A1 Editorial

Extra Extra Read All About It

The 2021 M+R Benchmarks Study has been published! (You can tell because you are reading it.) It includes the newest news, the deepest data, the freshest facts, the amazingest analysis across the full range of nonprofit digital programs.

An initial review of the 2021 M+R Benchmarks Study shows that it includes data and commentary covering:

This year set a new record for Benchmarks nonprofit participants. A total of 220 nonprofits representing a wide range of causes contributed time, data, and thoughtful responses to hard-hitting questions.

Those nonprofit participants are seriously so great. M+R has issued a public statement expressing “undying gratitude for their generosity in participating in this study, and to the work they do every day to make the world a better place. They are the $@#$%ing best.”

For the first time, the M+R Benchmarks Study includes a significant cohort of nonprofits based in the United Kingdom. A total of 55 UK-based nonprofits joined the fun this year, and we are chuffed to have them.

Additional data on mobile messaging, including peer-to-peer metrics, was provided by our friends at GetThru, Hustle, and Upland Mobile Messaging.

Sources suggest that this is the best Benchmarks Study ever. They asked not to be named as they are not authorized to disclose internal deliberations. They’re totally right, though.

M+R Benchmarks Study 2021

Publisher: Madeline Stanionis
Editor in Chief:
Will Valverde
Researcher in Chief:
Theresa Bugeaud
Data and Analytics Contributors:
Jonathan Benton, Danielle Feinstein, Kristen Friedel, Sammy Stewart
Graphics Department:
Emily Giorgione, Laura Klavon, Olivia Moore
Web Development:
Tom Giordano, Bobby Burch
Digital Ads Reporters:
Matt Derby, Gwen Emmons
Web Analytics Reporter:
Karen Hopper
Email Reporter:
Jonathan Benton
Social Media Reporter:
Marjory Garrison
Membership Reporter:
Yoonhyung Lee
Mobile Messaging Reporter:
Kyle Shepherd
Recruitment Manager:
Lucy Midelfort
Project Manager: Bobby Goldstein
Additional Contributors:
Jeff Gang, MB Gowins, Anne Paschkopić, Liz Thaler

Your M+R Benchmarks News Team

We are M+R.

We are communicators, marketers, fundraisers, campaigners, and mild-mannered muckrakers who unleash the power of people to do good.

We work exclusively with nonprofits who are alleviating suffering, fighting for human rights, working in solidarity with marginalized communities, building a more equitable world, ensuring a sustainable future, making art and knowledge accessible to everyone, and safeguarding democracy so that it does not die in darkness.

We’d love to help you deliver real change. Find us at www.mrss.com

And if this sounds like the place for you, find out more about working at M+R and review our current open positions at www.mrss.com/careers.

Front Page News: Key Findings

Headlines

  • Total online revenue grew by 32% in 2020. This growth is extraordinary, well above what we typically report for year-over-year changes.

  • Hunger and Poverty groups reported a stunning 173% increase in online revenue over the previous year.

  • Nonprofits across a wide spectrum of issue areas identified racial justice as an important priority. We hope this reflects a commitment to making long overdue meaningful changes within our industry (and everywhere else).

  • Nonprofits that did electoral work did not outperform non-electoral nonprofits, even in the midst of a high-profile presidential election.

  • Nonprofits that engaged in COVID-19 response saw noticeably higher growth in one-time giving revenue than those that did not.

Never accuse us of burying the lede.

The big headline for 2020 is this: online revenue increased by 32% over the previous year.

This is, as so many things have been over the past year, unprecedented. Astonishing. But not as much as this:

Online revenue for nonprofits dedicated to alleviating hunger and poverty increased by 173%.

Now let’s be clear. We, your Benchmarks correspondents, we know we are not normal people. We care about this data, we love numbers, we think about and talk about these metrics constantly. But even for us, it’s rare for a number to spark rich, raw emotion. Those revenue change numbers did.

Before we get to all the rest — and believe us, there’s a lot more to get to — we want to reflect on what 32% online revenue growth signifies. What an increase of 173% over the previous year’s giving means for Hunger and Poverty nonprofits — and, more importantly, for the people they serve.

It means that when the pandemic swept across the world and into our lives, people responded with a heart-swelling urge to help. Uncertainty, fear, and chaos were the daily reality — and the reaction was compassion. It was empathy. It was generosity. What a thing to see in the numbers.

No, this reaction was not universal. The pandemic response has also reflected greed, selfishness, ignorance, and cruelty. And 2020 was also marred by violence, racial injustice, and more. But our data shows a remarkable commitment to doing good and helping others.

