South African NPOs: Six things to avoid in fundraising emails

Gabrielle Ritchie | Director, The Change Room | 26th May 2017

Last night I participated in Gail Perry’s Fired-Up Fundraising webinar, How a Smart Fundraising Plan Can Transform Your Fundraising AND Save Your Butt. It was a brilliant reminder of some of the basics, the fundamentals, that organisations need to put in place for successful fundraising.  It also reminded me of some of the technical issues around fundraising communications, with particular reference to emails.

While Gail shared with us that last year’s US-based Giving Tuesday’s email campaigns saw 34% of mails ending up in spam, it is still a key mechanism for building support for non-profit causes, and for communicating fundraising messages.  So we really need to get it right.  I recently received two very horrible fundraising emails which reminded me not only how easy it is to get it wrong, but how many organisations are still getting it wrong.  With the unprecedented level of easy-to-access online resources, this should not be happening.  So I have a list, based on the two examples I referred to, on what to AVOID:

  1. Subject line – your subject header is your first and last opportunity to grab your readers’ attention, so make it work!  If you must include something like “[organisation’s name] fundraising event” then …. no, just kidding. Don’t use that subject line. Ever. Unless its an internal organisational event-planning email intended only for your colleagues.  Use that tiny window of opportunity (ie.the subject header) to communicate your key message – eg. Support [xxxx cause] – join us on [date]; or Join us in rocking to [xxx band] – and support [xxx cause]; or something unrelated to the event or to the fact that your support is needed. If it is an event, try something fun: How to spend your Saturday night having the most fun ever! Or if you are appealing for direct donation, try “Ten ways to support old people in your community”. Anything but ploddy and blunt – “Fundraising event” or “Appeal for donation” are designed to put people right off.
  2. Greeting – avoid a dead line such as “Good day” or “Good Afternoon Sir/ Madam” – with no personalisation. It is the coldest, most off-putting, most “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care, but I want your money” kind of opening. And it puts mail recipients off just like that, in the opening line.  Ensure you include the recipient’s name, or title and surname. And get it right.  With the mail management software available, there is no excuse. If you really aren’t able to include names, at least start with something warm and friendly, like “Dear Friends”.
  3. Attachments – don’t include attachments. Just don’t. This is not what fudnraising emails are for. If you are mailing out to a predominantly cold list, an attachment will put people right off. I, like most others, don’t open mails with attachments from people I don’t know.  If you are mailing to a group of existing supporters, don’t make them do the work by now having to download and open an attachment!  If you need to space in an attachment, to include all your information, you are doing something wrong.
  4. Images – if you need to embed images in your mail, make them small!  As a fundraiser, you want to be keeping things as simple, easy and uncumbersome as possible. And you want images to come up right away – because if they are not included to grab attention (only a few seconds to do that!), then why did you include them?
  5. Content – you need to include encouraging text, that takes the mail recipient by the hand and (very quickly) leads them to an emotion.  No emotion = no point of contact.  Don’t bore readers with technical details about your organisation (eg. “:We are a registered NPO” – because if you aren’t, then get out of my mail box you hoaxer! That kind of info belongs in small print as part of your signature). Do not use the precious “real estate” of the readers screen for boring and unnecessary text. You want the reader to be excited about supporting you, whether that sense of heightened awareness is based on sympathy, empathy, self-interest, outrage, justice – it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that however your message makes them feel, it galvanises them to go to and participate in your Call to Action!
  6. Call to Action – this is absolutely critical in a fundraising email.  The purpose of the mail is to share an immediate, direct Call to Action that your recipients can reasonably achieve while they are reading your mail – for example “Go to our Donate page”, with a big DONATE button; or a big button saying “Get Involved – here’s HOW” (which must link to your website where there would be information on the multiple ways a prospective donor can support your work); include a “Get your tickets here” button, which takes the reader to a ticket-purchase page.  You get the idea. Bear in mind that people are not supporting your “fundraising”, they are supporting your “work” and the cause you are involved with – so use that effectively in your Call to Action!

Those are some basics – now go and craft the best fundraising mail ever! You (and your board and beneficiaries) will be so glad you did!

