Ways of Looking

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

That’s the first of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. It is, like the others, evocative and thought-provoking. It invites close attention. And, crucially, it is not better than the other ways of looking. They are all true.

This is what we strive for with our annual M+R Benchmarks Study. We gather as much data from as many nonprofits as possible, because we know that every perspective adds depth and nuance. Then we explore that data from every angle. What does it mean for fundraising, for advocacy, for marketing? What does it mean for nonprofits, for their supporters, for their causes?

Our goal is to give you not just a mountain of information about what nonprofits are experiencing online, but new ways of looking at that data. We want to help you track the trends and spot the movement. We want to shine light on your experiences. We want to show you something you might not have considered. We want you to show us something we haven’t considered.

This year, we are proud to be joined by 135 nonprofits encompassing a vast breadth of viewpoints. Each of them contributed data, answered questions, and volunteered time to help make our Benchmarks dataset comprehensive and reliable. More importantly, each of our generous nonprofit participants brought a unique perspective to this moment. We are deeply grateful for each and every one of them.

If seeing our full list of wonderful, groundbreaking, world-changing nonprofits leaves you feeling left out, please reach out to benchmarks@mrss.com to participate next time!

We would like to thank our friends at Mobile Commons and Hustle for providing information on text messaging interactions. We are also grateful to the wonderful folks at NTEN for helping the annual Benchmarks Study reach as many people as possible.

Collecting, coordinating, analyzing, and interpreting all these millions of data points requires a team wheeling and whirling in tandem, like a murmuration of starlings. The M+R Benchmarks team includes specialists from just about every area of expertise, each with a unique viewpoint.

Data: Theresa Bugeaud, Jonathan Benton, Karen Hopper, Sammy Stewart, Sam Lichtman
Will Valverde
Emily Giorgione, Laura Klavon, Ant Blair Borders
Web Development:
Bobby Burch, Michael King
Project Management:
Bobby Goldstein, Lucy Midelfort, Laura Klavon
Insight and Interpretation:
Madeline Stanionis, Amy Peyrot, Liz Ertner, Matt Derby, Yoonhyung Lee, Steve Daigneault, Cameron Lefevre, Kyle Shepherd, Michael King, Sally Brzozowski, Jon Kenney, Alexandra Braxton, Beth Rader, Anne Paschkopić

Every one of us who sorted numbers, answered questions, and considered what it all means contributed to the full picture explored by the M+R Benchmarks Study. But of course, the most important way of looking is the one you bring. We hope you’ll tell us about it.

The Forest + The Trees

We are M+R. We are communicators, marketers, fundraisers, and campaigners who help causes inspire people to act. We work exclusively with nonprofits who are alleviating suffering, fighting for human rights and democracy, dismantling inequality, making art and knowledge accessible to everyone, and fostering a healthier and sustainable world. Our services include:

  • Picture of Money Digital Fundraising + Advocacy
  • Picture of a Raised Fist Digital Organizing
  • Picture of a rolled-up newspaper. Media Relations
  • Picture of a bullseye. Advertising
  • Picture of a Facebook Like. Social Media

We’d love to discuss working together! Find us at www.mrss.com.

And if this sounds like work you want to be doing, we’re hiring!
More at www.mrss.com/careers.

Down the Rabbit Hole

A rabbit.

This is what we are going to do: we are going to dig up a fact, hard and cold like a diamond, and hold it up to the light. We are going to brush it off, inspect the shape of it, consider it from each angle. We are going to examine its qualities and study the ways it reflects and refracts the other things we know.

Ready? Here is a fact:

Online revenue for nonprofits grew by just 1% last year.

This is the median change in revenue for the nonprofits in our study. You might find it scary, or surprising, or strangely familiar. Maybe you don’t quite know what to think about it. That’s okay. Let’s take a closer look.

First, let’s put that 1% revenue growth number in perspective. This marks the first time in 13 years of M+R Benchmarks Studies that we are reporting average revenue growth in the single digits. In 2017, this same group of nonprofits reported 23% growth.1

So if that 1% growth seems like a significant break from what we are used to seeing, that’s because it is a significant break from what we are used to seeing. After years and years of steadily increasing online revenue, including record-breaking 2016 and 2017 gains for many nonprofits, suddenly that trendline flattened out.