People got sick, lost jobs, lost loved ones. Families found themselves face to face with hunger for the first time. That unprecedented need drove an undeniable surge of mutual aid. Millions of people saw their community strained and chose to do their part. And nonprofits, the recipients and drivers of this outpouring of support, were able to respond to the crisis and help their communities like never before.

We did that, together, and we still are not done caring for each other.

That’s what the cold little numbers mean; it’s the human truth behind our tables and charts. And so we’re going to give you the straight news from here on out, sharp and objective and stuck to the facts like glue. But you should know that the whole time, when we’re talking about numbers, we’re going to be having feelings.

Onward

As overwhelming as the pandemic has been, COVID was not the sum total of the news in 2020.

The movement for Black lives and the growing demands for racial justice sparked demonstrations, advocacy, engagement, and meaningful change. This growing movement was led by people of color and shaped by nonprofits whose core missions center on racial justice. It has led many organizations — including M+R and many Benchmarks participants — to rightly question their own practices, programs, and priorities.

And, of course, the election. Years of wall-to-wall Trump coverage reached a new peak of intensity. The stakes in the election were impossible to overstate — the environment, health care, basic equality, human rights, the very foundation and purpose of our democracy.

So much of 2020 was centered on those three forces: the pandemic, the protests, and the presidency. These were not discrete or mutually exclusive, but on any given day in 2020, some combination of the three was very likely to be leading headlines.

That context determined how nonprofits approached their communications, programs, and strategies. And that context was the lived experience for activists, organizers, voters, and donors.

In order to assess more clearly the impact each of these had on nonprofits, we asked Benchmarks participants to answer three questions:

  • Is fighting for racial justice a primary focus of your organization’s work?
  • In 2020, did your organization do electoral work in the United States?
  • In 2020, did your organization help provide relief in response to COVID-19 — either directly or through advocacy efforts?

We were looking to see if nonprofits that focused on racial justice or COVID relief were likely to attract more attention or support. We’ve also heard concerns from apolitical nonprofits that the intensity of a presidential election might crowd out other topics, making it more difficult for those who are not engaged in the election to reach audiences or raise revenue.

Is fighting for racial justice a primary focus of your organization’s work?

On the first question, the most interesting finding was the sheer breadth of nonprofits who asserted that racial justice is a focus of their work. Nonprofits from every sector and issue area claimed racial justice as a priority, which we hope reflects a commitment to making long overdue meaningful changes within our industry. What we did not see were any differences in results: nonprofits who identified racial justice as a priority did not perform differently on average than those that did not.

In 2020, did your organization do electoral work in the United States?

Next, we looked at whether the election tended to crowd out apolitical nonprofits. And again, we did not find major differences along this axis. Revenue grew just a bit more over 2019 levels for nonprofits that did electoral work, and organic web traffic increased a bit more for non-electoral nonprofits. But the differences were small: no front-page, bold-type findings. We found no reason to believe that the intense focus on the presidential election hampered digital programs for nonprofits that didn’t engage in election work.

In 2020, did your organization help provide relief in response to COVID-19 — either directly or through advocacy efforts?

Finally, we considered front-line COVID response, and the big shift in revenue for the Hunger and Poverty sector we already covered may have given this away. Nonprofits that provided COVID relief, either directly or through advocacy, saw a 40% increase in online revenue, compared to a 22% increase for those that did not do COVID work.

This difference was driven by a surge in one-time giving to COVID response nonprofits. They reported a 41% increase in one-time revenue, while non-COVID response nonprofits saw one-time revenue rise by 21%. In contrast, the change in monthly giving was the same for COVID nonprofits and for non-COVID response nonprofits (26%).

This pattern may seem familiar to nonprofits with experience in disaster response. The urgent desire to help during an emergency can drive a surge in one-time giving. Converting this attention and generosity into long-term growth requires a commitment to retention. If you weren’t already looking forward to next year’s Benchmarks, this long-term impact is something we’ll be keeping an eye on.

While 2020 is behind us, and the results are in, the major news events that shaped the data in this year’s Benchmarks Study are very much still with us. A new administration is setting policy, the assault on voting rights continues, the race between vaccination and viral mutation is ongoing, and the work of dismantling white supremacy and establishing racial justice remains an urgent task.

So read on, get the facts, and hold on to these words from pioneering journalist Nellie Bly: “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” Let’s get to it.

