WHAT THE FUNDRAISING
74: Mobilize Your Mission: Learning the Dos and Don'ts from Political Fundraising Ian Patrick Hines
“It used to be maybe there were a hundred or 500 or a thousand people who were giving the bulk of the money, so you had to answer the phone and take them out to dinner. Now it’s 100,000 or 500,000 people each giving $10 and you’re not really accountable to any of them.”
– Ian Patrick Hines
In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…
Political fundraising versus nonprofit fundraising. They might be very different animals, but there are still common lessons to be learned. My guest on this episode of What the Fundraising is offering fascinating insights into what does – and doesn’t – work when it comes to attracting and retaining a loyal donor base. A certified NationBuilder expert, Ian Patrick Hines knows how to leverage game-changing tools and why it’s important to differentiate between high-pressure, quick conversion campaigns and the kinds of high-quality, sustained communications that cement nonprofit partnerships.
Ian offers great strategies for shifting your fundraising model from one of scarcity to deep abundance, fills us in on the current status of various modes of pitching, and reframes donor communication as an ongoing conversation rather than endless series of “donate now” emails.
You’ll learn about the inverse relationship between pseudo-urgency and long-term donor engagement as well as how to develop a communications style that will establish your organization as a trusted advisor – rather than another source of noise simply to be tuned out.
Updates featuring personal narratives and compelling voices, in the long run, says Ian, are far likelier to generate the donor relationships that fundraisers seek. His best advice? If he was running a nonprofit, he would email a lot. But he would rarely ask for money.
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Ian Patrick Hines
- More about B.J. Fogg’s Behavioral Model (and a link for his book, “Tiny Habits.”
- What’s more powerful than a stellar fundraising strategy? Integrated software that helps you manage with ease. Visit NationBuilder, our sponsor for this episode of What the Fundraising, to learn about their ready-to-go donation pages, express payment options, and other tools to support you on every step of your nonprofit’s journey!
- If you’re looking to lift your nonprofit to that next level, my Power Partners Formula offers a step-by-step plan to get you there, including how to identify the right partners and design the right campaign. This free masterclass offers a great starting point!
TIPS AND TOOLS TO IMPLEMENT TODAY
Ian Patrick Hines is a former NationBuilder employee, a certified NationBuilder Expert and an award-winning fundraiser & website designer. Since 2012, he has been helping campaigns & causes leverage NationBuilder’s software platform to build the future. In more than eight years as a freelance NationBuilder Expert, he has supported more than one hundred organizations across eight countries and twenty U.S. states — helping to shape global affairs in the 21st-century.
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I teach nonprofit fundraisers to bring in more gifts from the RIGHT donors… so they can stop hounding people for money. Fundraising doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.
Mallory Erickson: Welcome everyone. I am really excited to be here today with Ian Patrick Hines. Ian, welcome to What The Fundraising.
Ian Hines:Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Mallory Erickson: So why don’t we start with you just telling everyone a little bit about your background with fundraising and what brings you to our conversation today?
Ian Hines: Sure. So I have been fundraising on again, off again, and mostly on since about 2013 or 2015, it’s a little blurry. It’s been a long time. So I got into it because I was doing a lot of work with political campaigns and I found out that one of the things all political campaigns need is money. As it happens, they’re always happy to pay you if you can help them with money because who wouldn’t. And so that led me as a freelancer into a lot of opportunities and helped me learn a lot of things about it. And that’s basically how I got into fundraising.
Mallory Erickson: Tell me when you first started fundraising for political campaigns, what were some of the biggest surprises? What were some assumptions maybe you had made about how it would go and things that you were really surprised about when you started to do it?
Ian Hines: It’s changed a lot. Political fundraising has changed a lot, so when I first got involved in political fundraising and my sort of first exposure to it was a really long time ago, actually my very first exposure to it was in like 2003 when I was still in high school. And I worked a little bit with Howard Dean’s campaign for president. This was forever and forever ago now, literally a generation ago. And it was all built around enthusiasm and energy and we can do it, we can make the world better, that kind of stuff. And then you saw that same kind of theme bubbled up during the Obama years. There was just a lot of optimism in the fundraising and a team mentality, like a can-do attitude type of thing.
And then that all changed. So two things changed. One, I changed my political affiliation as I got older from being a Democrat to a Republican. But even so that was not the impetus for the change. During the Trump years, the Republicans, really both sides, the parties shifted their fundraising approach away from this sort of like energy and optimism and more towards like urgency and scarcity, like everything is at risk. And if we don’t raise this much by the deadline, which is, oh my gosh, it’s in 25 minutes, the sky will fall. And that sort of became normal.
