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What I Learned About Digital Engagement from the 2019 M+R Benchmarks Report

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Every year, nonprofit consultants M+R release their annual Benchmarks report, which provides an overview of digital trends in the sector. This year’s report addressed issues such as email list growth and churn, the rise of monthly giving, and the impact of social media’s peer-to-peer fundraising for nonprofits. If you haven’t yet had time to dig into the full report, here are some of the top highlights that we think are important for nonprofits to know:

1. Online revenue growth has plateaued

The big sound bite from this year’s Benchmarks Report is that total online revenue grew by only 1% in 2018. Compare that to 2017, when It grew by 23%, and 15% growth in the year before. The report explains, “After years and years of steadily increasing online revenue, including record-breaking 2016 and 2017 gains for many nonprofits, suddenly that trend line flattened out. Nonprofits were simply unable to maintain that momentum, and we have returned to a “normal” growth trend line.” Other factors could include the increased distance from the momentum of the 2016 election, or the impact of tax changes on donors. We probably won’t know for sure until next year. And honestly, 1% growth is not as scary as it sounds. Digital engagement is now the norm for political and nonprofit communications. So, jump right in and get busy.

2. It’s getting tough to break through the email crowd

Most individual email metrics have continued to decline. Open rates, fundraising click-through rates and page completion rates for both fundraising and advocacy all went down. Email fundraising response rates are down 13%. Email advocacy response rates are down 15%. To compensate for these changes in individual behavior, digital campaigners have had to up their testing and innovating game to new levels, and bite the bullet and send more email than ever before.

3. Donors and nonprofits love monthly giving

Monthly giving has continued its rapid growth, as revenue from recurring monthly gifts increased by a staggering 17%. Monthly giving accounted for 16% of all online revenue in 2018, up from 13% in 2017. Clearly, monthly giving is a favored option for loyal supporters, and they are usually a win-win situation both the donors and nonprofits. Nonprofits gain more long term revenue and donors can spread out their giving, often giving more over time. Nonprofits are crafting creative digital fundraising campaigns to recruit and upgrade monthly sustainers. What’s the state of your monthly giving program?

4. Email acquisition is not optional

Even through email messaging is consistently the best performing digital communications channel, email list churn is now at 14%. Unsubscribes, closed email accounts and poor deliverability all account for this. The bottom line is that if you’re not growing your email file, then you’re doomed to decline. Acquisition is the name of the game, and nonprofits have to keep a constant drumbeat of registration on their websites, social media changes, digital ads, events, and any multi-channel activities.

5. Social media fundraisers are making a dent

Facebook has finally begun to make an impact on nonprofit revenue, particularly through Facebook Fundraisers. So far, the biggest sphere to benefit from this trend is health and healthcare-related organizations, although it is certainly not limited to them. November appears to be the biggest month for this type of peer-to-peer fundraising, due to the growth of Giving Tuesday, everyone’s favorite giving holiday. According to M+R, “If you want to reap the rewards of this emerging revenue source, your most effective path forward is to find ways to motivate supporters to start their own Fundraisers.” One important limitation of Facebook Fundraising is that Facebook blocks organizations from obtaining the contact information of the donors, thereby limiting the organization’s opportunity to further engage with these supporters.

6. Retaining mid-level donors yields huge dividends

The conventional wisdom that it is always more cost effective to retain a current donor than it is to attract a new donor continued to hold true this year. In fact, M+R found that, “on average, 37% of donors who made an online gift to a nonprofit in 2017 made an online gift again to that nonprofit in 2018. Retention was 25% for donors who made their first gift in 2017, and 59% for repeat donors.” The donor category with the highest retention rates from last year were mid-level donors who gave between $250-499, so it is particularly important for nonprofits to develop strong, multi-channel strategies for retaining this group of supporters.

7. Invest in professional marketing and advertising as part of digital strategy

Digital ad budgets grew by a whopping 144% in 2018. This is a growing area of digital strategy for fundraising and acquisition, and it’s becoming more important for nonprofits to develop in-house expertise. To truly understand the long-term value of acquisition to your nonprofit, you’ll need staff who are able to dig deep into the return on advertising spending (ROAS) and guide your digital ad program in the right direction.

8. Mobile is here to stay

Mobile continues to be hugely important across the whole spectrum of digital engagement, including fundraising. Fundraising text messages had a click- through rate of 13%, which suggests relatively high engagement. Advocacy was an equally important area in which mobile showed steady success, in fact, text messages successfully drove phone calls at more than twice the rate that email advocacy messages drove traditional web-based actions. Beyond digital advocacy, traditional organizing and mobilization also benefited, with peer-to-peer text messaging platforms becoming standard parts of electoral and advocacy campaigns.

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