Digital space, civil society and nonprofits in South Africa

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Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room

25th November 2016

So what is the state of play in South African digital civil society?  My last post looked at the importance of defending digital spaces in South Africa – but now I go back a bit, to the nitty-gritty of digital civil society. This broad phrase refers to a broad mix of concerns, approaches, practices and activities ranging from building the public profile of a cause, to defending current levels of freedom, openness and accessibility of digital space.

Enset has been running a global workshop series focused on supporting civil society organisations around the world to navigate what Enset refers to as “the complex digital landscape” to achieve online effectiveness.  Enset’s mission with these workshops and panel discussions is to identify and, likely, help create the best paths for the use of digital space by non-profits globally.

The Enset/ Resource Alliance panel discussion, of which I was a part – held at Bandwidth Barn in Cape Town on 4th October 2016 – was titled, “NGOdigitalspaces & Civil Society”.  The discussion addressed a range of issues and practice areas in the digital space, such as:

  • What is the role of Social Media in building civil society?
  • How is digital fundraising changing the donor relationship and giving overall?
  • What are some of the risks and challenges of digital spaces, and what can non-profits to address these?
  • What is the political / regulatory environment and implications of a new NPO Act in South Africa?
  • What is the future of digital spaces for civil society – opportunities, challenges and potential threats?
  • What is the importance of credibility and validation within the sector?

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A number of organisations and individuals spoke to their particular concerns, the work they do, and how their work serves to address their concerns.  The panel and issues included:

  1. Jeri Curry, president and CEO, Enset: introduction to the non-profit and civil society digital space, and to the work of Enset – and also navigated the panellists inputs, facilitating the discussion with great knowledge and expertise.
  2. Baratang Miya, founder and CEO, GirlHype: now here is somebody to watch and keep up with. Baratang spoke about her initiative to encourage girls into the digital and tech space, not as users but as innovators.  Great stuff.
  3. Michelle Jones, head of content for digital agency RogerWilco: Michelle shared lessons from a successful client project, showing how paying careful attention to messaging, content, design and site architecture can completely change levels, frequency and type of user interactions with your online presence
  4. Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room: This is me – I spoke about the need to defend digital spaces, as these levels of freedom increasingly come under the state spotlight and as non-profit organisations are under pressure from government. I also shared insights about the legislative framework that currently governs this space in South Africa.
  5. Colin Habberton, IFC Ambassador, South Africa: Colin shared insights into the use of digital platforms for fundraising and for profile-building for organisations and causes, and stressed the importance – across a range of factors – of building an online profile
  6. Michelle Matthews, Head of ED and Innovation, CiTi: Michelle’s focused on trends in ICT and the digital economy, and she shared details of a fantastic digital project supporting start-up and established social enterprises and businesses, including the development of an innovative toolkit (which we all wanted a copy of!)

Are you starting to get the picture?  Around the breadth and depth of any discussions about “digital space”?

We can talk about developments in digital technology; the use of digital technologies for the promotion of civil society campaigns; the role of an online presence in promoting your non-profit organisation and in stakeholder/ supporter/ donor communications; the importance of content in building a profile and positive footprint in the online space; the role of civil society organisations in promoting and encouraging the involvement of girl learners in the digital tech space; the importance of an online presence for fundraising (both on- and off-line); the pressure (globally) on civil society and the closure of operating spaces, both physical and digital; and the legislative framework governing the use of digital technology (eg. drones for journalism) and online spaces.  That’s just the start.

In addition, there is a boatload of information that non-profits need to keep up with – such as the 2014 transition of the org.za domain (used by most South African non-profits for their web presence) to a new regulatory authority, and the implications for non-profits using org.za.  Again, just the start.

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Enset’s work has had the effect not just of providing spaces to have discussions about digital spaces and civil society, but also of connecting activists and digital specialists locally and globally.  It is critical that we are talking to each other, in light of my particular concern – as per my previous post – about the defence of digital spaces as we see an increase in governments clamping down on activities that challenge their actions (or lack of action).

This space is absolutely critical for civil society organising, as a still-democratic space providing for the proliferation and platforming of a range of voices critical to debate, discussion, defining the languaging around particular issues, and moving away from the dominance of traditional media and their ownership of public discourse.  This has changed irreversibly, and this space must be defended.