Those record-breaking prior years are crucial to understanding what happened in 2018. If we take a look back at the past five years, we can begin to see that 1% growth in a whole new light.

Let’s take 2014 revenue as a baseline. In 2015, online revenue was 13% higher – substantial growth. The next year, revenue had grown by 34% – again, this is over the 2014 baseline, so it marked a fairly steady growth trajectory, rather than a massive jump.

But then: the massive jump happened. By 2017, online revenue was 69% higher than in 2014. That’s a big bend in the curve, and then in 2018 we saw it bend right back.

One way of thinking about these numbers. It’s not that there was no growth in 2018 revenue, at least relative to the long-term baseline. It’s that the 2018 growth happened a year early, showing up in 2017. Nonprofits were simply unable to maintain that momentum, and we have returned to a “normal” growth trendline.

If this is the case, it could be driven by the political reaction to the 2016 election. It could be a reflection of donor behavior in light of the new tax law. It could be caused by something else entirely, and most likely is the result of a combination of factors. But if it’s the case, we would expect to see a return to double-digit growth in 2019. Time will tell.

Right now, we know that a 1% year-over-year change in revenue is unusual. When you dig up a number like this, you have a few options. You can scowl at it mistrustfully, double- and triple-check it to make sure it’s correct. (We did that, believe us.) You can glare intimidatingly at the number, and hope it will change out of fear or guilt or embarrassment.

Or you can accept the data for what it is: a cold, hard fact, a true thing, but just a part of the truth. It shines new light on the state of our world. It’s also the sort of fact that may obscure some other powerful trends.

That’s when things get interesting. Suddenly we have a lot more to explore, the rabbit hole grows deeper. Because a shift from 23% revenue growth from 2016–2017 to 1% revenue growth in 2017-2018 – that doesn’t happen without a lot of other changes along the way.

After all, the reality of digital programs in this moment is complicated, and getting more so all the time. Each new answer raises more questions, each new insight arouses curiosity, each new datapoint sends us off in search of a trendline. Even the meaning of a single number can shift depending on where you stand, a tilt of the head enough to dramatically change its outlines.

Now hold that image in your mind, of nonprofits ending 2018 with just 1% more in online revenue than in 2017. And then let’s keep digging, keep exploring, and see what we find.

1 To be clear: that 23% is not the growth we reported in last year’s Benchmarks Study; it’s 2016-2017 data provided by this year’s cohort. This is important – we strongly advise against comparing the numbers in this year’s study to previous editions. We have a different pool of participants each year, so the data are not directly comparable. And okay yes, we did just talk about a dozen previous studies in that last paragraph, but we are just setting some background context here, so it’s fine.

Hand Over Fist: Where the Money Is (And Where It Isn't)

A hand what looks like a snake.

Of course, just because overall revenue was relatively flat, that doesn’t mean there weren’t sources of significant change hidden just beneath the surface. Some of the old standbys of online fundraising showed signs of wear, some long-term trends continued, and many organizations got a big boost from a new source of revenue they’ve never been able to count on before.

Let’s start with the new thing first.

Facebook’s fundraising tools didn’t debut in 2018, but for many of our participants this was the first year the platform made a measurable impact on revenue.

The accounting here is a little tricky. Facebook fundraising includes a few different techniques, including direct donation links on a nonprofit’s profile page. The vast majority of Facebook revenue in 2018 came via the peer-to-peer tool known as Facebook Fundraisers. In fact, for participants in our study, it accounted for about 99% of all nonprofit revenue processed on Facebook.

This revenue isn’t processed in the same way as gifts made directly to a nonprofit. That means that it is not included in our calculation of 1% overall revenue growth.

On average, nonprofits raised $1.77 through Facebook for every $100 raised through other online channels.2 For some sectors, the impact is even more dramatic. Rights groups, which saw a sharp decline in traditional one-time giving, received $13.02 in Facebook donations for every $100 in other revenue.

And for Health nonprofits, Facebook appears to be nothing short of transformative. For every $100 in direct online revenue, Health nonprofits received $29.88 through Facebook. In other words, for Health groups, Facebook donations accounted for about 30% as much revenue as every other source of online revenue, including email, web giving, monthly donors, digital ads, and search.

