This is a loooong post . . .  so grab a beverage and a cookie. But it’s something that’s essential for all nonprofit communicators to understand and to work towards, so rather than breaking it into separate posts, I wanted to share it all at once. ~Kivi

Tech is Part of Your Staffing StrategyIn many nonprofits, technology budgets are seen as a luxury, especially for communications departments. After all, communicating is really mostly about writing, and you can do that on an ancient computer, right?

While that may be true in some ways, the problem is that it focuses too much on the communications product and not at all on the people who you want to read those communications. And today, to reach the right people with the right message, you need good technology. And I am not talking about the latest version of Microsoft Office or a Facebook account.

As I have been interviewing nonprofits for my new book on content marketing, it’s become crystal clear to me that the organizations that are most successful at using content to engage their communities consider the combination of a good CRM (customer relationship management software), CMS (website content management system), email, and e-commerce technology to be just as important to their success as having thoughtful and creative staff members who can write well.

It all comes back to creating content that is both relevant and valuable to your participants, supporters, and influencers.  That means knowing what they think is relevant and valuable. But not everyone on your mailing list cares about the same things, or has the same kind of relationship with your cause and to your organization.

That means you need to be able collect, store, retrieve and use information about people so you can get the right message to the right people at the right time. You want to set this up  in a way that is automated as much as possible, easy to tweak as needed, and allows you to experiment with new ideas without a great investment of staff time or consulting dollars every time you need to send something out to a list.

Does This Sound Familiar?

I am mentoring more than a dozen nonprofit communicators right now through both our six-month group mentoring program and through one-on-one coaching retainers. In just the last week alone, I’ve had these conversations:

  • A nonprofit wants to build up more community support and engagement.  I suggested they start with friends and family members of the 130+ people they directly serve. The problem: They have no way of knowing who in their database of thousands of names are that closely connected to either current or former program participants.
  • A nonprofit wants to do a better job of fundraising from current and past volunteers. The problem: the names of volunteers and what they did and when are stored in a variety of different spreadsheets. To get the list in a format that will work for the specific kind of targeting that the fundraisers want to try would require hours, if not days, of staff time cutting and pasting data to compile.
  • A nonprofit wants to start building up their email list in earnest, and would like to add a newsletter sign-up form to their website template. But the email provider they use doesn’t integrate easily with the website content management system they use, so they will have to pay for custom programming support just to add a simple web form. And they’ll have to pay again and again with each new web form they want to add.

Here’s an example of what you should be able to do with the right combination of technology.

Collect and Store Information about People

You should be able to create simple web forms for your website, pretty much whenever you want, that allow people to do things like register to download a helpful e-book you created, or register for an event, or sign a pledge, or answer a few quick survey questions, or donate to you online. This allows new people to get into your system, and for people already in there to add more information to their profiles. Staff should be able to create each form as needed and to get it live on the website in under an hour. Depending on your particular set up and what you are trying to do, that form code may come from your email provider, CRM or e-commerce software and then you add it to your website content management system.

Those forms then save the data about the person, usually based on their email address, usually in the CRM. If they fill out another web form you create later, that data gets saved in the same place as the data from the first form — or the two databases are connected and can talk to each other seamlessly via a web API.  You start to compile more and more information about the person, all in the same database or connected databases, over time. The actual mechanics of how all this works depend on which software you are using and how they talk to each other. The point is that they have to talk to each other and to recognize each person as the same person, which is often done through and email or snail mail address field.

In addition to information collected via forms, you can add other information to a person’s profile based on actions they take, like opening emails or clicking links or registering for events or making an online donation. You can also add information manually or by importing data from a spreadsheet or other tracking system for events or telephone conversations or snail mail donations, or other activities that take place offline. Sometimes this information is actually stored with the person’s individual record and sometimes you access that information dynamically. In other words, if I pull up your name in a database, it may not show right there with your contact information which links you clicked  on in the last email I sent you. But I could do a search for people who clicked on that link, and your name would be on that list.