Digital Ads

Headlines

  • Nonprofit spending on digital ads increased by 33% in 2020, with nonprofits spending an average of $0.10 for every dollar raised in online revenue. (This is a measure of the level of spending relative to total budget, not a direct measure of return on investment. More on return on ad spend below.)
  • Digital ad spending was concentrated toward the end of the year, with almost a third of all spending occuring in December.
  • Direct fundraising ads accounted for 60% of all ad spending. Branding, awareness, or education ads accounted for 25%, and lead generation for 14%.
  • Return on ad spend was highest for search ads ($4.78), followed by social media ($1.05), display ($0.38), and video ($0.27).
  • On average, the cost to acquire a new lead through digital advertising was $2.60.

Sometimes the big, bold headline obscures a subtler story below the fold. For nonprofit digital ads, the unmistakable headline has been continued growth. But when we dig a little deeper, we find intriguing nuance, with nonprofits of different sizes and different issue areas making choices with major impact.

Let’s start from the top: in 2020, nonprofits in our study spent an average of ten cents on digital ads for every dollar raised in online revenue. To put it another way, a nonprofit that raised $1 million online in 2020 spent an average of $100,000 on digital advertising.

This is not nonprofits’ return on investment — rather, it’s a measure of how much of their total budget nonprofits are investing in digital ads.

We have seen this investment grow year after year, and 2020 continued that trend. Nonprofits’ digital advertising spending grew 33% year over year. But this growth was not evenly distributed across sectors and was no doubt impacted by the many, many challenges nonprofits faced in 2020.

Cultural nonprofits pulled back sharply on digital advertising investments as COVID restrictions forced destinations like museums to close, and budgets were under unprecedented strain. Health and Hunger and Poverty organizations scaled up massively, as their work gained new relevance and urgency. So while nonprofits on the whole increased ad spending, they weren’t all operating in the same environment or following the same priorities. They used digital ads for everything from fundraising to recruiting new supporters and volunteers to raising awareness about their mission and programs.

Digital ad spending increased sharply in the final quarter of 2020, with 31% of budgets spent in December alone. The driving force here seems clear: Giving Tuesday and December 31st remain powerful moments for donors to give, and nonprofits were eager to position themselves and their causes in front of generous people looking to make a difference.

There was also a small spike in digital ad spending in June (8% of total spending), and here the cause is less obvious. It may reflect nonprofits increasing ad budgets to coincide with the end of the fiscal year — either to align with a major fundraising push or spending down remaining budgets before they expire.

The bulk of ad spending was dedicated to fundraising: 60% of budgets went to direct fundraising ads, and 14% was spent on lead generation. Branding, awareness, or education ads made up 25% of budgets.

Once again, there was significant variation beneath those topline numbers. Looking at the breakdown by size, we found stark differences between the budget priorities of Large organizations and Small organizations.

Large organizations spent 60% of their digital advertising budget on fundraising, with 25% of budgets allocated to branding, awareness, or education. Small organizations, on the other hand, spent 64% of their digital advertising budget on branding, awareness, or education, and only 8% on direct fundraising. This could be a reflection of the extra work smaller organizations must do to get their name out there, particularly in a crowded digital advertising space.

Breaking down direct fundraising budgets by channel also revealed the differences in spending strategy between nonprofits of different sizes. Overall, fundraising ad budgets were split relatively evenly between display, search, and social media. Large nonprofits made advertising investments consistent with those topline averages. But Medium organizations prioritized search and social ads more heavily, spending 45% and 40% of their budget on those channels. Small nonprofits, on the other hand, spent 73% of their budgets on social media advertising, but only 12% on search and 15% on display.

Part of this pattern may be explained by the increased costs (in both technology and staffing) of running display or video advertising programs — costs that may be prohibitive for smaller organizations. But the average cost of generating a donation also varies widely by channel and may also influence nonprofits’ decision making. Search, for example, had the lowest cost per donation in 2020 at $29, with social media not far behind at $40. Display and video were substantially more expensive, at $116 and $147 per donation.

And remember what we said about smaller organizations spending more on awareness ads? That whopping $228 CPD for Small organizations’ search programs may help to explain that difference. Smaller organizations struggle to break through brand-dependent fundraising channels like search. Investing more in branding and awareness ads may be a longer-term effort to buck that trend by boosting brand recognition and affinity.

Fundraising isn’t the only purpose of digital advertising. Nonprofits also use digital ads to build their supporter base, whether it’s recruiting people to join an email list or encouraging people to sign up for SMS alerts. In 2020, the average cost to acquire a new lead through digital advertising was $2.60.