(One quick thing here. Take a close look at that chart. The white box is the median figure. The blue and yellow bars to either side go down to the 25th percentile, and up to the 75th – anything in that range is what we generally consider “normal.”

Now, notice that the 75th percentile for Health nonprofits is just shy of $90 in Facebook donation revenue per $100 in other online giving. That is, some nonprofits received nearly as much revenue from Facebook as all other online giving. Suddenly, that “flat growth year over year” is looking a little more complicated.)

It looks like Facebook Fundraisers are a valuable new source of giving for many nonprofits, and that they’re catching on in a big way among supporters. But wait. Does that mean there are teeming hordes of dedicated supporters diligently starting and sharing peer-to-peer giving efforts? Well…

On average, nonprofits received revenue from 56 individual Fundraisers over the course of 2018. To be sure, that number is much higher for some sectors and for some nonprofits in particular. But even a few dozen supporters willing to start a Fundraiser to celebrate their birthday, or Giving Tuesday, or Groundhog Day (the gift that keeps giving, and giving, and giving…) can make a substantial impact.

If a supporter wants to be one of those special Fundraiser-starting superstars, they can expect to generate about seven and a half donations. The average gift is a relatively modest $31.

The number of gifts per Fundraiser, and the average size of those gifts, is relatively consistent across sectors. Yes, Fundraisers for Rights nonprofits tend to generate a couple more donations on average, and the average gift for Health groups is a few bucks higher. But the really big difference stems from the number of Fundraisers started to support a nonprofit in the first place.

That means that if you want to reap the rewards of this emerging revenue source, your most effective path forward is to find ways to motivate supporters to start their own Fundraisers. As it happens, there may be a particularly promising time of year to do so.

2 This only includes funds given through the Facebook platform, not people giving on nonprofit donation forms after clicking through Facebook. These numbers apply only to those nonprofits who reported at least some Facebook revenue. Nonprofits that choose not to use Facebook Fundraisers, or are not eligible (e.g. 501(c)(4) organizations), are excluded.

On the whole, giving through Facebook was higher in the second half of the year than the first. It remains to be seen whether this is indicative of Fundraisers gaining traction with users over time, or if this reflects seasonal shifts that may play out year over year. Tune in to next year’s Benchmarks to find out!

What is clear right now is that November is the month for Facebook Fundraisers – nearly a quarter of revenue came in during that month. This should come as no surprise to anyone whose News Feed was suddenly quite crowded with Fundraisers from friends and family on and around Giving Tuesday.

And just as notable: December doesn’t seem to be anything special, at least for Fundraisers. While nonprofits may see the end-of-year deadline as crucial to driving revenue through other sources, it does not seem to have much impact on Fundraisers.

These trends – a big spike in November, a relatively tame December – may indicate supporter preferences. it could be the type of person who starts a Fundraiser prefers to do it around Giving Tuesday rather than any other time.

They may also be the result of nonprofit recruitment efforts. If nonprofits heavily encouraged Fundraisers for Giving Tuesday (possibly in response to a quickly-exhausted matching gift offer from Facebook and PayPal last year), that could contribute to the spike in that month. These patterns open up possibilities for taking advantage of a bandwagon effect, or for counter-programming in what are typically quieter times for Fundraisers.

Facebook Fundraisers are the big new sparkly thing, and potentially very exciting. We expect nonprofits to continue to pursue emerging opportunities to increase revenue – especially as other fundamental parts of digital fundraising programs may be losing their luster. As important as it is to spot the new sources showing increased revenue, we also have to keep an eye on shifts showing trouble on the horizon.

While online revenue grew by 1% in 2018, email revenue decreased by 8% – though email still accounted for 13% of all online giving. 

Which is to say that email fundraising is important, but it is also hard, and getting harder. For every 1,000 email appeals sent, nonprofits raised an average of $45. Most of the key metrics, from open rates to page completion rates, declined. Response rates for fundraising messages were down 13% (to 0.06%). For advocacy messages, response rates declined by 15% (to 1.8%).

While email metrics declined, nonprofits landed more messages in more inboxes in 2018. Email lists grew by 5% in 2018, and nonprofits increased messaging volume slightly, sending 4% more fundraising messages than in 2017.

Taking a step back to look at long-term trends, nonprofits are facing serious challenges to email fundraising – but the steady expansion of monthly giving helped to stabilize online revenue in 2018. While overall online revenue may have been flat year-over-year, revenue from recurring monthly gifts increased by 17%.