And I don’t know whether it was the chicken or the egg, but as that started happening, also, it became harder to raise money. And I don’t know if that changed in tenor was a response to the increasing difficulty in raising money or if it caused it, I really truly don’t know. But I guess in hindsight, it’s not really just one thing, it’s many things that have surprised me.
Mallory Erickson: So that’s interesting because we’re gonna talk about what we can learn from political fundraising for the nonprofit sector. And I know when you and I first connected, what we should learn both in terms of what nonprofits could adopt and implement, but also what should nonprofits avoid based on what’s being seen in political fundraising today. And so I think that wealth of knowledge across all those years is really helpful.
So I’m curious when you say that piece around that shift in language and energy behind the fundraising. Was it just the copy that was changing or was the fundraising tactics changing? When there was that optimism, what were the tactics like? And when there’s that scarcity, what are the tactics like?
Ian Hines: Yeah. So I think in the beginning, a lot of the training or the best practices advice that you might hear from people, it was around the idea that there was like a ladder of engagement, and you’re gonna try to find people and get them to follow you on Facebook. There’s this sort of increasing depth of relationship with people until ultimately you’re gonna say the first time I ask you for money, I’m gonna ask you to buy a sticker. We’d like to send you a free sticker but if you could ship in $3 to help cover the cost of the shipping, that would be really great. And that’s transactional. It breaks the ice a little bit. And then you might say, hey, it’d be really great if you could give just a $1 or $5 or $7, no something nominal. And then we would ask you to make a maybe a recurring donation or something like that. That’s ratcheting up the ask.
And then I think what changed probably was an increasing level of data and measurement and professionalization of it. That comes on a couple of axis. I think one, the campaigns started to rely on the online fundraising money more. It wasn’t so much like a novelty or like an extra thing, it was the core of where they were raising money. I heard on a podcast some time ago that the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is the arm of the Republican party, whose job is to elect people to the Senate. The Democrats have a similar organization. They raised more than half of their money now from grassroots donors online. And we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in election or something. So it’s a lot a month.
They loved it, the gross that they were raising went up which is good but also it liberated them a little bit from being responsive to major donor interests if that makes sense. So where it used to be maybe there were 100 or 500 or a 1,000 people who were giving the bulk of the money. And so you had to answer the phone and take them out to dinner. Now it’s 100,000 or 500,000 people are each giving $10 and you’re not really accountable to any of them. And the churn starts to matter to your accountability to them at the ballot box but less on a phone call responsiveness basis. And as they became more dependent upon that revenue and more it’s not a very nice word, but addicted to that revenue. They started to say how can we get more? So they started measuring everything and this is not like smaller organizations, but the really big ones that sort of drive the trends.
So as they measured everything, they started to optimize for things, think about like a casino business, right? Like a low-end casino business is basically like a Chucky cheese, right? There’s like pizzas, there’s some games and tickets and that’s nice. A high-end casino business, there are no windows, there are no clocks. Everything is blinking at you all the time and you kinda look up and you’re like, oh my God, I’ve been here for 52 hours and I’m broke.
And I think that what happened was to a degree, for both parties, the fundraising started to get so optimized for conversions, gross that they lost the thread a little bit on the relationship with people, but there’s so many people that there wasn’t an immediate cost to that because you just keep finding new people if that makes sense.
Mallory Erickson: I think that’s really interesting insight and really important for nonprofits to know and hear because there’s a lot of conversation around different fundraising tactics and there tends to be this debate around what works. There was just this thing on LinkedIn today that I was getting tagged into around, are we responsible for the experience of the donor? Does it matter if they give for different reasons? Does it matter if they give because of peer pressure, does that mean it’s bad? And it’s the nonprofit’s job to make sure that they’re giving always from a place of consciousness and intentionality.
And my argument is that nonprofits should understand how that decision impacts their future relationship with the donor, which is what you’re talking about. Cause I think this is what you are alluding to, to recognize that okay, that type of giving, that emotional experience with your organization, yeah it might bring in money in that moment. It might be optimized for conversion in that moment. But if your goal is building a ladder of engagement, if it’s about having them retained. Then you should look deeply at the tactics and strategies that you’re using and acknowledge and accept what is being designed for. Because I think a lot of times people will do the clickbaity, flashing lights, no window giving experience. And then when they have low donor retention numbers, they’re banging their head against the wall. But they designed for, in my opinion, that reality.
