort of the next, the current phase and for some groups the next phase.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, that the difference between the acquisition channel and the transaction channel being clear about those and optimizing for both very important. Okay, text messaging. This is what stood out to me that nonprofit text messaging audiences grew by 26% in 2019, at a time when Facebook audiences grew by just 4% and email list sizes declined by 2%.

Will Valverde 

Yeah, so this is, but I think the scale really matters here. So the growth is definitely there for text messaging. Email, the size is declining by 2% sounds like a bad thing. But I think it’s actually in many cases, reflection of nonprofits taking list hygiene more serious. So it’s not that they’re not acquiring names. It’s doing a better job of actually eliminating the parts of their lists that are not performing somebody who hasn’t, who has a hotmail address that hasn’t opened an email in seven years. It’s like it’s better for your, yeah, all of those ones, some of them are active and that’s great and no shame if you’re somebody who has hung on to your AOL address the whole time monitor listening. But what what you see is that it is it’s better for your, for your your sender reputation. So you’re going to land in the spam box a lot less often, if you are having good list hygiene, it also makes your testing much more effective. Because if you are testing two different subject lines or two different approaches, whatever AV testing you’re running, if you have this massive dead weight that is not responsive to either one, it makes differences really hard to see, because everything gets drowned out by the non responsiveness. So in so that this declining, we saw that the same time as response rates slightly rose and I think what we’re doing is we’re actually doing a better job of cleaning up our list and sending relevant messages. So that’s a whole digression about the size. The growth in nonprofit text sizes at 26% is great, the average nonprofit had 72 mobile subscribers for every thousand email addresses they have. So The scale those is really fascinating. While it’s really it’s gonna be a partnership to supporters, it’s really small and we don’t really know how the performance is going to change as it grows.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

It’d be helpful if I unmuted myself. It feels like the type of relationship that nonprofits have with their text. Are you seeing or does the data say anything about differences in like, you  know, whatever the equivalent is to open or responsiveness to text versus email, text to me is so much more personal and intimate.

Will Valverde 

So it’s, it’s a little bit hard, the number that I care about most is response rate. So that’s like the percentage of people who receive a message in whatever shell and actually do the thing we want them to do, right signing a pledge or yelling at Congress or giving a donation. And because of the way these platforms are connected or not connected, we don’t have response rate data for text messaging, we have what we have is click through rate data. So that is how many will receive a message and then click through to the landing page or maybe they’re going to compute that gift, maybe they won’t. And so the click through data is, I think, really promising from the text perspective, it is an order of magnitude higher for fundraising. So the fundraising message at the email you’re going to get like, I’m sorry, I have that wrong. That’s for that’s for advocacy. But it’s about 10 times higher for fundraising about five times higher for advocacy. To see, well, the click through rate you’re getting for text messaging relative to email so much, much higher. The audience is much smaller, so you’re not seeing it that’s not driving all the revenue but that’s really promising. I am skeptical that that’s going to hold up over time. Just because right now people it’s not unusual to be on 15 or 20 or 30 different nonprofit email lists. And it’s pretty unusual to be on that many text messaging with the volume that we’re seeing is much, much higher. It is with more novel to be getting a text message, it is more personal. So I think there’s promise there. Email is also supposed to be personal. It used to be it should be I think we’re doing well we back in the day was still personal to the reader, and we should be making it as long as we can is it seems like-

Erica Mills Barnhart 

I lost you there for a minute. I don’t know if it’s me or what but am I back?

Will Valverde 

Yep.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

All right. Okay, well to be continued on what happens with text messaging, and it is novel. So that makes sense to me. That’s also one that I think listeners should look at by sub sector because they’re pretty keen differences there.

Will Valverde

And, you know, it may also be that has different uses. So I think one of the things that we’re also seeing with texting is there’s also peer to peer texting, which is so things like hustle and get through these channels where organizers can use them to start these one on one conversations. Which is something that is not really done it at any sort of scale. It’s certainly not through email and social media sometimes you can do this with a chat windows and that sort of support. But I think that has a lot of possibility and a lot of potential there so we’re seeing, we’ve already seen it a bunch, I expect to see a lot of it this election cycle as candidates and campaigns and nonprofits use that peer to peer model to, especially as we’re still separated from each other to say you’re a volunteer, you can’t go knock doors, but you can do a you can do a canvassing shift on your phone. And you can be texting people to make sure they go register, get out to vote, and do all those sorts of things. So I think that potential for that peer to peer text messaging, I think, is really high and I’m pretty excited about that.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Interesting. Okay, social media. Here’s what jumped out at me, Instagram was the fastest growing of the three social media platforms for nonprofits with a 42% increase in the number of followers. So that’s a pretty big increase.