At the same time, revenue from one-time gifts declined by 2% in 2018. Without that growth in monthly giving, overall online revenue would have gone down last year.

As we’ve reported in previous years, and as is the case with Facebook Fundraisers, the continued growth in monthly giving is likely the result of both supporter preferences and nonprofit strategy. 

On the one hand, more and more donors see monthly giving as a convenient, affordable way to make an impact on the causes they care about. On the other, nonprofits value the steady source of revenue and are increasingly likely to pursue a monthly-first strategy. Together, those preferences are changing the face of online fundraising programs – monthly giving accounted for 16% of all online revenue in 2018, up from 13% in 2017.

The steady growth of monthly giving, especially compared to one-time giving, stems from one other key factor: retention. One-time donors need to affirmatively choose to complete another gift in order to maintain their support from year to year. Monthly donors just need to keep their payment method current. So even when we see big swings in one-time giving, monthly programs have less donor churn, and a better chance of steadily chugging up, up, up.

Food for Thought: Retention + Giving Levels

A man's silhouette made from various foods and objects.

Since retention appears to be an important part of this story, let’s take a closer look.

Overall, 37% of donors who made a gift online in 2017 donated online again to that nonprofit in 2018. That retention rate is about 3% lower than in 2017. This includes monthly donors whose sustaining gift continued from one year to the next. It does not include donors who made gifts through other channels – we are looking only at online-to-online retention here.

There’s a marked difference in retention between new donors (those who made their first gift in 2017) and prior donors (those who gave in 2017, and at least one previous year). New donors had a retention rate of just 25% – that’s 34 percentage points lower than the retention rate of prior donors. That should be intuitive: donors with a history of repeated giving are more likely to repeat their gifts.

For both cohorts, retention was down from 2017 levels – and the drop was much greater for new donors. Retention among first-time donors declined by 13.6% in 2018. If we are looking for reasons that total revenue growth flattened out in 2018, this is a key part of the story. A large group of donors made their first gift in 2017, causing growth to spike – and then, they just didn’t come back in 2018.

While the overall retention rate is an important metric to track, it’s worth scratching below the surface. After all, bringing back fifty $10 donors will help your retention rate – but retaining a single $1,000 donor makes a bigger impact on revenue.

When we break out retention rates by gift level, we see that donors at the lowest giving levels tend to have the lowest retention rates. Just 10% of donors who made gifts under $25 in 2017 gave again online in 2018. As we move up the gift-size ladder, retention rates increase as well.

And then it peaks. The cohort with the highest retention rate includes donors in the $250-$499 range. This cohort had a retention rate of 54%, meaning that more than half of donors who made a gift in this range in 2017 came back the next year.

This is in part due to the impact of monthly donors. The average monthly gift size in 2018 was $23, which would annualize to $276 if the donor maintained their giving for all twelve months. That means that a substantial portion of monthly donors fall within this cohort, helping to improve retention.

Retention rates dropped for all giving levels in 2018, with no particular pattern connected to size of gift. While some declined more than others, the differences were relatively minor, so each donor level made up just as big a piece of the pie in 2018 as in previous years. (Unfortunately, our data team will not allow us to use pie charts even when we use pie metaphors, so take a look at this stacked bar chart instead.)

About a third of all online donors made gifts under $50 in each of the last three years. And in each of the last three years, they accounted for less than 10% of all revenue.

Donors who gave at least $250 accounted for 17% of all gifts in 2018, and 57% of revenue. That is nearly identical to the 16% of gifts and 58% of revenue they generated in 2017 (which, in turn, was unchanged from 2016).

None of this is to suggest that donors who give $10 are less committed or important than those who give $1,000. Movements are powered by people, and any person who makes a gift to support a cause they care about deserves our gratitude. But it’s a reminder that even simple measures like retention rate are vast and contain multitudes. It’s worth considering not only how many donors are sticking with you year after year, but who those donors are.

Birds of a Feather: Membership + Ticket Revenue

A silhouette of a bird's feather made from birds.

Most of the time, when you make an online donation you don’t get a whole lot back. Yes, a very nice thank-you message / tax receipt / sustainer upsell ask. Yes, the satisfaction of knowing that you are contributing to a cause you care about, alleviating suffering, and making the world a better place. All of that. But often, nothing tangible. No stuff.