Philanthropy in South Africa: Support for defending digital civil society

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Image from Heinrich Boll Foundation. Creator: Niklas Hughes

Gabrielle Ritchie: Director, The Change Room

16th November 2016

Philanthropic funding is critical for a host of democracy-defending and –strengthening initiatives that would otherwise have little or no financial support at all to implement the tough work that needs to be done to defend our democratic space.  In South Africa, we must remain vigilant about our freedoms and must continue to push to ensure that rights – as per our constitution – are realised for all.

So where does digital fit into discussions on democracy, development and donors?

I have been thinking a lot about digital civil society – which, in my view, is the same thing (at least currently they remain the same) as civil society using digital technology.  A few weeks back, I had the energising experience of being part of an Enset/ Resource Alliance panel discussion in Cape Town about South African civil society and the digital space, which I will be writing about in the next week or so (so watch this space!).  It’s a huge topic, with so many sub-topics, not all of which link up neatly together.  The digital space and its implications for civil society has been a hot topic for precisely this reason – there is SO much to discuss!

One of my most favourite, self-proclaimed philanthropy wonks is Lucy Bernholz. Her latest blog post is about digital civil society and the looming threats to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, all the more threatened with the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.   Her urgent call is that we all need to stand up, make our voices heard, and resist attempts to close down civil society space.

This is not a challenge limited to the US.  Far from it.  Increasingly across the African continent, there are noises and threats regarding the closure (or further constriction) of digital space, in addition to pressure on the physical civil society space – where it does exist – to organise and express challenges to governments.

As Bernholz says:

All our civic action – from philanthropy to protest, from petitions to polling – now takes place on a digital infrastructure. Every organization that is dedicated to helping the vulnerable, to free expression, or that understands it is simply an institutionalized form of our right to peaceable assembly and private action for public benefit should realize now that their existence depends on the rights now threatened. As civil society has closed elsewhere, so has it now been directly, overtly, and rather unabashedly threatened from the people elected to lead our government. 

The most important point that Bernholz makes, though, is that we all need to get ourselves trained up around digital space, the ways (both actual and potential) in which this space is threatened, and what we need to start doing about it. Right now.

Bernholz mentions a number of angles, including “capacity building, consulting, governance training, and technology support need to address digital governance and practices”.  And she goes on to stress that “It is not optional, it’s integral to running a safe and effective organization”.

In other words, this isn’t something we need to watch out for coming down the line.  Rather this is something that we need not only to be monitoring now, but we need to be managing the risks already, and putting place policies and practices that will ensure we are able to continue to work effectively and safely.

Ute Scheffer’s September 2016 article, No right for digital participation in many regions of the world, offers insights into the current state of play with regard to journalism and clampdowns on expression and organising.   According to Scheffer, South Africa ranked 39th of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.  This is above the US, and only one place behind the UK. There are two thoughts on this – one is that this is very revealing about the squeeze on press freedom in these apparent bastions of democracy and freedom; the second is that having a reasonable ranking means we must maintain and increase (not loosen) our vigilance.

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It is critical to bear in mind that, with regard to digital civil society – and the digital space in which we operate – it is not just about access to news and information, but is also fundamentally about forms of communicating, organising, advocating, mobilising, and attracting resources in support of organisational and campaign work.

Organisations in South Africa working on these issues (and supported with philanthropic funding) suddenly become central to South African civil society then, right?  So who are they, what are they working on, and how do we find them?  Below are a few of the best known organisations working to defend our freedoms with regard to information, and the sharing of information in print and in the digital space.

Start engaging around our digital space, people – global trends (and Lucy Bernholz) indicate that the time is now.

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Is “Consultant” almost a swear word for non-profits in South Africa?

by Gabrielle Ritchie

service provider | consultant | advisor : 13th August 2015

A certain cool descends on a NPO meeting when the word “consultant” is raised. The word gets prodded like a smelly fish, or turned over for closer inspection. NPO staff don’t generally love a consultant, or consultancies, or people brought in to do project-focused, short-term pieces of organisational work. Consultants are spoken of (and I know this, having contracted numerous consultants across a huge variety of projects in my role as an NPO director of programmes) as anything from expensive, time-wasting, never fully apprised of “the work”, limited, don’t get the depth of the work etc …all the way to bloodsuckers, leeches, scavengers, a rip-off, just out to make the bucks, and so on.

