How Nonprofits Really Use Digital Tools

Nonprofits love to save money. Relying on low-cost digital communications tools like email and social media to get your message out is a great way to do that.

But of course your job doesn’t end when you post or hit send. Nonprofits also need people to read and respond to their communications – in great numbers. And research shows that’s getting harder for some nonprofits to achieve online. 

I’ll tell you why in a moment, but first consider these statistics:

Email volume grows

The average subscriber could expect to receive 66 separate email messages from a single nonprofit in 2017. That’s more than once a week! 

At the same time, email open rates declined by 6 percent overall. The average donor gives to 4 charities each year, meaning your email has a lot of competition out there. 

And do those emails motivate people to act? For fundraising-specific emails, the response rate was 0.06 percent. That’s on par with e-commerce sites that mail to their house files. And for every 1,000 fundraising emails sent, nonprofits raised $42.  

Source: M+R Benchmarks 2018

Source: M+R Benchmarks 2018

These numbers definitely vary by sector and size. For example, environmental organizations send the most emails per year at 89, but they don't lead the other sectors in revenue. That distinction belongs to hunger and poverty nonprofits that earned $138 on average per 1,000 fundraising emails delivered.

Social media performance mixed

Nonprofits continue to add social media users. Facebook fans grew by 23 percent in 2016, while Twitter followers rose 50 percent.

Worldwide, 95 percent of nonprofits agree that social media is an effective place to increase brand awareness. Some 71 percent believe it’s effective for online fundraising. 

Source: 2018 Global NGO Technology Report

Source: 2018 Global NGO Technology Report

At the same time, more nonprofits are learning that only a minority of their Facebook fans ever see their content. That is, unless they’re paying to boost their posts. 

On average, just 8 percent of your Facebook fans see an unpromoted post. That number is expected to go lower as Facebook further decreases the organic reach of brands. Repeat after me: “Facebook is now an advertising platform. It’s pay to play.”


That suggests your content needs to work even harder to earn shares and to be worthy of paid promotion. It’s important to tailor your content to the formats expected on each channel. That means no cross-posting to save time. It’s also a good idea to remember that social media should drive traffic to your website, a channel where you have more control.  

Digital donations rise

Online donations made up 7.6 percent of all giving, excluding grants, in 2017. That’s an increase over 2016 and something to celebrate for nonprofits focused more on saving resources vs. growing them. Things are changing, even though most donors (even some millennials) still write checks.

Source: 2017 Blackbaud Charitable Giving Report

Source: 2017 Blackbaud Charitable Giving Report

Need some more good news? On average, 18 percent of the people who visit a nonprofit’s main donation page will end up making a gift. That’s another good reason to optimize the page and make it easy for people to find, whether that’s through social media, email or good old donor mail.  


Faith-based nonprofits are doing the best job of increasing online giving. In 2017, they saw an 18 percent boost from the previous year. Environment/animal welfare and arts/culture groups weren’t far behind. 

Perfecting your digital mix

So, how can you make the most of these digital tools? It starts with understanding what each tool is good at, and what they’re not. After all, you wouldn’t normally use your favorite black pumps as a hammer – but some nonprofits are doing just that with their digital tools.  


Email is great for timely communications. Did your food bank run out of supplies again? Write an email to supporters with the subject line: “Why we closed early today.” Use it to show growing demand in your community for your services. 

Or tell a moving story about a special pet in need that received care at your shelter this week. Make sure to include a photo, but don’t overdo it. As the number of images increases in an email, those all-important click throughs to your website go down.  

Social media

Social media, especially Facebook, excels at grabbing people visually. Put up (and promote) a surprising statistic about your cause or show the human side of what you do in photos featuring volunteers and those you serve. 

It’s also a great place to ask questions and post surveys. Social media by definition needs to be social. If your content isn’t provoking a two-way conversation, it’s time to put down the megaphone and rethink your content mix.

Social media is not a great place for detailed storytelling, since most content is viewed on mobile. So please stop posting fliers with tons of text or wordy appeals for donations. 


Finally, your website is home base. Social media and email help distribute your top stories. And if you’re doing it right, you match these stories with carefully segmented audiences that are ready to receive them. 

But the real meat of your brand message must live on your website.  And email and social have to bring people back to your site. There, potential supporters can get to know your organization, learn to trust you and take trackable actions like subscribing to your newsletter, volunteering, and donating. 

This digital integration is the real key to saving your nonprofit money and time. But lately, I’ve been encountering a number of organizations that continue to keep their digital tools in silos. 

When you use digital tools the right way in tandem with each other, it creates a multiplier effect. The value to your organization will be greater than the sum of the parts. 

And if you integrate them further with traditional tools like donor mail and public relations, you see even more success. 

Saving money is noble, but it’s not the end goal for most nonprofits. Integrate your communications tools and discover just how powerful they can be in helping you achieve your mission.  

Laura Ingalls Fuqua is co-founder of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising marketing firm in Phoenix, Arizona. A recovering journalist, Laura has worked over 20 years as a professional communicator in both the nonprofit and corporate sectors.