Retrieve That Information in All Sorts of Combinations, on the Fly

As you collect and store data, you can start to retrieve it in all sorts of ways to generate lists of people who meet different combinations of various criteria. Exploring these combinations should be fairly effortless — simply a matter of thinking through the different combinations and then querying the database(s) to produce the lists of people who meet the different criteria. Maybe one set of criteria produces a list that is too small or too big for what you want to do, so you can tweak the criteria to produce another list. You can do this in a matter of minutes, with the technology doing most, if not all, of the laborious compiling and sorting of records for you.

Having a system like this in place means there really is no longer just one mailing list, but an unlimited number of specialized mailing lists that are limited only by the amount and type of data you are collecting and storing and your creativity in retrieving and using those lists.

Use It to Send the Right Communications to the Right People

Now that you have retrieved the custom list, you can use it to send out that great stuff you wrote. You can send reminder emails to people who haven’t registered or donated yet, without bugging those people who have. The people who have already taken an action can get special thank yous and follow up information just for people who took that action.

You can also use it to customize the kind of newsletter content you send, or fundraising appeals you send, based on a set list of criteria.

Maybe you decide to market your monthly giving program to people who have donated to you at least once in each of the last three years (so you know they like you), have made at least one donation online (so they are comfortable with online financial transactions), and have opened emails or clicked on links about the program that the monthly giving would fund (so you know your offer is likely to align with what they care about). You see how that goes, and perhaps see that, actually, the number of online donations was a better indicator of who would sign up for monthly giving than which links they had clicked on, so you adjust the criteria you use when you pull the list the next time. (This is a made-up example. Do your own real experiments!)

Find the Right Frequency of Communications for You and Them

How often to communicate, and to email in particular, is a huge question for nonprofits. Having this kind of system in place also helps with the timing and frequency questions. You undoubtedly have people on your list who would love to hear from you weekly and others who are really good with a few times a year. You can ask them directly via a web form what their preferences are, or you can watch how they interact with you online and adjust your communications to them accordingly.

This is especially important for both advocacy organizations and those of you who do events. There are times of the year when you really need to be in touch with your advocates or events attendees much more often, and they welcome that more frequent communication. But all of those emails to others on your list will cause them to unsubscribe, meaning you can’t communicate with them at all anymore.

Keep Experimenting, Learning as You Go, and More Deeply Engaging Those on Your List

Using a combination of website, email, CRM, and e-commerce technology allows you to not only experiment and tweak the content of your campaigns, but the list that you send them to. And if you ask anyone who does marketing or fundraising for very long, you know the quality of the list is way more important than anything you write.

It’s not a matter of “if” your nonprofit should be moving in this direction, but “when.” I’d argue the time is NOW.  This is a perfect opportunity for fundraising and communications staff to collaborate and to start getting the right solutions in place. Doing this will improve the results of your work and save you an incredible amount of time in the long-run. If your choice is between more staff and this kind of technology, seriously think about the technology over the additional staff.

I am by no means an expert in this stuff, but I understand the technology enough to talk about it like this with you, in part because we’ve been through it all ourselves with We’ve used a number of different software providers over the years, cobbled together. About two years ago, I’d had enough of the rigged up system because I felt like I wasn’t able to do what I’ve described here as quickly and easily as I wanted. We ended up moving to an integrated CRM/e-commerce/email company called Infusionsoft that integrates through different modules with WordPress, our website CMS. It’s expensive, but it’s made a huge difference in the growth and profitability of the company. I’m not recommending Infusionsoft to you, simply because I don’t know any nonprofits that use it and I don’t see them marketing themselves to nonprofits. But there are many companies that do the same sorts of things for nonprofits.

If you need help with the technology, understanding what your software options are, and knowing which companies provide these services to nonprofits, I recommend starting with NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network and Idealware and TechSoup, all of which are nonprofits serving other nonprofits like yours.  Most of the companies that are serious about providing these software solutions to nonprofits will be exhibiting at NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis in April. Even if you can’t make the show, check out the list of exhibitors.

Have questions about all of this? Please ask in the comments. I may not have the answers, but I can probably find the people who do, so ask away!

Network Photo by BigStock