We have covered what it costs to bring in a donation or a new lead, but what are nonprofits getting back? Search stands out here, too: $4.78 of nonprofits’ revenue that can be directly sourced to every dollar spent on the channel (a measure known as Return on Ad Spend, or ROAS).

As with so many of our key metrics in 2020, the ROAS for Hunger and Poverty nonprofits was an extreme outlier: a massive $17.77 return for every dollar spent! We know how many people were searching for ways to help this year, and we take that gargantuan ROAS as a sign they found places to give.

Taking these charts together, we see that search had a lower cost per donation and a higher return on ad spend. Display, on the other hand, had a high cost per donation and a lower ROAS. Social fell somewhere in the middle.

So why not just dump your entire digital advertising budget in search? Why even bother with video ads and their sky-high CPDs and piddly ROAS?

The answer comes down to scale. There’s a limit to how much can be reasonably spent on search for most nonprofits, which is why search spending tends to be so consistent throughout the year. There are only so many people typing in relevant search terms like “Donate + <Your Organization>” into Google or Bing. After you’ve saturated search, you’ve got to look to other channels.

On the other hand, social and display ads can be run at much higher volumes. So when nonprofits sought to expand their reach during key moments — such as during the end-of-year fundraising push — they were able to increase investments in those channels.

Return on ad spend is just one way to evaluate the effectiveness of an advertising effort — and influencing supporter behavior is a complex art. A supporter might see an Instagram Stories ad, then see a display ad while they’re browsing the New York Times. They may not click on either of those, but those ads prompt them to search for your organization, click on a search ad, and give.

Donations like these, from supporters who were served ads but landed on a donation page through some other means, are attributed as view-through revenue. This kind of giving accounted for 24% of all digital ads giving in 2020. Yet if your attribution model only accounts for the “last touch,” your search ad gets all the credit for that gift, even if your social media and display ads played a role in prompting that gift.

That sounds complicated and messy, but let’s face it: much of nonprofit direct response is complicated and messy. There are no clear lines, no easy choices. What works for one organization may completely fail for another. The beauty of digital advertising is that it allows nonprofits to better understand who they are talking to, reach those audiences wherever they are, and respond to what their actions tell us they care about.

That flexibility is unique in the direct response space. But if you’re not tracking the journey — however circuitous it may be — to becoming a supporter or making a gift, you’re not only missing an opportunity to show the full impact of your program. You may also be missing out on finding more donors and supporters eager to support your cause.

Text Messaging and Peer to Peer

Headlines

  • Nonprofit mobile audiences grew by 26% in 2020, compared to a 3% average increase in email list size.
  • Nonprofits had 50 mobile list members for every 1,000 email subscribers.
  • Mobile message click-through rates were 6.3% for fundraising messages and 10% for advocacy messages. Both figures are far higher than comparable email metrics.
  • Peer-to-peer text message audiences received 1.24 messages per month in 2020, and responded 9.8% of the time.

Your phone goes *ping* and you reach for it automatically. It could be a breaking news alert, a reminder you’ve set for yourself, or a text from a friend. Or, increasingly, it could be a mass mobile message from a nonprofit, or a peer-to-peer message from a volunteer supporting a cause or candidate.

That level of immediacy, popping directly into a supporter’s awareness with the same urgency as their personal connections, is part of what makes mobile messaging such an important part of a modern digital program.

Let’s begin by examining bulk mobile messaging — texts sent directly by a nonprofit to a list of subscribers, broadly analogous to email or direct mail. Audience sizes for this channel grew rapidly in 2020, with a 26% increase over the previous year. This is considerably faster growth than email list sizes, which grew by just 3%.

Of course, the starting place was very different — for most nonprofits, email programs are much more mature and have benefited from many years of investment in acquisition. Despite the impressive growth in 2020, mobile list sizes have room to scale up. On average, nonprofits had 50 mobile list members for every 1,000 email subscribers.

Mobile messaging garnered much higher levels of interaction than email messaging. The click-through rate for mobile fundraising messages was 6.3% (email: 1.7%), and the click-through rate for mobile advocacy messages was 10% (email: 3.3%). Because of the way that mobile messaging platforms connect to donation platforms, we lack reliable data on response rates. But we can say with confidence that mobile messaging got attention and clicks.

We were able to track response rates for mobile advocacy call messages — mobile messages that are designed to connect a user directly to a target like a Congressional office. The average response rate for these messages was 1.6%.