Ian Hines: Yeah. I think that there’s some truth in that. So there’s an anecdote that kind of came to mind as you were talking about that, that I don’t know firsthand, but I read about it in the New York Times. And to be clear, I know some of these players or these people, but I wasn’t personally involved in this particular story. So the story was a reporter with the New York Times had done a deep dive on recurring donor numbers for President Trump’s campaign versus Joe Biden’s campaign.
And it was a critical piece talking about was it ethical, how did they ask people to give recurring? And setting us aside all of those kind of questions. The fact of it, as I understand it was that toward the down stretch period of the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign had a prompt that was pre-checked on the form that you would give weekly donations. You would recur every week. And of course, you could cancel it and you didn’t have to agree to it but it was checked by default. And it wouldn’t matter how much your gift was. If you were giving a thousand dollars, it could have been a thousand dollars weekly. And they did that. And they generated a lot of weekly contributions as you might imagine, but they also refunded all of them. If you called to complain, they would just give it back to you. They would just refund it all back.
So the prompt of this news story was about this shockingly high refund rate from the Trump campaign that is so out of the norm. Like it’s usually I’m making up the numbers, it’s usually 2% and it was like 15% or really wildly high. And I’m making up those numbers, but there’s a lot. And so in the short term, that was great. They were in this down-the-stretch period and an important distinction between political campaigns and nonprofits is that political campaigns are essentially startup organizations who have to maximize market share on one day. And everything else is ancillary or not important. What matters is did I get the most votes on election day, the end. And the day after election day, I can reconcile everything else. Nonprofits don’t work that way. There is no election day. You’re gonna be there every.
And so in the political context, if you just look at it in a rational trade-offs perspective, I needed the cash flow, I can refund a hundred percent of that money in December that I needed it in October. And so I’ll take the hit on the complaints to get the money in the near term. But I would not recommend that to anybody. I would not do my own business that way. How many of those customers are gonna refer me to somebody else or recommend me?
And to be fair, there are undoubtedly people who gave every week and knew full well what they were doing. And they were super good about it. And there are some people who accidentally gave every week and maybe never understood it. And all of the experiences in between. All of those things are probably true. That’s an example of where some of these call ’em gray hat political fundraising techniques don’t really transfer very well into the nonprofit space because of the way that they affect the donor’s experience.
Mallory Erickson: Yeah. But I think it’s really good to have that reflection, to even be able to use anecdotes and stories and data like that to know what to avoid sometimes. Not that I think a nonprofit would do that weekly piece but still it’s I think it begs a question around auto-enrollment in lots of different types of things. So I really appreciate that.
I’m curious can we talk a little bit, you were mentioning before the emails that we get about what needs to happen in the next 25 minutes or else? Can we talk about time box moments and what the sweet spot is between an effective time box moment and one that feels like that?
Ian Hines: So I’ll tell you from personal experience in politics, so many of them are just completely arbitrary and made up. They’re just made up. I actually have a variable that I drop in emails that’s like a deadline. And it just says something like tonight at midnight or it’s random. It’s just meant to create this sort of time-boxed moment because the ask sometimes comes across better when you’re asking for something specific, but we don’t actually always have something specific. And the expectation is that we’re gonna send emails like this at least once every day.
That’s a lot of emails. And so you just keep coming up with things. That’s hollow. Where it’s really valuable is when it’s really real. When you actually have a thing, are you getting ready to launch an ad campaign? Do you have an event, are you gonna print out a thousand leaflets that you’re gonna hand out to people? We have to print a thousand leaflets to execute this campaign outreach plan. Every leaflet’s gonna cost us 32 cents, etc etc. We need to raise this much money. And I think that if you’re going convey that kind of a goal, you should explain it. And I think that’s really the thing that happens, where I would again draw a distinction between nonprofits and campaigns. In campaigns, they have commodified fundraising work, where there are people whose job is just to be the fundraiser. The fundraiser is not always in particularly active or even at all communication with say the communications department or the events people, or really anybody else. They don’t even know what the money’s getting spent on. And to the extent that in a nonprofit environment. You’re able to make those connections and say, look, we’re raising money for a specific need. Let me explain that need to you. And here’s when we need it by.
So I’m active in my church and the church will ask you for specific things. They’ll say we have to repave the parking. And that’s gonna cost $150,000. It’s a big parking lot. And so the priest will get up in the front of the parish and he’ll say, yeah, we pass the hat around every mass we have a collection, but for real, we really need to do this parking lot. And here’s why, and here is how much it’s gonna cost. And we took three quotes. And if you can give a little bit, that would be really helpful because it’s gotta get done and we have some budget for it, but it’s gonna put us in a bit of a place. And if you can help support us in this moment, we’d really appreciate it.