Will Valverde 

Yeah, I think this is the the trend we’ve seen over the last several years, which is social media is growing, all the channels are typically growing, the younger channels grow faster. And so Facebook is now growing at 4% a year it’s more mature, both in terms of its user base, but also in terms of sort of nonprofit participation in that space, most nonprofits have had now a Facebook page for a decade or more. Twitter has now been a thing for nonprofits for for a great many years. So while those audiences are growing, there’s just they’re closer to their ceiling. If there’s not be a ceiling, in general, it’s always new users, but they’re closer sort of maxing out sort of who is the potential audience. For a channel like Instagram, it’s still relatively new, a lot of nonprofits have only had their Instagram live for a year or two or less. And so we’re gonna see faster growth there as those audiences mature and then that’s gonna be quickly followed by like, are you on Tiktok, and with that, is that going to be the next thing so we right now just report on those three Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, but we changed our data set every year and if it looks like TikTok is becoming an important one or one of the other new ones, we’ll include those ones as well.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, okay. And this is my, I have to say, because I was worried that folks will hear that and you know, if you’d like then, we have to be on Instagram. Not necessarily. This is where you have to look at who your audiences and whether or not they’re on Instagram. So don’t hear that is like we have to be there, we have to be on all the channels. Most nonprofits don’t have the bandwidth to be on all the channels and or at least not do it well. So just don’t rush out and start your Instagram account just yet. Digital ads, nonprofit investment in digital ads increased by 17% in 2019.

Will Valverde 

Yeah, it continues to grow. It’s an important piece of the puzzle I think for a lot of nonprofits. For both lead acquisition, you’re gonna get getting new names and their email address on their email list or on their text messaging list, as well as just direct donor acquisition and retargeting, getting people to make a second gift becomes the standard, all the different things that we’re trying to do. It is it’s a crowded space, being able to pay for placement can really really boost your efforts.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

And just to be clear, digital ads much more for acquisition and really not a place for retention and donor stewardship based on what you’re seeing with the data?

Will Valverde 

Well, I think it depends on what we mean by retention and donor stewardship. So like, Yes, it is, I mean, it can be useful for that. And what we really see is really different breakdowns in the uses of advertising based on nonprofit size. So this is one where I feel like the sector breakdowns are actually a little bit less useful than the size breakdowns because we see big nonprofits with significant online revenue behaving really differently than small nonprofits that don’t have these big budgets. It’s a place where so for example, that  change in investment for large nonprofits investment in digital ads grew by about a third is like 30 some % growth, small nonprofits actually, on average, pulled back by about 20 some % in the amount that they were spending. And all these are individual decisions that are going to be sort of have their individual reasons. Some of them are budgetary changes, some of them are we tried it for a year and it kind of didn’t, we couldn’t make it work. So we’re gonna we’re gonna put that money somewhere else. All sorts of different reasons. But those really divergent trend lines I think are important and worth and worth looking at. It’s also when we look at sort of what nonprofits are spending sort of where they’re directing it, it really depends. And so for a large nonprofit, they’re spending 44% of their budget on direct fundraising. So that is some of that’s acquisitions. A lot of that is retargeting so, and retargeting is whether somebody landed on your donation page, but didn’t complete the gift so you kind of follow them around the internet until they complete the gift. That’s one method. But retargeting might also mean, we have an audience that our email list that we have, we know have taken action on this issue. We are going to upload that as our audience and target them on social media at some particular audience. It’s also that so it’s retargeting based on some behavior. And so I think in that sense, it can’t be retention. It can be about donor stewardship.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Okay, that is fair, creepy, all that stuff gets super creepy in my mind.

Will Valverde 

It does, oh, yeah, there’s a lot of, you have to do it with a pure heart and then it’s okay. But for small nonprofits, only 20% of their budget is about direct fundraising. They’re spending almost half of the revenue of their of their budgets on digital ads on branding and awareness and education. So just name recognition or talking about the issue, it’s a really different mix of goals for a small nonprofit compared to a big nonprofit.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah. Okay, that all that all rings true for sure. Okay, so now we’ve made it through the sort of key findings, again, go read the report, one, two, just get a dose of like, fabulous writing, total joy bomb in that department. And then also just the data so good, and so interesting and there’s a lot more where that came from. What does it all mean? Like as nonprofits hear all this and are looking to a post COVID world not only what does it mean for nonprofits, what does it mean for donors and for folks who are thinking about supporting the sector?