The other major category of mobile messaging is peer-to-peer. Rather than a single mass message to a full list, these SMS messages connect volunteers and staff to individual list members, enabling one-on-one conversations.

Volume for this kind of messaging remained steady, with a user receiving 1.24 messages per month on average. This may not feel true for those of us who received a constant bombardment of messaging leading up to the election, but it’s worth keeping a few things in mind:

First, if you are reading Benchmarks, you probably do not have an average relationship with nonprofits. There is a good chance that you are subscribed to (and paying attention to) more lists than most people. Second, even if the average number of messages sent by each nonprofit remained steady, total volume could increase significantly if more nonprofits were sending messages. And finally, our data only includes our nonprofit participants, not candidates or political party sources. In our admittedly anecdotal experience, some of those political sources were quite chatty in 2020.

The response rate for peer-to-peer mobile messages was 9.8%, a decline of 27% from the previous year. “Response” means something a little different here than in other channels. For a fundraising email, the response rate measures the percentage of recipients who completed a donation. For peer-to-peer texting, we mean a literal response — the user responding with a text message of their own.

The opt-out rate for peer-to-peer messaging was 3.3%. This is the percentage of list members who opted out of further text messaging each month.

Declining response rates and rising opt-out rates could indicate user dissatisfaction with mobile messaging as it is currently structured. Upcoming rule changes from carriers may put restrictions on mass and peer-to-peer mobile messaging; the nature, timing, and enforcement of those rules remains to be seen. This is a developing story, so stay tuned for more in future editions of Benchmarks.

Our sources for mobile messaging data include our friends at GetThru, Hustle, and Upland Mobile Messaging. Our thanks go out to them for their data and expertise.

Email

Headlines

  • Most email metrics — including open rates, click-through rates, response rates, and page completion rates — went up in 2020.
  • For every 1,000 fundraising messages sent, nonprofits raised $78. This marks a 35% increase over 2019.
  • As was the case with overall online revenue, the Hunger and Poverty sector was an extreme outlier in email fundraising. These nonprofits raised $871 for every 1,000 fundraising emails sent, a 243% increase.
  • Wow.
  • Email list sizes increased by 3% in 2020, the same growth rate reported for 2019.
  • Nonprofits sent an average of 59 email messages per subscriber in 2020, a 17% increase in volume.
  • The average response rate for advocacy email was 3.6%, a 5% increase over the previous year. The average response rate for fundraising email was 0.10%, a 41% increase over the previous year.

People have been trying to relegate email programs to the obituary pages for years. Declining response rates, provider changes like Gmail’s “Promotions” tab, shifting user habits — all of those have been used to prophesize impending doom for this critical channel.

The 2020 data shows that reports of email’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Again.

Nonprofits sent more email messages to more people last year. Email volume increased by 17%, with 59 messages sent per list member over the course of the year. Of these, 23 were fundraising messages, 9 were advocacy messages, 12 were newsletters, and 15 were “other,” which might include cultivation messages, event invitations, polls and surveys, or anything else.

Email messaging was not distributed evenly over the course of the year. Most professionals reading this will be unsurprised to see the highest messaging volume in December, coinciding with the end-of-year fundraising push. Looking at shifts in email volume by sector helps illuminate how nonprofits responded to changing news over the course of the year.

Cultural nonprofit messaging spiked in February and May, possibly corresponding to waves of COVID cases and associated closures and restrictions on visits. Disaster and International Aid nonprofits, along with Public Media, also turned up the volume in May.

In many cases, larger audiences and increased volume correlate with lower engagement. That was not the case for email programs in 2020.

Correction issued June 16, 2021: After the original publication of Benchmarks, we found an error with the calculations for email click-through rates. The biggest difference was with the Fundraising click-through rate, which was originally higher. But the Advocacy and Newsletter click-through rates were also incorrect. The correct click-through rates and change 2019-2020 are:

Advocacy 2.9% (-1%)

Newsletter 1.7% (+1%)

Fundraising 0.7% (+4%)

We apologize for this error!

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Overall open rates increased by 9%, to 21%. Unsubscribe rates declined by 5%, to 0.18%. And response rates increased for both advocacy messages (to 3.6%) and fundraising messages (0.10%).

These improvements may have been partially driven by the high engagement levels, especially for fundraising, that we saw across digital channels last year. They may also reflect better targeting and list hygiene practices from nonprofits — delivering the right message to the right people at the right time can have a major impact on performance.