That’s a way more compelling ask and be like, we need to raise another $3,000 by midnight tonight, or we’re gonna have to shut the church down. We’re gonna have to close up shop. There’ll be no more God if you don’t give the $5 next? Would you go back to that church? No, probably not. And so that’s what I think the difference between the time box moments is if they’re really time boxing. Otherwise just say, it costs money to run a business or run an organization and we need money. If that’s the best pitch you got, you should probably make a better pitch.
Mallory Erickson: But nonprofits always have time-sensitive things, whether it’s related to program launching, or there’s always something happening. A little bit more so than a political campaign where it’s all leading to as you said that single day. And in that way, there probably are more ongoing natural or organic time box moments that could be leveraged like that. But what’s really interesting to me about what you said okay, so that headline that you said right about if you don’t give in the next 10 hours, God’s going away.
Ian Hines: There’s no more Jesus.
Mallory Erickson: Right. And this just got pushed back on me. So I’m curious to have this conversation with you. That is a much quicker attention grab than the pitch that the priest made to the church. Now he had a captive audience. And so the pushback that we hear is that in this attention economy when we really have to fight to get eyes on things for a few seconds, how do we create nuance or share real stories or be more honest and not so clickbaity and still be able to help them take an action quickly. What would you say to that?
Ian Hines: Copywriting is hard. And I’m not being glib about that. I was at a point where I was expected to write, I don’t know, five or seven pieces of email copy a day for raising money earlier in this year. And I burned out on it. I went on vacation at Easter and I came back and I was like, I can’t do this anymore. I need to get some space from it because copywriting is hard. And so the crutches that you start to use, or you start to make things more generic, more clickbaity. And all the efficiencies you can eke out in terms of the formatting or the templates or stuff like that, there are diminishing returns. At a certain point, you just have to write things. And yeah you need to get people’s attention, but I think that the balance is that you need to be asking them for something that’s real.
And I personally believe this is the reason, not to introduce another theme, but most of the giving is done by people 60 or 65 and up comprise the overwhelming majority of political donations. Probably true in nonprofits as well. And I think that’s partly about disposable income and sort of priorities. But I think it’s also partly because people in the thirties have pretty good BS detectors, they get those emails and they’re like, nah, I’ve got bills too, man. Like that’s not true. You say Jesus is gone in 10 minutes, but that’s not real. And they’re just more wise to the tactics. And so if you wanna part people from their money, you should have a reason because the other half of it is that 65-year-old or 72-year-old person, they might really need that money.
And you mentioned the ethics and it was like a LinkedIn conversation you were saying like, there that somewhere there’s a person receiving your fundraising email who’s making a decision between should I buy my medicine or should I give to this organization? So ask for things that you really need. And you can write, use Grammarly Pro, write good sentences, one sentence per paragraph with lots of line breaks in an email. There’s stuff you can do to make it pop a little bit and keep people’s attention. But that doesn’t mean you have to lie.
And I think that’s the thing that I found that I was starting not to put two specifics of a word to it, but that’s the thing I was starting to find in the fundraising copywriting that I’m doing. And I’m still doing it. I’m finishing out a number of political projects. This cycle and I’m trying the best as I can to stay in a space where we’re talking about real things. So if I can pull a headline and say, the news says that our opponents are getting ready to spend 75 million on a new TV ad campaign, which is really happening. And we really need money to fight back against that, can you chip in $5? Like I’m trying to tie it back to a real thing because if I’m just throwing these emails at you that America is finished and it will descend into a hellscape if I don’t get another a hundred dollars by midnight. I don’t wanna write that stuff anymore.
I think that there’s a balance, it is hard to keep people’s attention for sure. But I think that you owe it to people to write the messages really that are if you really need the money ask for it. If you don’t really need it, don’t really ask for it.
Mallory Erickson: Yeah, and I agree. And I think to your point, which is really interesting about the difference generationally in our awareness, perhaps of different strategies and tactics being used. Because, yeah, every time I get an email like that in my inbox, I’m like, does anyone believe this?
Ian Hines: A lot of people. Yeah. And to put a really specific example on it, I sent an email the other day that was like in this vein of email writing. And I wanna be really clear about that. I’m criticizing this approach to copywriting, but I’m also often in the thick of it. Not to get like too churchy again, but it’s yeah. Sin is bad and I’m a sinner, right? I am doing these wrong things sometimes too. And I understand that it’s easier said than done to get away from them. So if you’re listening to this, don’t think that I’m like high up on my like mountain top.