Will Valverde

It’s complicated. It’s complicated. Yeah. So I think that there are, as we were putting this together, so the timeline here was we gathered all this all this data in January for the previous year, and then in February we have all the data together, we start writing our analysis. And like, we were like kind of halfway through that process, when it became really clear that this pandemic was going to be really different than other crises that coming forward, there’s not going to be something that lasted a week or two, and then we all moved on, it was going to be with us for a while. And so it did become this moment of like, well, what can we even say about this, that is still gonna mean anything six months from now. And now we are a few months later and I think that some of the things that have felt important in the past still feel true now, I think they can still guide us. So and some of the things we’ve already been talking about. So talking about this, the increase in investment in digital ads, that’s not something that has to be affected by by COVID. In fact, in some ways, it is it has created new opportunities for some nonprofits, because as corporations have pulled back on their advertising spending, which we have seen, then that creates that that actually lowers costs for nonprofits. And so there’s actually a little more room there’s more inventory. And so that has actually been sort of a weird, unexpected effect of all these things, but the fact that we need to reach our donors, like hasn’t changed. And regardless of what your causes, it hasn’t stopped mattering. Even if you are a cultural institution, your Symphony and you are not actually allowed to perform right now. The the nature of who you are, and the value produced in the world hasn’t actually changed and we still need to communicate that. And so I think one of the things that I want people to do is still do what they were doing, but still do your job, still talk about your cause whatever it is, and talk about why it matters. This is a time I think a lot of transparency is really necessary. So if you’re a cause that has seen revenues declined by 50%, because you had to cancel one of your major fundraising events. Be honest about that with your supporters talk about what it’s going to impact and how it’s going to change the way you fulfill your mission moving forward. I think this is a time for honesty and transparency. It’s not a time to pull back. I think a lot of times, especially right away, there’s this instinct of being like, well, this crisis isn’t about us so we need to wait our turn. And I don’t think that that serves nonprofits really well. And I don’t think that it actually serves donors particularly well, either. I think, certainly we don’t want to say there was an earthquake yesterday, now let’s talk about our good news, like, that’s not quite the thing. You know, there’s, I mean right now, what’s happening in Minneapolis is is painful for a lot of people. And so, acting like that’s not happening or like it’s about you when it’s not, I think isn’t appropriate and wrong, and also just not going to work. But that doesn’t mean that because there’s a pandemic that you’re caused has stop mattering, or that your donors don’t want to hear from you, you may need to change what you are saying. And I think you should always acknowledge the reality of what people are going through because because I just think it’s the right thing to do. But also because your donors are humans, they are feeling things. You’re also a human. I’m assuming that most of your listeners are human beings and so we can talk about your own lived human experience and be authentic about it and when you do that, it will make a difference. It you may not see the same response to in fundraising, you know, right now, that you might normally see because if you’re not a cause that is sort of directly addressing the current crisis, but it does mean but you but you will still be in people’s hearts in their minds and they will come back to you, they will stay with you. And you’ll be surprised that they get how many of them are willing to support you, if you can make them know that they matter and that your cause still matters.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, thank you. I appreciate the point about we’re all humans and and that’s more important than ever, really. It concerns me, I totally get it and it concerns me it feels like a lot of nonprofits are waiting for permission to advocate for their mission. And, you know, if you go dark, folks are going to think you’ve gone dark. It gives a really, possibly not accurate picture of what’s happening for you. So I definitely, you know, hear from a lot of organizations that are like, feels weird, and I feel weird and like because it’s weird, it’s all weird. And so that’s, you know, start from that place of empathy and acknowledge what’s happened in the world and, and you still, if your work was important before, it’s important now and it’s going to be important into the future.

Will Valverde 

And I think it’s also one of the things that’s hardest is there’s, it feels like there’s no space for joy, or there’s no space for positive feelings in a moment like this. And that is maybe appropriate when there’s an immediate tragedy. So when there is a tsunami, talking about the joy you bring to the world, I think it’s inappropriate and bad in all sorts of ways. But the covid pandemic is a moment that is extending in all of our lives and touching all of us for months and months and months in, in all these different ways. And so, if you are a group where what you do is you if you’re an arts organization, and and what you do is expression sayings now’s not the time for us to express ourselves, I think is not right, and you can’t, we can’t wait forever. You actually you have you are performing a valuable service by bringing that human expression into the world and by fighting for the causes that you fight for whatever it is, people need that too. They need to feel like they can do something that makes a difference. I think that’s, you know, early on in the when this pandemic happened and things were starting to shut down, it wasn’t really clear what you were allowed to go do, I went and I donated blood, because I just like was scheduled to do that and almost nothing over the last several months has made me feel better than that. Even though that is like unhelpful in any sort of scale. It was like, oh, I can do one thing. And I think that you anytime you can get somebody to make a donation to your cause, and they feel like they’re making a difference about something in the world. It’s empowering. It feels like you’re in control, like you’re doing something good and like you’re making a choice.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

And it releases happy chemicals in their brains.