In short, “consultant” is like a swear word, and consultants must generally get in, get out and move on. The relationship between consultants and their client can be fractious, and tenuous. There is generally a deep distrust in organisations of consultants, and those organisations doing the contracting tend not to trust that a consultant will deliver timeously and excellently on the work required.

Then there is a range of little complexities and potential trip-falls.  For example, who sets the terms of engagement – does the consultant indicate their fee, or does the client indicate what they are willing to pay? Perhaps in the non-profit world, because some of the more old-style players still insist on “paying is bad, free is good”, the very notion of having to pay for a service or for work done, by someone other than an employee, is simply irksome.

So I am now a “consultant”. Or am I a service provider?  Does “consultant” just sound more expensive and costly for the same work? Are they the same?  In fact, most “consultants” who work in the non-profit space can more accurately be described as service providers. This might sound like just a bit of old semantics, but I stand by my firm belief in the approach that “words really do matter”. I have a personal preference for being as accurate as possible (along with using liberal sprinklings of a few choice bits of slang along the way!), so I do prefer calling a provider of services a “service provider”.

As a service provider, I consult to organisations around specific aspects of their work and what they need to deliver on, and I provide a range of services. In other words, as a service provider, I do aspects of the work that client organisations need to deliver on. Most times, service providers and consultants are contracted because organisations simply don’t have the capacity to do the work. Perhaps the skill is too specialist and costly to have someone in a staff post. Perhaps the project deadline is looming and work needs to be delivered, so extra capacity is brought on board. Perhaps a one-off project needs a particular skill that is not core to the organisation’s work, and so a consultant is brought on board. Or perhaps a project was conceived, and budgeted, as one for which external providers would be contracted. Organisations have myriad reasons for contracting in expertise in certain areas, and there are myriad specialists out there to fill these organisational needs.

Here is the kicker, though – and it brings us back to the swear-word nature of the word “consultant” in the NPO sector. The thing about service providers, advisors and consultants to the NPO sector, and working in the non-profit space, is that there is really very little difference between those who provide services to NPOs and NPO employees (ie. people employed by, and paid a regular income to work for, a NPO). Almost every service provider I have worked with in the NPO sector are driven by the same kinds of values and objectives as those they serve and to whom they deliver specialist services. As service providers they are choosing to work with non-profit organisations, in support of their organisational missions, and to work with them towards achieving their client’s goals.

As a service provider – ie. being paid by a funder or a non-profit to deliver pieces of work – I am working hard at understanding the difference between how I work now (freelance/ consultant/ service provider) and how I worked before as an organisational employee (and contractor of consultants!). Some of the questions I have posed to myself, as I make my morning coffee and prepare for a day of service providing, include:

  1. What is different about how I work?
  2. What has changed in the scope, quality and characteristics of the things I care about – the issues, the people, the areas of endeavour, the change-driven agendas?
  3. How has becoming a service provider changed my values?

The conclusion is, apart from a few extremely critical differences in my work day and in what administrative issues I need to concern myself with, there is very little difference. Very little has changed. Nothing has changed in fact, with regard to the things I care about, my ethics and values, my sense of social justice and rights-driven change agendas. The only thing that has changed is that I don’t work in an organisation any longer, and I no longer have a set income that I earn monthly, performance and delivery depending.

This new life is a very different kind of work life. Many say it can be really lonely; it can be exhausting worrying about where the next piece of work will come from; it is challenging constantly working with different clients; and so on. I will no doubt experience the full range of conflicts and joys of working on my own, but what I do know for sure is that I am as committed as I ever was to strengthening South African civil society and the funders and organisations which comprise this space. So are most of the consultants and service providers who work with non-profit organisations! In fact, non-profits themselves are increasingly developing products and services through which to generate income. In other words, they too are becoming consultants and service providers.

Generally speaking, and based on my still-fresh and new perspective as a service provider, us consultants and service providers are a good lot! Perhaps my previous scepticism of all things consultant was simply an ill-disguised envy for those who could engage with the best of the actual work, without having to navigate the intricacies of being an organisational staffer 🙂