Email fundraising performance improved by just about every metric for every kind of nonprofit. For every 1,000 fundraising messages delivered, nonprofits raised an average of $78. That marked a 35% jump from the previous year. Rights nonprofits reported the lowest year-over-year growth in this metric, and even there we saw a 21% increase.

Once again, audiences responded with overwhelming generosity to Hunger and Poverty nonprofit appeals. That sector reported a 243% spike, raising $871 for every 1,000 fundraising emails sent.

There is a truism among fundraisers: donors donate. Which is to say, supporters who have a history of giving are more likely to give in response to new appeals than those who need to be convinced to give for the first time. The fundraising email metrics certainly bear that out — but a closer look reveals an intriguing nuance.

We found that donor audiences tended to have a slightly higher open rate than prospect audiences: 22% compared to 18%. However, click-through rates for fundraising messages were actually higher for prospect audiences. For audiences comprising donors, the average fundraising message click-through-rate was 1.6%. For prospect audiences, it was 1.7%.

To be clear: those are all pretty similar numbers. What we are seeing is that a donor was about as likely to click through on fundraising email as a subscriber who had never given before. The major difference is what happens next.

Page completion rate — the percentage of users who land on a donation page and then complete a gift — was 32% for donor audiences, and just 8% for prospect audiences. There is the difference.

It’s that divergence at the final step that led to a 0.29% response rate for donor audiences, and 0.05% for prospects.

It looks so simple, and like many simple things it is very complicated. Donors are more likely to have their payment information stored online, making the donation process simpler. Donation pages may lack sufficient content or context to convert a prospect, while a donor arrives already convinced of the need to give. There may be demographic or cultural differences that are clouded by the artificial categories of “donor” and “prospect.”

For a nonprofit looking to make prospects look more like donors, the solutions may not be easy to find. But the landing page itself, and user behavior there, is certainly a place to start looking — and testing.

Membership and Ticket Sales

Headlines

  • Revenue from online ticket sales dropped sharply in 2020 — nonprofits reported a 58% decrease from 2019.
  • Ticket sales declined from 34% of total online revenue in 2019, to 20% of total online revenue in 2020. (This includes only those nonprofits that report ticket sales.)
  • Revenue from membership programs with defined, tangible benefits increased by 17% in 2020, accounting for 66% of all revenue for nonprofits with those membership programs.

Think of all the things you didn’t do in 2020. The canceled plans, the postponed trips. The Saturday nights that transformed from dinner-and-a-show to takeout-and-Netflix.

For Cultural institutions and other nonprofits that rely on ticket sales and membership, the pandemic brought with it extraordinary challenges. There were closures and attendance limits. There were people, millions of them, suddenly not doing things.

This impact can be seen most clearly in ticket sales. (For our purposes here, we are looking at tickets to attend an institution or regular event, like a museum visit. We do not include tickets to special events like an annual gala.) Revenue from online ticket sales grew modestly from 2018 to 2019, with 6% annual growth. Then, 2020 happened. Online ticket revenue plummeted by 58%.

That’s a serious challenge, especially if it’s accompanied by a drop in on-site ticket sales. This decline shifted the burden of generating revenue from ticket sales to direct fundraising appeals and other efforts. In 2019, those nonprofits that report ticket sales received 34% of all online revenue through those sales; in 2020, ticket sales accounted for just 20% of total online revenue.

As vaccine distribution allows attendance to safely rise, we expect online ticket sales to rebound. It remains to be seen how long it will take for them to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The data for membership giving did not follow this dire trend. Nonprofits define membership in all sorts of different ways. For this analysis, we asked participants to only include membership programs that offer defined, tangible benefits — a branded tote bag and water bottle, regular admittance to events, etc. Membership that includes a paper card and a thank-you note is often an important part of a successful fundraising program, but it was not our focus here.

Membership revenue increased by 17% in 2020, building on 3% growth in the previous year. For those nonprofits that rely on this type of membership program, membership accounted for 66% of total online revenue in 2020. In 2019, membership was 54%.

The divergent trends in membership and ticket performance are apparent beyond the year-over-year changes. When we look specifically at email messages promoting each of these ways of supporting and engaging with nonprofits, membership messaging saw better results across the board.

Open rates and click-through rates were higher for membership email than ticket sales email. But as was the case in comparing prospect and donor messaging, the biggest difference emerged in page completion rates. While 21% of users who landed on a membership giving page completed their gift, just 1% of users who clicked through to a ticket sales page made a purchase.