Membership and ticket sales are different. Here, the nonprofit provides something of quantifiable value in return for a donation.

We asked our participants whether their online offers include membership or ticket sales. Tickets are pretty clear-cut: you either purchase a ticket to enter a museum (or a zoo, or a symphony, or some kind of combination zoo-symphony) or you don’t.

Membership can be a little trickier, because many nonprofits offer primarily symbolic memberships that amount to little more than a printed card in the mail (not to disparage this kind of offer – it can help build loyalty and strengthen the donor’s sense of belonging). But for this analysis, we are focused on those membership programs that offer substantial tangible benefits. That could be discounted or free admission, or it could be a magazine subscription, a t-shirt, a hat, a fancy pin, or a tote bag to hold your magazines and shirts and hats and pins.

Note: In the charts above that report on membership, unless specified otherwise, we’re only including groups that reported membership revenue. The same is true for tickets.

What we found is that membership giving makes up the bulk of total online revenue for nonprofits that have a membership program – more than three quarters of all online revenue in 2018. And membership giving followed a similar trajectory to other kinds of online revenue. After robust 21% growth in 2017, nonprofits saw a 5% increase in membership revenue in 2018.

Another consideration for nonprofits that offer both membership and non-member giving is loyalty. For groups with membership programs, members had a retention rate about double that of non-member donors. About 33% of 2017 members made another membership gift in 2018; just 17% of non-member donors were retained.3

While shifts in membership giving appear to mirror movement among other sorts of giving, ticket revenue stands apart. From 2016 to 2017, ticket revenue increased by 32%. That could be seen as part of the broad growth in online giving. Then in 2018, ticket revenue increased by another 52%. That stands out.

As with so many top-line changes, this one is likely composed of a few different moving pieces. We measured revenue, rather than the number of tickets sold, so higher ticket prices could contribute to this increase, although attendance is also a big factor. If there was a high-profile event or an exciting new exhibit or program, that would have an impact that would be less replicable from year to year.

But we may also be seeing a shift to online sales from other sources. As nonprofits make it easier to purchase tickets online, and as supporters grow increasingly comfortable with buying tickets online (including on mobile devices), ticket revenue that might otherwise come in via phone, mail, or box office will appear as online revenue.

3 One note: these retention rates are within each category. So, a 2017 donor who became a member in 2018 would not count toward retention; neither would a supporter who switched from membership to a non-member gift. It’s possible that the relatively low donor retention rate is due in part to nonprofits successfully transitioning these donors to member status.

Deep Dive Into Digital Ads

Two divers whose negative space creates a lightbulb.

Declining retention. Lower email response rates. Reduced revenue growth overall. No matter how you look at it, nonprofit digital programs are faced with serious challenges. It is imperative to reach new audiences, acquire fresh donors, activists, and prospects, and re-engage existing supporters.

Part of the answer, for many nonprofits, lies in digital advertising.

Not all Benchmarks participants invested in digital ads, but those that did reported a sharp increase in spending.

Overall, digital ad budgets grew by 144% in 2018.

The increased investment was especially pronounced among nonprofits in the Rights sector, which spent 300% more on ads in 2018 than in 2017.

Small nonprofits also more than tripled their investment in digital ads, outpacing the 156% growth for Medium nonprofits and 116% growth for Large nonprofits.

Overall, nonprofits invested ten cents for every dollar they raised in online revenue. This is a slippery datapoint, so be careful. This is NOT a measure of return on investment (which we will get to in just a moment, promise). What this describes is the ratio of digital ad spending to total online revenue, a measure of the level of investment nonprofits of different sizes made. For example, a nonprofit with online revenue of $1,000,000 might be expected to spend about $100,000 on digital ads.

Whether that investment paid off is a different question. Let’s try to answer it!

First, it’s important to note that there is more to digital ad strategy than fundraising.

About 55% of nonprofit ad budgets were dedicated to direct fundraising – the kind of ad that will have a big shiny GIVE NOW button and land supporters on a donation page. An additional 23% went to lead generation and advocacy – including user experiences like signing a petition, completing a survey, taking a quiz, or otherwise submitting an email address. Finally, 21% of digital ad budgets went toward branding, awareness, and education campaigns.