But I wrote an email the other day, it was in that political copywriting style with the list of the five buttons and the clickbaity sentences and that sort of thing. I think I sent it to 127,000 people. And I think that five people gave money. And I said, it’s the chicken and the egg thing, the tactics have gotten more aggressive and the response rate has fallen through the floor. To the extent that to anybody who’s out there who’s like looking at emails from Joe Biden or emails from Donald Trump. And you’re like, maybe we should write emails more like those because I see on the news they’re raising all this money and I get these emails all the time. Just to disabuse you of those notions, right? There are also stories going around last several months about how particularly on the Republican side, like revenue for online fundraising, we’re really struggling with it as a community. not like individual people aren’t struggling with it, everybody is seeing their numbers down. Democrats less but it’s still, it’s a challenge.
Maybe you said what’s something that surprised me in the beginning. One of the things that surprised me recently is I thought for a while there that this was real growth, every year it was like we were raising more and more money. And it seems that the whole marketplace has reached a peak. Maybe it’s just a plateau and it’ll go back up again. Maybe it’s temporary. It could be due to inflationary pressures or economic stress or all kinds of things, but it’s not a panacea for your problem.
Mallory Erickson: I think what you’re saying is really important. Hearing that conversion rate of that email I think is really important for people to hear because it is hard to know on the other side of emails like that because we see them happening so often and so many nonprofit fundraising because our emails get sold in political fundraising. So we’re getting tons of political fundraising emails every single day. And I think it gets into nonprofit fundraisers’ heads a little bit where every time they’re sending any fundraising email, they feel like they’re sending that political fundraising email. Even though they’re not, even though they’re sending a really genuine story, asking for something true, trying to build that relationship with the donor, but holding the guilt of how they feel when they get that email.
Ian Hines: And so I’ll reframe it a little bit. So I have a very small email list that I use for my consulting work. And I say small, it’s like a hundred people. And it feels silly cause I use exact same software to send that email as I used to send 125,000 emails. Sometimes I’m sending a blast to a hundred people and I’m like way more nervous about it with a hundred people because I care so much more. It’s been more personal to me. But if you get a 15% open rate or 20% open rate to a hundred thousand people, that’s great. You should feel really good about that.
But like my hundred-person email list, I get 70% open rates to that. And what’s amazing is that list size really doesn’t matter. I know that’s like a cliche, people say it all the time but like really doesn’t matter. I have an account where the whole list that is like 500,000 people. But often we are only emailing 50,000 or 60,000 people because a huge chunk of those people will never open an email. But it’s better to send an email to a small group of people who open it and actually give you money, than to a massive group of people and then end up in the spam folder. And then you don’t even raise anything. There’s a term for that, I was doing consulting work and it was $50 an hour. And I sold X hours, 250 bucks. But if I doubled that to $100 an hour and sold half as many hours, I could still make $250 bucks. So I could either work half as hard, make the same money. Or I could work exactly the same and double my money. And that’s how it works with the list size shrinking, you think I’m not emailing as many people, but you might actually raise more.
Where I was going with that about the sort of the nonprofit emails and the sort of the carrying the guilt and the stuff you just said, I think if I was running a nonprofit, I would email a lot but I would almost never ask for money. I would email every week, every couple of days. Hey, lemme tell you what’s going on with this. Here’s the thing we did. Hey, it’s me, the executive director, I just wanna let you know, I had a really great event today and I went to this thing, and we did this and we’re making progress in our work. And I just wanna let you know, hey, have a great weekend. And just don’t even put a donate button at the bottom of it, just update people.
And then when you’ve asked them for money, you will have been updating them all this time. And so they feel really familiar with what you’re doing as you actually do have a story, you’re doing work all. And it’s the same way that you would update say your Facebook account or your Instagram. You’re just sharing things, not always selling something. And every so often you’re like, here’s this hard sell that I wanna make to you.
Mallory Erickson: Yes. Okay. Actually, what you’re saying, I wanna ask you a follow-up question to that because my gut is that when you’re doing more of that, there’s a lot of conversation like we were talking about before around how to keep copy really short in appeal emails. When you’re trying to raise money, you want the copy to be really short, pithy, and catchy, and do that in a trust-based ethical way.