Nonprofits that rely on membership offers tend to see better results with membership email than non-membership fundraising appeals. Every metric we track reflected better performance for membership email, likely as a result of sending to more targeted audiences. Still, it’s worth noting the remarkable 106% increase in response rate for non-membership fundraising appeals. These nonprofits found ways to appeal to supporters outside of the traditional membership model, and their subscribers rose to the occasion in an extraordinary way — no tote bags, water bottles, or admission packages needed.

Beyond the email numbers, membership mattered in 2020. The increasing importance and success of membership may be due to a greater emphasis from nonprofits promoting this kind of giving. It may reflect a renewed commitment from donors supporting causes they care about. It may be that in a year of isolation and uncertainty, many of us felt a profound need for belonging to strengthen our fragile spirits. Maybe membership provides a bit of that.

Social Media

Headlines

  • For every 1,000 email addresses, nonprofits had an average of 817 Facebook fans, 291 Twitter followers, and 149 Instagram followers.
  • Twitter posts had an average engagement rate of 1.8%.
  • Facebook posts had an average engagement score of 0.32%. We did not find major differences in Facebook engagement based on the day of week or post type.
  • Each organic Facebook post only reached 4% of a nonprofit page’s fans. Meanwhile, 29% of the audience reached by a given post was not already following the nonprofit.
  • Revenue from Facebook Fundraisers increased by 14% overall, with Hunger and Poverty nonprofits seeing a 946% increase in Fundraisers revenue.
  • Facebook Fundraisers accounted for 1.3% of all online revenue.

Before a website gets updated, before an email is launched, before hitting send on a mass SMS, most nonprofits respond to breaking news by turning to social media.

The potential reach of this channel is enormous, but it begins with those audiences that directly follow a nonprofit on each platform. For most nonprofits, Facebook continues to be the social media platform with the largest follower base. In 2020, nonprofits had 817 Facebook fans for every 1,000 email subscribers, 291 Twitter followers, and 149 Instagram followers.

Those ratios reflect the overall user base and relative maturity of each channels. However, they do not hold true for all nonprofits, or even for all sectors.

Rights nonprofits reported more Twitter followers than Facebook fans. For Wildlife and Animal Welfare nonprofits, Instagram outstripped Twitter, and Facebook audiences were even larger than email list sizes. (Our tentative theory here is that Instagram and Facebook are excellent channels for cute animal photos. We are dedicated to doing as much research as necessary to discover exactly how true that is.)

Now, simply having a large potential audience is not the same thing as actually reaching those supporters with content. Unlike channels like email, SMS, and direct mail, social media platforms directly control the reach of each piece of content through their proprietary algorithms.

On Facebook, an organic post by a nonprofit reached just 4% of fans in 2020. The vast majority of a nonprofit’s Facebook fans simply didn’t get served any individual post. On the flipside, 29% of the audience that did see a post were not already fans. We aren’t just reaching the audiences we already know when we post to social media.

In order to expand that reach, many nonprofits rely on paid post promotion. In 2020, 2% of nonprofit Facebook posts had paid reach.

Of course, social media isn’t simply a way for nonprofits to share information. It’s also a direct response channel — we want the audience to do something with our content.

Twitter provides a direct report of engagement, which the platform defines as total engagements per post divided by post reach. In 2020, the average Twitter engagement rate was 1.8%, with Wildlife/Animal Welfare nonprofits a high-side outlier at 2.9%.

We benchmark engagement a little differently on Facebook than on Twitter. Because of Facebook’s tendency to throttle post reach dramatically depending on their algorithms, Facebook engagement rates can be all over the map, and are less useful to benchmark. In order to produce a more stable figure, we looked at the number of users who interacted with a post as a percentage of page fans when the content was posted. By this measure, the average Facebook engagement score was 0.32%. Which is to say: if a nonprofit had 100,000 fans and posted a piece of content, that post would receive 320 likes, clicks, and shares on average.

That 0.32% engagement score marks a decline of 21% from 2019 levels — but the change in Facebook engagement scores was highly variable across sectors. Health nonprofits saw engagement rise by 537%, which may seem intuitive in a year dominated by a pandemic. The average Public Media engagement score rose by 139%, which may make sense in a year with so. much. news. And Wildlife and Animal Welfare engagement scores increased by 77%. (We’re going to have to go look at some more cute animal photos to try to figure out why.)

In order to try to assess the kinds of content that were most likely to drive Facebook engagement, we sorted all posts by day of week and by content type. There were some differences (weekend posts received a bit less engagement, photo and video content performed a bit better than link content), but nothing major.