Now, let’s take a closer look at ad spending devoted specifically to fundraising. The cost to generate a single donation varies dramatically depending on channel.

For display advertising (e.g. banner ads), nonprofits spent an average of $359 to convert a single donor. However, there was a noticeable split here depending on organization size. Small nonprofits reported a $1,168 cost per donation, while Medium and Large nonprofits averaged around $170 cost per donation for display advertising.

At the other end of the cost spectrum, nonprofits spent an average of $33 to acquire a donor via search. Once again, we see that Small nonprofits experienced substantially higher costs per donor ($83) than Medium ($27) or Large ($21) nonprofits.

It may be that name recognition plays a role here. Medium and Large nonprofits may also benefit from greater resources, whether that means more experienced staff, the ability to work with agency partners, or funding to test and optimize ad content and strategy.

Whatever the cause, we may see that gap closing as Small nonprofits continue to increase investments in digital ads and gain valuable experience.

In many ways, the mirror image of cost per donation is return on ad spend (ROAS). Those channels with the highest cost to acquire a donor tend to have the lowest ROAS.

For display, which takes up the largest share of nonprofit digital ad budgets, ROAS is $0.36. That is, nonprofits received 36 cents back for every dollar they spent in this channel. Social media advertising, the next largest budget category, generated a $0.83 ROAS. For search, a dollar of ad spend returned $4.78 in revenue.

You might look at this and think that since search returned the most revenue per dollar spent, nonprofits should shift more resources to that channel. You might even be tempted to declare that channels like display or video that fall short of a $1 ROAS are losing money, and not worth investing in.

But the picture is more complicated than that, and ROAS is an incomplete measure of performance. It does not capture the long-term value of a donor, who might make additional gifts beyond the immediate donation, or whether that donor is new to your organization or not.

The truth is, attribution is a fraught and difficult task, and nonprofits employ many different models. A supporter might see a pre-roll video ad, choose not to click right away, but visit a nonprofit’s site later to make a gift – and that single interaction can be seen and measured in a variety of ways. Whether that gift is attributed to the ad or included in a ROAS calculation varies quite a bit.

We recommend using ROAS as a baseline measure, while looking more broadly at user behavior and long-term data to assess the value of ad investments. As we look ahead, it will become increasingly critical to understand what supporters are doing not just in the moment they interact with a message, but throughout their relationship with a nonprofit.

Evolve or Die: The Mobile Experience

A picture of a dinosaur whose negative space resembles a bird.

The time between viewing an ad and making a gift or taking an action is not the only opportunity to lose track of a supporter. The reality is, many supporters are engaging with nonprofits on multiple devices, from the text alert they receive before getting out of bed in the morning, to the desktop computer they use to check email at the office, to the tablet they use to browse the web at home.

In 2018, users on mobile devices accounted for 48% of all traffic to nonprofit websites, compared to just 44% for desktop. This marks a tipping point, and as mobile traffic continues to grow relative to desktop traffic, there’s no reason to think we’re going back any time soon.

That’s why most nonprofits are taking a very close look at the mobile experience, especially when it comes to making a donation. Here’s the worrying part: while mobile users were about half of all nonprofit web traffic, they accounted for just 30% of gifts, and 21% of revenue.

The numbers in parentheses represent the percentage change in rate since 2017.

Mobile has narrowed the gap with desktop when it comes to online giving. The share of online revenue coming from mobile users increased by 15% in 2018, eating into both the desktop and tablet shares.

But a desktop user is still more likely to make a gift, and those gifts are likely to be larger (the average for a desktop gift was $53 higher than for a mobile gift).

Nonprofits reported a 21% conversion rate for desktop users on their main donation page. That is, if 100 desktop users clicked the big donate button on the homepage, 21 of them would actually complete their gift. For mobile users, that conversion rate was just 9%. So just getting mobile users to land on a donation page isn’t enough – there’s more to be done to make sure they complete a gift.

Some of these differences may be due to demographics or other factors over which nonprofits have limited control. For example, if mobile-first users have lower incomes on average than desktop-first users, we might expect their average gifts to be lower. And if supporters feel more secure using their home WiFi connection to process donations rather than pulling out a credit card while in public or completing a transaction via Apple Pay on a donation form, it will take time to change those attitudes.

