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Email Automation: 3 Ways to Get Your Nonprofit Started

If you are like most nonprofit marketing professionals, you’re overworked and under-resourced.

Email automation is the solution you’ve been waiting for!

Setting up marketing automation systems that trigger emails and autoresponders, drastically reduces the time you and your team spend manually sending emails to court donors, members and volunteers.

A report by DemandGen, a research firm, shows on average a 20% increase in sales opportunities versus non-nurtured leads.  Of course this is a statistic on for-profit work, but it doesn’t take much of a leap to assume that nurturing sales is very similar to nurturing donors.

What is Email Marketing Automation?

The concept of email automation is pretty simple: if a prospect or constituent perform an action, an email (or series of emails) is triggered in sequence.  

The sequences can include decision trees based on the user’s interaction with any of the emails in the series.

Email automation workflows can be triggered based on a lot of things:

  1. Time: Send an email X days after user does Y
  2. Behavior: If user does X send an email, if they do Y send them a different email
  3. Demographic/Characteristic: Say a user RSVP’s to a volunteer event at a particular volunteer site and you ask them their age. If you store that data in a CRM, you could send an email based on that demographic information.

There are endless pieces of information that could trigger automation workflows, but I’ll try to stay out of that rabbit hole for this blog post.

Now for the good part:

Here are 3 ideas how your organization can get started with email automation.

The ultimate guide to online donations

1. Automated Email Welcome Series

A welcome series is a great way to begin the cultivation of a new constituent to your organization, and ultimately will make them feel more engaged with your mission.

The goal of the welcome series should be to:

  • Educate the user about your organization
  • Demonstrate the impact of your organization
  • Ask the new constituent to take one more step in their engagement with you – usually a small step forward. Don’t go asking them to marry you on the first date!

Here’s a hypothetical scenario we’ve probably all experienced: email newsletter sign-up.

How can we use email marketing to nurture this new relationship?

Below is a quick series of emails that you could send.

Immediately after sign-up:
Send a thank you email that demonstrates your appreciation for their interest. In this email, it’s a great time to link them to an overview of the work that you do.

Perhaps you have a blog post about a recent milestone your organization has reached, or you have an online Annual Report for them to look at.

The most important thing: provide context to your organization.

  • What is your business case?
  • What are your values?
  • Where have you come from?
  • Where are you going?

2 Days after sign-up:
Send a testimonial about your work. This should be a powerful story that drives user interest.

Even better, if you have a video testimonial of some kind, send it. Video is a powerful medium that shows real people that have participated or been affected by your mission.

The best stories are personal ones—find a person, animal, place, etc. that you can tell a story around.

Want to know what makes a good story? Read our post on writing stories that drive engagement.

The bottom line: it’s important to showcase how your work impacts everyday lives.

5 Days After Sign-up:
Note to Self: Establishing trust before you ask someone to do something is extremely important.

Consumers want to trust a company before they buy their product; donors want to trust that an organization is going to steward their donation well.

We all know where this email automation workflow is going, right?

Yes. We’re going to ask the new constituent to do something: make a donation, volunteer, become a member.  

It actually doesn’t matter what the ask is, the point is that we’re going to ask. Just this alone means your organization better be trusted if they expect the ask to go well.

There are a few different ways that you might establish trust:

  • Annual report: Send the new constituent to a page about your organizational fiscal responsibility. Perhaps an annual report.
  • Showcase a known supporter: If your organization is endorsed by a famous person, ask them to write an endorsement. Or better yet, do a quick video endorsement.
  • Show a rating: though I’m loathe to fall into the charity rating charade (don’t get me started…), you can link to your Charity Navigator rating, or online reviews, or some other kind of rating way to bring proof of your organization’s virtues.

Bottom line is: There are a lot of ways to establish trust. This is a critical time to do it.

7 Days After Sign-up:
Send an email that makes the “ask.”

Now, don’t be scared. We hear all the time that staff are scared to ask a new constituent to do something immediately. My response normally is, they’ve already shown they like you by signing up for something, don’t be scared.  

Some people will even be flattered. And, there’s no better time to make an ask while their first commitment (in this case e-newsletter sign-up), is fresh in the user’s mind.

But, it’s also important not to be pushy in how you ask.

My opinion: for someone that just signed up for an e-newsletter, I think it’s better to ask something simple like RSVP to an organization orientation, or perhaps you do tours of a work site that your organization has.  

These in-person engagements can take that initial relationship to the next level—put a face to the cause.

Other ideas for simple asks are:

  • Ask them to volunteer at your organization.
  • Ask them to an upcoming event.
  • Ask them to follow you on social media

The key is, make them take one step closer to your organization and help them feel a personal connection.  

2. Leading Up to an Event

When a supporter has RSVP’d to an event, it is a great time to engage them even further into your organization.