And I think that the way to do that is what you are saying right now. That is where that gets harder when you haven’t built the relationship, built the content, been telling stories all year round, updating people. Not that you’re gonna send an email where you’re referencing a bunch of stuff that maybe someone doesn’t know. But you can use a type of shorthand and you could even click back to other emails if they wanted to hear more about a story around something. It just gives you an ability to have those shorter appeal emails be more in alignment when you’ve done a lot of other communicating that has nothing to do with an ask. What do you think about that?
Ian Hines: Yeah, it’s a good prompt. I have some guidelines that I try to use. One is you should only ever have one topic per email. This whole idea that, and many nonprofits and even political parties in other parts of the world in like Australia and these places, they still do this a lot. They’ll send a newsletter and it’ll be a dump of every possible thing they could tell you, it comes once every two weeks or a month or something.
Stop doing that. That’s a terrible idea. Instead of sending one email with 15 things, send 15 emails once every two days per month. That’s great. Because email is discreet. It doesn’t have to be long. It’s not worthless because it’s not long. When I write a sort of personal email to somebody, it’s not a newsletter or a blast. I try to go for five sentences. Hey, thanks for taking time to read my email. This is what I wanted to tell you. I had this question. I appreciate any response. If you can make one, thanks. And you’re out. Again, pithy short attention span, get to the point and get out.
So again, using the example from before, maybe your nonprofit just had an event where you announced a thing, or you fixed a thing, it’s a Saturday morning and you did a cleanup in an alley. It could be anything, send me an email that Saturday afternoon, say, hey, just wanted to update you on what’s going on this morning. We did a cleanup in the alley. Look at this picture. Wasn’t that cool? Thanks again for all of your support and you’re out, don’t ask for anything, just talk to people.
But then what’ll happen is that by talking to people on a regular basis, they will learn to open the emails because they’re interested to hear what you might say today. And so I said, I have some guidelines, so one topic per email, pretty short emails. I mentioned an example that I used to always use with my clients when we were doing more ladder engagement, fundraising approach was nobody likes the friend who only calls when they need something. Which is probably not like a revolutionary idea here but to bear that out.
So you have this friend from college and you never hear from them, except once every 12 months when they’re moving into a new apartment and they call you and they’re like, hey, Ian hope you’re so doing great. How are the kids? Everybody’s good. Oh, hey, by the way, I’m having a moving party. We’re gonna have pizza and beer. Can you come help me move furniture on Saturday? And you’re like, again. And eventually, what happens is you see them and anticipate that they’re gonna ask you for a big favor. They wanna borrow your truck. And you don’t answer the phone, you send it to voicemail. Two days later, you call ’em back and be like, hey, everything okay. I saw you called, but I was so busy and they’re like, oh, I needed help moving. That was on Saturday. Oh, brutal.
And that’s what happens with your emails. If every email is you saying, hey, I really need money. Hey, I really need money. Who wants to meet those emails all the time? When I open my inbox, I have hundreds of emails. And what I’ve been doing lately is I go to the promotions tab or the update tab. I select all, I scan ’em real quick, I’m like anything important, deleted. I don’t even open ’em, kill ’em all because it’s too much. So if you’re running a nonprofit or you’re the digital director or whatever that the right term is marketing person, fundraising person, you’re thinking, wow, my open rates are down or people aren’t giving me money when I ask for it. Stop asking so much, ask less.
And then when you sent them five emails in two weeks telling ’em all about the interesting things that are going on and varying the center. And one day it’s from the executive director, and one day’s from a volunteer, and one day it’s from a board member. And then one day the fifth email comes from the executive director and it says, Ian, I’m sorry to bother you. I’ll be right to the point. We have a fundraising deadline coming. And if I don’t raise $500 by tonight, I’m gonna have to cut back on our plans for this weekend’s event. I’m in a pinch, can you help? I bet you raised like 1500 bucks. Because they think you mean it, believe it now because you’re really asking. But that’s the big takeaway.
Coming back to the original point in politics, they stopped doing that because the pressure to raise money every single day meant that they had to raise money every single day. The bean counter started to be like what’s our fundraising projection. So how are we doing today? Did we hit our numbers? And so they didn’t have the time. It was too sporadic. If you imagine it like a chart, it was like this, and they wanted it to be like this, and so now all they do is send fundraising emails.
Mallory Erickson: I think what you’re talking about right now also has some massive implications for nonprofits this piece at the end around what metrics of success tell us we are leading towards our ultimate goal. Because what you said is also something I think about a lot in terms of fundraisers are managed. And who are the bean counters with the fundraisers, whether that’s the executive director or the board of directors? And especially when we’re talking about the difference between hitting budget fundraising goals, obviously a critical piece of it.