It’s up to nonprofits to make giving easy, compelling, and irresistible regardless of the device or platform.

Beyond the web and email experience, the move to mobile has opened unique channels for nonprofits to reach supporters – and for supporters to connect with each other.

Mobile lists (that is, supporters who have given nonprofits permission to send them text messages) grew by 14% in 2018. While mobile lists tend to be much smaller than email lists (on average, nonprofits had 63 mobile subscribers per 1,000 email subscribers), mobile users engage at relatively high rates.

Fundraising text messages had a click-through rate of 13%, which suggests relatively high engagement – the average email fundraising message click-through was orders of magnitude smaller, at just 0.44%. However, we are unable to report on response rates or revenue for text appeals, as those results are recorded separately from the Mobile Commons platform.4

The click-through rate for advocacy text messages, 15%, was also far higher than the equivalent email rate of 2.4%. That’s for messages where the goal is to encourage supporters to click through to an action page, which typically asks a person to sign a petition or send a letter to elected officials.

But text is a mobile phone technology, and phones can also make phone calls! That means that text campaigns are particularly well suited to driving calls to decision makers. For this type of message, the response rate was 4.1%. So text messages successfully drove phone calls at more than twice the rate that email advocacy messages drove traditional web-based actions.

The possibilities for using text technology to mobilize supporters extend beyond bulk messaging. Peer-to-peer text messaging from platforms like Hustle5 have gained significant traction as part of electoral and advocacy campaigns.

These platforms connect volunteers, staff, and organizers with donors, voters, and supporters, enabling them to have one-on-one text message conversations at scale. This is in contrast to bulk text through a platform like Mobile Commons, which allows the nonprofit to send a single message to a full list at once and manage replies automatically or via an in-box.

A benefit of a well-run peer-to-peer program is that it creates a direct conversation between a targeted supporter and the staff or volunteer who is texting them. Nonprofits use peer-to-peer text to recruit supporters for event attendance, volunteering, advocacy, and fundraising, as well as to drive voter turnout. As with Facebook Fundraisers, peer-to-peer texting opens up the possibility of mobilizing committed supporters to expand the reach of nonprofits.

The median response rate for a peer-to-peer text among our study participants was 15%. Response rate in this case is quite literal – it is the percentage of recipients who reply to a peer-to-peer text message, which may or may not indicate that recipient completing an action, donating, or voting. Recipients were sent about 1.5 messages per month, and had a 2.9% opt-out rate per month.

Peer-to-peer text messaging metrics

Response rate (% of messages sent that receive a text message back)15%
Monthly Opt-out rate (% of individuals who opt out each month)2.9%
Number of messages an org sends to its peer-to-peer list members each month1.5
4 There are other mobile platforms out there, but all mobile messaging data reported in Benchmarks was provided by Mobile Commons. We are grateful for their generous contributions of time and sweet, sweet data.
5 Remember that footnote about Mobile Commons? The same thing applies to Hustle. While there are other peer-to-peer text solutions, this data was provided by Hustle, and we appreciate their help.

Tip the Scales: What Comes Next

Silhouette of a snake whose fangs look like tipping scales.

Another way of looking at 2018 online revenue: nonprofits were poised, with nearly perfect balance, between growth and decline.

Look at the solid bedrock. Long-term trends that have helped nonprofits consolidate gains year after year continued to rise. Email list sizes have grown. Monthly giving programs keep expanding. Investments in digital ads are bringing in new supporters.

Look at the challenges. Email response rates and revenue declined. The energy and enthusiasm that flooded nonprofit supporters in 2017 may have reached its high-water mark. Gravity has not been repealed, and the rush that powered record-breaking results in 2017 began to ebb.

Look at the opportunities. In this moment, it can be hard to tell what is solid, and what is a momentary flash. Facebook Fundraisers could become a difference-maker for nonprofits (or… not). Nonprofits may find ways to leverage mobile platforms in ever more powerful ways. And another election is right around the corner, ready to remake the landscape again.

Look at the data now, carefully. Recognize the trends that track to your own experience. Consider the metrics that diverge from your results. Scrutinize each true thing, until it reveals something you can use to grow your program and advance your cause.

That’s what we’re going to do. Dig up some facts, hold them up to the light. And then keep digging.