Will Valverde 

That’s a thing, yeah, there’s a biological response. And there’s sort of it can feel good. And so I think that’s, you know, I don’t think we’ve seen a decline in people setting up Facebook, fundraisers, the balance of which organizations are being the beneficiary, those might have changed, but, you know, on my feed, anybody who’s having a birthday is still like, well, now I’m raising money for this thing, and it feels good to give to it. I think people should keep doing it.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, yeah. So it’s funny you mentioned joy and some other things and inspiration and arts organizations. At the end I asked every guest this, at the end of the interview so I learned somewhat recently that if you look at where the word inspiration came from it actually means to breathe in, and then motivation of course means to take action so you breathe out so you need both in balance. And so my question for you is right now what inspires you and what motivates you to keep doing this work?

Will Valverde 

Oh, man, that’s like heavy.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

It’s only heavy if you make it heavy, Will.

Will Valverde 

Yeah. I am inspired, I mean, always, but this is like so pandering, but like by my clients, honestly, I feel so lucky. I am a consultant which means that I get to work for every cause that I care about at some time or another. I am not limited to just the one cause that I’ve been putting in day in day out with and and I have not seen for the wide variety of causes we work with, anybody who is not still showing up. And I think people are reaching out to each other they are, they’re doing the work, they are having a really hard time in many cases, and they’re still doing it. And so it feels to me as a privileged person, I in in so many ways, including the fact that I was already working from home, I’ve been a remote worker for eight years. So I didn’t have to set up a home office and scramble to figure out zoom like even just like that, like if I if all these people who are having such a hard time are still showing up and doing the work. It’s it feels easy to do it no matter how hard it is. And so I think that’s that’s my motivation, or inspiration. So clients if you’re listening, you’re my inspiration that is like the most pandering thing I could possibly say but like, there it is. That’s the truth.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

What motivates you?

Will Valverde 

Oh, I don’t know. Wait, what’s the difference?

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Inspiration is breath in. It gives you energy and the motivation is kind of like what what’s the impetus to like keep going.

Will Valverde 

Sheer terror, I think, and despair, I think is my main motivator. Like-

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Okay, we’re going there at the end of the day.

Will Valverde 

Yeah, by, on the flip side everybody’s showing up and doing the work is that the work needs to be done and and you know, looking around the world already, you know, in general and pick your your crisis that has been building for decades and centuries or sort of the current political climate. Or then you know, obviously now we have pandemic and then like right now I don’t know when this is going to get posted, but like, right now there’s like, unrest in Minneapolis because of the police violence and like, those things aren’t going away and they’re not going to go away on their own and nothing has ever gotten better by people either ignoring it or or just only hoping without doing and so I don’t know, I guess it’s yeah, it’s like constant existential dread and despair is what motivates me. So there you go. I’m inspired in a pandering way and I’m also filled with despair and horror.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

It’s a good thing you have those clients of yours, Will. Because otherwise I feel like it’d be a lot of existential negativity.

Will Valverde 

Yeah anyways, go look at M&R everybody there are jokes about space.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

There are I mean, there’s throughout this report, I mean, I don’t want to leave that but without saying I feel that and there’s a lot in this moment that is heavy. And it’s, you know, I’m a very privileged educated white woman and it’s so it’s by definition less heavy for me and heavier for our friends, colleagues and people of color. So before we move on, whenever this is whenever this airs, that’s still going to be the case. I appreciate M&R as I’ve said on a number of levels one of them is your constant. There’s always a call to action, a call to be better and do more, just in the most inviting of ways however, so Will, I thank you for this report. It has been so fun, as a fan of the report it has been really fun to hear from you about it. Thanks for coming and sharing all the data goodness and dorkiness with listeners. Listeners again if you want to dig in more go to MRbenchmarks.com that is MRbenchmarks.com. I feel like that’s Will keeping himself entertained right there. I mean M&R anyway, MRbenchmarks.com and as always, if you want to keep talking about this if you have more questions about it join me in the Marketing for Good Facebook group and we’ll keep talking about how marketing can change the world. Do good, be well and I will see you next time.