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Most nonprofits, even the smallest ones, include supporter cultivation in their messaging mix — the occasional thank-you email, an annual impact report, maybe a robocall at year end. 

And most nonprofits, even the biggest ones, don’t know if any of it actually works. After asking a lot of questions and convening small roundtables of non-profits to explore cultivation messaging, we found that many groups are grounding their cultivation efforts in a little bit of data and a whole lot of assumptions. 

That’s certainly been the case for all the years we’ve helped the Union of Concerned Scientists with their fundraising. We’ve operated from a reasonable but still pretty big assumption:

Because they’ve always run a thoughtful email advocacy program, chock full of opportunities for supporters to learn about and participate in their work, we assumed that UCS action alerts were sufficiently checking the box of donor cultivation, such that the fundraising team didn’t need to do much if any intentional cultivation of our own. That assumption was also backed by years of UCS’s email fundraising metrics consistently beating M+R benchmarks. If too little cultivation was a real problem, we’d have seen it show up in fundraising metrics, right? Right?

Well, in the last few years, email metrics did start to decline. While some of that is reasonably attributed to a lackluster fundraising environment for climate orgs (dare I reference the extremely disappointing emotional rollercoaster that was Build Back Better…), we started to wonder — are supporters just not seeing and feeling the value of UCS as much? Does our theory that robust email advocacy largely takes care of cultivation no longer hold as much water as we once thought?

Fortunately, we started asking these questions with just enough time to put together a treatment test before finalizing our End of Year strategy last fall. Working with our counterparts at UCS, here’s what we did to test the fundraising impact of a little cultivation:

  • identified three cultivation emails we could add to the calendar in the first half of December, before any EOY appeals would launch
  • prepared the EOY email fundraising audience earlier than usual, so we could split that full audience into control and test groups to be used throughout the month
  • alerted email managers at UCS that the control group should get everything UCS would normally send that time of year (e.g., already planned emails like action alerts and webinar invites plus any unplanned / rapid response emails that came up) followed by the EOY appeals, while the test group should get the same plus the three cultivation emails (so we didn’t trade UCS-planned emails for our cultivation emails — these added email volume for the test group)
  • launched everything according to plan (shout out to Alison Schiavone at UCS who deftly manages their builds and audiences!)
  • in January, looked at changes in giving behavior across all digital channels between control and test groups, 12/14 (when the first EOY appeal launched) through 12/31 (famously always the official end of EOY).

The results beat even our most optimistic expectations, but before we get there, let’s talk about those cultivation emails…

Another reason we didn’t focus on cultivation over the years is that UCS had limited capacity to create lots of cultivation emails, much less calendar space to fit them in (remember that robust email advocacy program?). So, when coming up with a cultivation content strategy for the test, we tried to reuse existing assets as much as possible.

For the first email, we lightly edited an impact report style message that had previously only launched to UCS’s monthly donors. For the second, we created a simple quiz — one question, one click — that asked supporters about UCS’s impact on the Inflation Reduction Act (aka baby Build Back Better). For the third email, we dropped a simple liftnote on top of a highly trafficked UCS blog post. The end!

And, again, everyone in the control and test groups received the same EOY appeals, so the only difference in their experience of UCS last December was the test group receiving three additional cultivation emails.

Okay, back to the results… 🥁🥁🥁

Email fundraising response rate went up 11% for the test group. And while we were pleased to see a direct impact on email appeals alone, we also saw a major impact on other channels: revenue per donor was 90% greater within ads-driven and unsourced website giving for the test group. Across all digital channels, the test group gave 22% more revenue per donor!

Now, we did hypothesize that the test group would give at higher rates. That’s not the shocking part. The shocking part is how dramatically the cultivation approach positively impacted near term giving across all digital channels. Especially when you realize that we did not include any gifts made directly via the cultivation emails themselves, unless those gifts happened after the first EOY appeals launched (the first appeal launched several days after the final cultivation email).

Okay, so, now what? 

As always, when a test moves the needle like this — especially a treatment or package test — we look for opportunities for follow-on testing that will allow us to confirm results and refine our approach. In this case, we’re curious whether specific types of cultivation have a bigger impact (e.g., purely informational, impact report type messages versus interactive messages like the quiz); what the optimal volume and cadence is for cultivation emails taking place before fundraising campaigns; whether the effect only gets bigger when layering in SMS, ads, and other channels; and more!


Dustin Kight is a Vice President in M+R’s Digital Fundraising and Advocacy practice area, based in Portland, Oregon. He doesn’t know exactly how long he’s worked with every client he’s had here, but he can tell you this: The day he wrote this post was 10 years, 7 months, and 8 days since his first day working with the Union of Concerned Scientists. How could he possibly remember? Easy. UCS was the very first client M+R assigned to him, on his very first day.