While reaching individual users with organic Facebook posts became more challenging in 2020, the impact of Facebook Fundraisers continued to expand. Revenue from Facebook Fundraisers, the built-in peer-to-peer fundraising tool, increased by 14% in 2020.

In another eye-popping, jaw-dropping display of how communities responded to the COVID pandemic, Hunger and Poverty nonprofits reported a 946% increase in Facebook Fundraisers revenue.

The supporter response to COVID can be seen not just in which causes earned support, but when. As with so much other online fundraising, we saw a spike in Facebook Fundraisers in the November/December period covering Giving Tuesday and end of year. But the biggest month for Facebook Fundraisers in the Hunger and Poverty sector was in April, right as the nightly news and nationwide front pages were featuring lines of cars at community food banks. And for Cultural nonprofits experiencing shutdowns and attendance limits, Fundraisers activity spiked in May.

This giving reflects not just nonprofit strategy, but the effort and impact of thousands of individual supporters asking friends to join them in giving to a cause they care about. The average Facebook Fundraiser generated four gifts, with an average gift size of $34. All those individual efforts, those donated birthday posts and neighbors helping neighbors and long-lost high school classmates chipping in, accounted for 1.3% of all online revenue.

Website Performance

Headlines

  • Half of all nonprofit website visits came from users on mobile devices. The traffic share for mobile devices increased by 9% in 2020.
  • Users on desktop devices made up the majority of donation transactions (61%) and revenue (72%).
  • The average gift made on a desktop device was $80; for mobile users, the average gift was $42.
  • Organic traffic (website traffic generated by unpaid search results) comprised 42% of all nonprofit website visits in 2020.
  • Overall, 0.08% of organic website visitors made a donation, generating an average of $0.12 per visitor.

Considering how much less time most of us spent out and about in 2020, you might be forgiven for thinking we’d be less attached to our cell phones. Turns out, it’s just as easy to doomscroll on the couch as it is on the morning train.

The share of web traffic for nonprofits from users on mobile phones increased by 9% in 2020. Mobile users accounted for 50% of all website traffic, compared to 44% for desktop users and 6% for tablets.

As we have seen in recent years, not all visits are equally likely to result in fundraising success. While mobile visitors generated half of all web traffic, they made 35% of the donations and accounted for 25% of the revenue.

To put it another way: desktop users, while a declining share of overall traffic, were more likely to complete a gift, and their gifts were likely to be in larger amounts.

The website main donation page conversion rate for desktop users was 12%, compared to just 9% for mobile users. (Tablet users had an 18% conversion rate, but they are such a small share of overall traffic that we’re not going to get too excited about that number.) The average gift for a donation made on a desktop device was $80, nearly twice as high as the mobile average gift of $42.

Pandemic quarantine or not, the overall story has been remarkably consistent in recent years. More nonprofit website traffic is visiting on mobile devices, and that traffic is less valuable on average than desktop traffic (as measured by revenue — of course there are other reasons why we value visibility and engagement). The need to optimize the mobile experience and remove barriers to giving on mobile devices continues.

Setting aside the question of whether the user was holding a mouse or a phone, organic traffic accounted for 42% of all nonprofit website traffic. “Organic traffic” includes only visits from users who arrived via unpaid search results. It excludes visits driven by social media posts, direct response marketing like email, and paid search, social, or display advertising. This is traffic resulting from a user entering a search query, whether an issue or a nonprofit’s name, and finding their way to a website from the search engine results page.

With so much effort put into those other methods of generating traffic — email, social media, digital ads — it’s worth taking a moment to understand the potential impact of these visits. For many nonprofits, organic traffic represents the majority of all visits — both the Health and Wildlife and Animal Welfare sectors reported over 50% organic traffic.

Of all organic website visitors, 0.08% completed a gift. The average revenue generated by an organic website visitor was $0.12.

To be sure, visitors arrive at a nonprofit website for all sorts of reasons. They are looking for information, trying to get in touch with someone, considering a new career path, taking action on a vital issue, and so much more.

Some may not be open to making a donation. But many others are — if we make it easy to find the donation page and present a compelling case for giving. Successfully converting a higher share of organic visitors to donors takes considerable optimization and experimentation.

Even relatively minor improvements can have a major impact. Last year, the average visitor who arrived via organic search generated only $0.12 in revenue. But with millions and millions of such visitors, increasing that metric by just a couple of cents can provide a substantial boost to revenue.