But oftentimes what I see is that there aren’t other metrics of success or behavioral metrics of success for the fundraiser. Sometimes there are at the bigger shops, like a certain amount of meetings a month, or a certain amount of communications or things like that. But often it’s really just the fundraising numbers. And so then that drives decision making, I think, in this much more sort of scarcity-minded way. It also doesn’t support habit building for the fundraiser because habits are built with much shorter feedback loops and for nonprofit fundraising, it is not an everyday situation. They’re being told to do this thing, but they’re not gonna get any feedback about that potentially even for three to six months. But there’s no way that the nonprofit is tracking, and celebrating those behaviors along the way.
I’m curious when political fundraising was doing more of that ladder of engagement, what were some of the metrics that you all were looking at? It sounds like maybe some of them were related to did they buy the sticker, but what were some other things that you were looking at to know you were on track?
Ian Hines: Yeah. The core number always boils down to a handful of things, right? What’s your email open rate look like? What does your click rate look like? Unique people who clicked on a link in an email. Are the emails bouncing, usually like the five core email steps? And then ultimately like money. But we used to focus a lot more on the click rate or were people signing petitions? Were they taking sort of soft actions? That kind of thing was a lot more relevant.
Mallory Erickson: Okay. I wanna make sure we have time to talk about text messaging. So tell me a little bit about how text message fundraising came to be in political fundraising. What shifts you’ve seen happen there and what works and what doesn’t?
Ian Hines: So there are two kinds of text messaging. There’s what’s called peer-to-peer text messaging. And there’s what’s called application to peer. So P2P and A2P. Okay. So peer-to-peer messages are the ones that you get that look like they’re from a person with a fully long number, and the A2P from like the short code, like the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I’m generalizing. That’s basically true. So peer-to-peer messaging got to be very popularized around the time, I guess that was probably 2016ish when Bernie Sanders was running for president, he started using this mostly for volunteer engagement at first.
And the way that it works is that you really what tends to happen is you go, you buy a big list of mobile numbers. You go to a data broker, I did this once. I want the text message number for every registered voter in this state, who I believe is likely to vote my way. And they’ll give you all the mobile numbers because they have them. And so the way the law works is that you can text all those people, but a machine can’t do it. A person has to text them. This is what makes it legal for me to text you. I can text anybody, myself. But if I spam you with a robot, that’s against the rules, right? So they worked around the rules and what they did was they said what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna have a robot queue up all the texts, but the person has to hit send.
And when I say hit send, I literally have done it before where I’m like two-finger tapping on the space bar. But because I manually hit the button, I sent it, the computer didn’t send it. It just queued it for me. So that’s peer-to-peer texting. And why did that come to be, well, because open rates on text messages are like nearly a hundred percent, or at least they were. Everybody was reading everything. And so the ROI was tremendous because you’re really getting people’s attention. And it was largely unregulated. It’s increasingly regulated now, but not by the government. It’s being regulated by the cell phone carriers or what’s called the CTIA, the Cellphone Tech Telecommunications, something of America, so industry association, so they’re regulating it.
And then separately you have the A2P messages. A2P messages are regulated by the FCC. And so the way that that works generally consults your attorney is that really because the fines are tremendous. So the way that it works is that somebody has to affirmatively say yes, I’d like to get a text message. That’s so when you’re on like a form, there’s a checkbox that says, yes, you may send me messages. That sort of thing where you text coupon to 12345 and they’ll send you a coupon. That kinda thing. What we started to do there was we would say run ads on Facebook, or we would send these peer-to-peer messages and we’d drive you through a petition or a donation page. And when you donated, we would opt you into the A2P messages. The advantage of the A2P messages is they’re a lot cheaper to send and they send a lot faster. So maybe it costs you a penny per message on the A2P, but it costs you 6 or 9 cents per message on the peer-to-peer, that kinda thing, way cheaper.
So there was a while where I was sending the short code messages and I would send them out, I had built a list of 60,000 subscribers in that, which is a really big A2P list. And it might cost me $500 or $600 to send one message out, but I was raising back $2000 – $3,000. And so we sent a lot of them, but like anything, there are diminishing returns over time. And so it was all going great until it stopped. And it stopped like cold. And so where has largely gone in the ecosystem, it very quickly became that the text messages raised multiple times more money than email. For a variety of reasons, mostly because they were cleaner lists with better engagement.
But then I think what happened was everybody started to realize that and a handful of the agency partners who were really leading a lot of these fundraising efforts moved everybody over to text messaging because they were getting so much better returns, which saturated. They basically just brought all the email problems through the text messaging. And now the text messaging became saturated.
