It has been a year. A year that has upended many of our prior notions about work, mental health, and technology, among other things. People are hankering to take more control over their lives in ways big (e.g., by organizing for better wages and working conditions) and small where leaders and decision-makers fall short.
And fall short they have: Against a backdrop of declining institutional trust on a global scale, nonprofits are also experiencing an erosion of trust.
That may not come as a surprise. A lot of us have been having an extended, public conversation about the smarmy, deceptive, invasive email tactics that pervade the programs of some conservative political campaigns and PACs — and how that shapes an expectation of cynicism in those organizations’ supporter bases. From desperate appeals for donations to high-pressure matches and fundraising deadlines, subscribers face a wide assortment of baldly manipulative tactics, at best designed to grab attention and at worst intended to mislead. Many of them don’t know how they got on the list in the first place.
While infamous on the political right, this phenomenon is by no means confined to the right, or even to the campaign ecosystem: Many ideologically neutral or progressively-aligned nonprofits and advocacy organizations have jumped in with both feet, or been influenced by the pressure to compete for attention and engagement ― especially in an environment where more money than ever before is being raised for political action and activism of all persuasions.
Organizations use these manipulative tactics because, technically, viewed through a short-term lens and narrow definition of success, they work. Bullying subject lines, melodramatic language, and grandiose claims of impact drive clicks and gifts. But in the same way that Aesop’s fabled shepherd summoned the obliging villagers to his aid again and again, crying “Wolf” only works so many times before it means nothing at all.
It’s incumbent upon us as fundraisers looking to court and keep donors to acknowledge the reality we find ourselves in: People have grown distrustful and impatient, and these tactics only serve to validate and exacerbate those impulses. We need to take a different tack. More than anything, prospective donors are looking for the organizations they support to be effective, trustworthy, and transparent. The place for organizations to build that trust — and show their hearts — is in the inbox.
Disrespect, and its many flavors
Respect is the way you build programs that maximize long-term revenue, because it places value on retention and supporter goodwill. Organizations that care about the sustainability of their programs need to be more deliberate about how they treat the supporters they depend on. Organizations more focused on the short term (especially political campaigns) should take note, too: Your work might end after election day, but the movement it’s part of finds its fuel in a reliable, engaged donor base. You are doing a disservice to the campaigns that come after you.
Manipulation and disrespect come in all different flavors. Spamming, scamming, deceiving, catastrophizing and shaming are a few that I see pretty often. Sometimes the transgressions are clear-cut: For example, if you’re sending unsolicited email, you’re in a no-win situation that involves skirting the law, breeding skepticism and annoyance towards your organization, and (if those aren’t disincentive enough) setting yourself up for spam complaints that could tank your deliverability. At other times, they’re more insidious.
The first step here is recognizing the fine line between connection and manipulation. Articulating the stakes is effective; fear-mongering sets donors spiraling toward disillusionment. A high volume of email at tentpole moments is smart; badgering supporters year-round is not. A 2x matching gift (realistic) motivates donors to increase their impact; a “100x match” (rubbish) accomplishes little else than poisoning the well for honest emailers running genuine matches.
Context matters here, too — mainstay tactics like countdown clocks are great when there’s a deadline that supporters care about, but are harder to justify when the purpose is purely to manufacture urgency. “Emergency” messaging is great when there’s an actual emergency, and it’s an emergency that your organization can authentically respond to. Otherwise, it could land as performative and degrade your credibility, making people think twice about responding to that next appeal (or, worse, ignore it altogether).
The best way to keep people engaged is to treat the relationship like a relationship. Maybe that means being sensitive to the cultural landscape and its impact on supporters’ state of mind, being present but not overbearing, or being forthright but not belligerent. Because like all relationships, it’s a two-way street — and if a supporter wants to Marie Kondo their subscriptions, you may need to ask yourself how your content can better spark joy, or at least be additive and welcome.
The game is over
Over the past few years, grassroots fundraising tactics have gone increasingly off the rails. The trend has been especially visible in fundraising for political campaigns, where the issue stakes are high and the urgency matters.
Tactics have grown so extreme that the absurdity of The Fundraising Email has become part of contemporary lore. The government, the media (including Big Satire), and even fundraisers themselves have begun to expose these tactics for their hollowness and harm, and push for more robust guardrails:
1. In May of 2021, an individual who ran a PAC that promised a false 5x match caught the eye of the Department of Justice, who characterized the language as “material misrepresentation,” prompting dozens of campaigns to stop promoting fake matches.
2. Manipulative tactics — like pre-checked recurring donation boxes, without clear language — have been especially harmful to older donors, according to a June report in The New York Times. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Dick Durbin even introduced legislative efforts to ban candidates and PACs from using them.
3. In this season’s SNL premiere, Alex Moffat (as Chuck Schumer) appeared in a cold open on in-party friction, reassuring the audience, “Next time you get an email from the Democratic party with a scary subject line like, ‘It’s all over, Jennifer. Democracy is dead unless you donate $7 now,’ don’t panic… too much. As Democrats, we’re all in this together:”
4. The Onion has repeatedly mocked political campaign fundraising emails, with headlines like ‘You Can’t Let This Happen,’ Says Fundraising Email From Sitting U.S. Congressperson:
5. Self-referential emailers — including the Working Families Party — have outright repudiated these tactics in their own fundraising appeals:
Now, there may be differences of opinion here, but I happen to think this mainstreaming of bad email tactics in public discourse is a good thing. That people feel similarly and care strongly enough to pay attention and laugh at the joke makes me hopeful that they’ll also feel strongly enough to exert continued pressure and scrutiny when organizations act egregiously or treat their audiences like sentient piggy banks. It makes me hopeful that more organizations will use this as an opportunity to distinguish themselves: by vocalizing their commitment to respect and opposition to the tactics that give fundraising emails a bad name.
Unethical and disrespectful email tactics are impossible to untangle from conversations around power imbalances, accountability, truth, and trust. And it’s time we, as fundraisers, show our hearts and let supporters know that we’re on the same side.
To stay up to date on all of our fundraising content this year-end season, check out our 2021 Year-End Giving Guide.