Let’s say for example you’re throwing your annual fundraiser.

Here’s an email marketing automation series that will get your guest pumped to attend and hopefully motivate them to be extra generous with their support this year.

Directly After RSVP:
Send a thank you and confirmation that they signed-up for the event.  In this same email, it’s a great time to put a quick teaser in about the event theme.

Usually these types of events have themes like an anniversary, support for a strategic organizational goal, or maybe it’s the celebration of a milestone—take on a campaign type feel.

Regardless, this event needs context. How is it contributing to your organization’s success. Perhaps the constituent already knows the context, but it never hurts to reinforce.  

The theme or campaign message can be really powerful if delivered by video (starting to see a theme here?).

5 Days after RSVP:
It’s time to talk impact!

Again, this is a fundraising event, so establishing your organization’s impact is going to be important before you ask this person to donate.

Good impact pieces can be:

  • Story of a person, place or thing that benefits from your organization’s work – videos can be very compelling content here.
  • Testimonial from a person impacted by your work
  • Annual Report
  • Historical overview of your organization’s impact

Even better: if individual’s testimonial and speech will be the centerpiece during the event, you can provide a preview of who they are, the challenges they faced and how your organization helped.

Basically, let the person know that your work makes a positive impact in the world.

1 Day Before the Event:
This is a great time to remind guests about the event details.  

Directions to the location, parking, time table for the event.

Maybe you’re having a silent auction, you can preview the top items to get people excited.

This not only orients the guest, but probably will reduce no-shows as well.

1 Day After the Event:
Thanking guests for attending quickly after the event is crucial.

If you have details about the fundraising totals and the results that were achieved, share them…and your gratitude in the attendee’s participation in that success.

Maybe include a video thank you message from your Executive Director, or a personal thank you from one of the speakers at the event.  

You can even add a link in the video on YouTube, and ask the attendee to sign-up for your email list, or volunteer, or….

3. Volunteer Sign-up

If you have volunteers at your organization, then you know that it is impressive how much these supporters give of their time and talent.

However, many organizations are shy to ask volunteer to donate. I can respect that, but I also know first hand from my days as a fundraiser, that volunteers can be very generous with their treasures as well, you just need to ask the right way.

Email automation can help you cultivate them into donors at a much higher success rate than simply asking out of the blue.

It’s all about education and cultivation.

Directly after volunteer sign-up:

Obviously, you want to thank them for signing up. It’s important to establish how important volunteers are to your organization and their impact.

If you have a lot of repeat volunteers, this may be a good time to provide an update about an ongoing strategic goal, large campaign, or upcoming event.

Providing fresh content can be a nice touch to an email series like this. Most email automation tools have an easy editing interface that make updates to the email a snap.

4 days before volunteer date:
This is a great time to provide context of what the volunteer will be doing.  

Let’s say they are doing a river cleanup on the Colorado River. It might be a good time to talk about the importance of the watershed for the health of the ecosystems and cities.

It’s also a good time to talk about the impact that volunteers have already had with your organization for the Colorado.

If the volunteer’s work will effect a human, tell their story. Use a testimonial to drive emotional connections.

The goal: establish your organization’s impact, let the volunteer know the importance of the task that they’re about to do.  And always, always thank them!

1 Day before volunteer date:
This is a good time to provide logistical support.

Directions to location, meeting instructions, clothing/food/water recommendations or requirements.

Get the volunteer physically ready to perform their task.

1 Day after the volunteer date:
Thank the volunteer for their time.  

Let them know how much you appreciate their commitment to the organization.

Make an ask while the experience is fresh in the mind.

I see two ways to go about this:

  • Remember that impact story that you told before the volunteered?  Remind them of it:  “Your support as a volunteer is vital to this success. Your financial support helps us recruit more volunteers and buy more supplies that help our campaign succeed.”
  • Appeal to their more practical side: “Supporting our volunteer crews that are doing awesome work requires resources: we need to purchase tools and materials; and we need to pay our employees healthcare and salaries. Can you help us defer those costs by donating $10 to purchase our next shovel?”

You get the idea, right?

Don’t be patronizing, or combative.  Just state the honest truth.  

I’d also recommend asking for a small sum of money if they haven’t donated before. Get them in the door as a donor.  

Once, they’re a donor, you can start a new automated workflow to cultivate and retain their support.

Wait, you can chain email automations together also!?

Yep. See how cool this stuff is!

But that’s a great post for next time….


Email marketing automation is changing everything.

If you’re already a pro, I hope these 3 ideas helped spark some new ways that automation tools can help you.

If you’re a newby to email marketing automation, I recommend you get started!

Over and over again we see that marketing automation has brought success for our clients, and we know that it will for you as well.