Mallory Erickson: Is there any data yet around, I’d be really curious around retention numbers with donors that have been acquired via text message versus email. Do you know anything about that?
Ian Hines: I don’t have any hard numbers about that. I think the churn rate when you send a text message is not totally dissimilar to an email. Your unsubscribed rate is gonna be 1/10th of 1% of the people you sent the message to are gonna opt-out every time, that sort of thing. I know that for a while there at least people who are on, you send somebody a text message and they get it on their phone. The way the fundraising platforms often work is they have stored credit card information and stuff on the platform, it’s true for Democrats, Act Blue, and for Republicans, it’s Win Red. And conversion rates tend to be pretty high because they’re already logged in from something they did before.
Likewise, if you are like pre-checking recurring and that kind of stuff that the recurring opt-in rates are pretty high, they’re higher on text donations than they are on email. Good, bad, or otherwise that’s just true. The difference there in particular is that there is I’ve never seen it where there was a flat-rate pricing for the text messaging because there’s a unit cost to send each message. So I mentioned like a penny or whatever per message, three-quarters of a penny, that kinda thing. Whereas some email systems or email platforms like I usually use Nation Builder for email and what they’ll do is they’ll give you some sort of cap per month number. Like you can send this many emails and it’ll be fine. Or in Nation’s case, it’s also of unlimited. There’s a unit cost for them, but it’s so low that they just absorb it. Where I’m going with this is that there is an incentive to send a lot of emails where like you’ve not disincentivized from it because it doesn’t cost anything you’re already paying for it.
But with text messaging, there becomes this like visceral feeling that man, I just sent a $600 text message and it lost me money. And so what ends up happening is all of that stuff. We said earlier about the pressure to hit your numbers every day like you start to feel this pressure, every message I send has gotta raise more money than it costs or all, some just bleeding. And I don’t know when I’m gonna recoup it. And particularly to tie all these things together, you have the people whose job it is to raise money and they’re being measured on performance. Often they’re being paid a commission. And so they’re really incentivized to raise the money, which everybody’s happy about in the beginning because the guy’s making commission and the client, they’re happy because they’re paying for performance, they’re winning.
But in the long tail what ends up happening is there’s the pressure to raise money all the time, you’re only getting paid as the vendor when you’re raising the money. And the client is I can’t send text messages that cost me money. Your job is to raise me money. And now you’re not raising money. You’re costing me money. What are you even doing? And so all these things are happening. And we’re talking a lot about political fundraising. To pivot that back to nonprofit fundraising, don’t do these things, I think is what I’m saying.
Mallory Erickson: Interesting. Okay. I know we are almost out of time and I am so grateful for this conversation with you. So it sounded like you’re shifting out of the political fundraising. What’s next for you? And where should folks find you and connect with you if they’re interested in working with you?
Ian Hines: That is a wonderful question to ask. Thank you. I got into the political fundraising work, in large part because I had been working with Nation Builder, which is a software company that provides people, database, email blasting, website hosting, and sort of donation tracking all kind of bundled up.
And so I used to work at Nation Builder in 2012 and 2013. And then I left and I became a freelancer and I was helping Nation Builder customers. A lot of Nation Builder customers are political organizations. And that’s how I found my way in political fundraising. And so as I’m deemphasizing the fundraising work just because I need to get some distance from it personally, I am increasing the emphasis on Nation Builder consulting. So helping people use the software, make custom templates and things with it.
So actually incidentally this morning I launched on Nation Builder’s custom theme marketplace, a donation page template. Which is literally, usually Nation Builder can host your whole website. And what this is designed for is maybe you already have a website, you built it on a web flow or WordPress or something, but you’re using Nation Builder anyway for the CRM and for the email. And you want to take your donations with Nation Builders payments processing, which is run through Stripe. So I made landing pages that look very much like an Antidot or an Act Blue page that you can use just for that. And it’s easy peasy, and anybody can buy and it’s ready to go right outta the gate. So like that kind of stuff is what I’m trying to move more towards into. So on an asynchronous basis making templates and that kind of thing. And then on top of that, there’s like some consulting and training, and I work with people by the hour or on a monthly basis. And you where to find me, Ianpatrickhines.com is the website where you can just Google Ian Hines and you’ll find me
Mallory Erickson: Perfect.
I will make sure all the links are below and in the show notes and everything as well. Thank you so much for this conversation today. I really appreciate all your insight and your time. Oh,
Ian Hines: I had fun talking to you. Thank you for asking me.