Automated welcome emails: a win for new donors


Recently, we’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about whether automation is more likely to help or hinder a nonprofit’s efforts to build and grow sustainable relationships with donors. 

People are asking questions like, “Are we sure an automated email welcome series for new donors is a good idea?” Or they’re saying things like, “Automation and stewardship are mutually exclusive.” In an era of digital media noise pollution, we all should be asking ourselves whether or not our tactics work—or how we could make them work better—especially regarding such an important one as the welcome series. So we’re glad this question is being raised. 

What Does Automation for Nonprofits Really Mean?

Given that there’s been such a lively debate about the subject, I think it’s important to clarify a couple things about marketing automation for nonprofits that might be getting lost in the debate:

  1. Nonprofit marketing automation doesn’t mean only email. That’s a big misconception. Automation allows you to provide a multi-channel messaging approach, including automatically generating tasks for your personnel to perform functions, like calling, writing notes, etc.
  2. If you want to grow and retain your donor base, then every donor needs personalized engagements on an ongoing basis. Now, if you have a fundraising staff of 4 and a database of 10,000, you won’t be able to do that effectively unless you have automation. That’s just a mathematical fact. Otherwise, you’ll spend most of your time connecting with the top, say, 1,000 donors, and the rest will get your generic communications. In that case, 90% of your database would be at risk for churn.

These two points are really important to understanding how nonprofits should be thinking about automation. If you are under the impression that automation means simply dripping generic emails to a list, then, yes. I can see why you’d think it wasn’t helping much. And if you think that you can grow your database on the sheer muscle of human interactions without the use of automation, you’ll never really be able to grow your donor database in a sustainable way.

Donors Expect Automated Interactions

They expect automated interactions? Are you serious? Yes. Very much so. Automation is everywhere today, and your donors interact with brands that use it all day long. In fact, they find it jarring when brands botch the kind of communications they expect to receive.

Here’s an example: Sears Roebuck vs.

Once upon a time, Sears was Amazon. For all intents and purposes, you could buy anything and everything from Sears, including your house. Before the internet, there was the Sears catalogue. Everyone got the same one, but they had what you needed. But Sears didn’t evolve for the 21st Century. Amazon overtook them before they had a chance to catch up.

Amazon created a personalized shopping experience that people overwhelmingly preferred. Rather than everyone getting the same experience, they tailored the experience to each person’s behaviors and preferences, and used that data in their automated communication strategy. Now, just like everyone else, I realize that Amazon doesn’t actually know me individually. But by paying attention to my behavior and preferences plus a whole lot of automation, they are able to remind me to buy dog food just as I’m running out. It feels like they understand me. And on top of that, it’s the kind of personalization I want. 

All that to say, people’s perception about what it means to personalize communications has changed. Evidence: Sears is out of business, and Amazon, well, let’s just say they’re doing pretty well right now.

How Automation Can Help Your Nonprofit’s Welcome Series

Any successful welcome series (whether it’s email or some other media) will do the following:

  1. Acknowledge that your new supporter is helping your organization be successful
  2. Provide ongoing communications that aligns with why they entered your ecosystem (Is this a volunteer? A donor? A beneficiary? Someone who’s just curious enough to want to keep up with what your organization is doing in the world?)
  3. Generate ROI

The first one is usually pretty easy to pull off. That’s a simple matter of messaging, but it can be trickier than it may seem at the forefront. The impact on the cause will be different for a volunteer than it would be for a donor, for instance. But assuming you are tracking that stuff and responding in kind, it shouldn’t be a big deal to thank them in a specific way. 

The second requires a little more data, but if you’re paying attention, and your CRM is set up to track the right behaviors, it doesn’t have to be a chore, either. Again, your welcome series needs to be responsive to how and why they entered your ecosystem, and follow up with opportunities to connect with your organization in the ways that interest them.

That third one, though, is often hard to measure. In some ways, it depends on how you measure ROI, but if you have a robust approach to the various ways supporters can contribute and are conscious of the costs associated with the effort to get them to participate, it’s simple math after that.

Fundamentally, the goal of fundraising is to generate that ROI: you invest time and resources into connecting with donors, and their lifetime value exceeds that investment. This means a good welcome series must engage the new donor in such a way as to increase the lifetime value. To do that, your welcome series must be responsive. That is, it has to recognize not only that the new donor entered your ecosystem, but also (and more importantly) why they are there. Knowing that, you can provide them with the kind of messaging that aligns with their interest in your organization. When you work from the position of “why,” you can best create a personalized welcome series that encourages further engagement. Automation allows you to deliver this kind of communication to all your donors, not just a few, boosting ROI for all your fundraising efforts.

Chief Development Officers Prize Efficiency in Fundraising

Speaking of ROI, you want to know what we hear the most from fundraising leadership? Their biggest challenge is lack of efficiency. They are bogged down by hurdles in the technology they’ve adopted, systems often don’t work well together, it’s hard to make sense of the data, et cetera. But inefficiency is not exclusively a technology problem. It has a lot to do with staffing. Communication channels are clogged, there’s unnecessary redundancy in roles, and many teams are stuck doing manual work that for-profit companies have long since automated.

Not to mention that inefficiency has a cost that donors care about. Should organizations be expected to run on a skeleton crew and still be successful? No, but from a donor’s perspective, it’s complicated, so whenever you can improve efficiency, everyone wins.

Of course, we also hear that CDO’s want to grow. They want to build meaningful relationships with their donors so that they can keep them in the ecosystem. This is where many emphasize that human fundraisers are important: the more we can create a personalized, direct connection to each donor, the more we can generate the growth and retention we need. 

Guess what? Automation makes it easier to generate personalized interactions. And by “easier” I mean “more efficient.”

Consider this data from Analytical Ones. It shows that the LTV of an average donor drops the longer you wait to ask for a second donation.


Data like these offer the most compelling case for incorporating automation, especially for organizations that have large donor databases. Without automation, you have to rely on a human to pull a report and send a handwritten welcome email or make a phone call or write a note. And then you have to rely on that same person to pull another report a month later and send a handwritten email asking for a second donation.

What happens when they miss someone? How do you ensure that they don’t? There’s a direct connection to lower revenue every time someone gets missed. 

And from a personalization point of view, the human-generated email is nearly identical to an automated one. That’s because a human creates a template for these welcome emails and then manually updates the fields just before hitting send. They will pull a report on a schedule and follow a set schedule for the drip. Automation does what people are already doing, but faster, and on a reliable cadence. And that’s just email. Automation also supports a wide variety of fundraising communication media.

The goal of automation is to make the human fundraisers do their work better and more efficiently, all the while creating a more engaged donor base. For example, instead of having your staff spend their time manually pulling reports and clicking send over and over again, automation frees them up to do more in-person visits, phone calls, and more human interactions generally. Meanwhile, you can rely on the fact that all the necessary communications are going out in the background. In this sense, automation makes 1 + 1 = 3.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The following is a welcome series that at first glance may seem difficult to automate. Au contraire. Automation is actually designed to make a series like this one easier. Have a look:

1. Thank you email (within 1 hour of sign up)New donor activity triggers an email based on the activity, thanking them for their action. It is personalized and relates specifically to the action they took.
2. Monthly email newsletterAutomation will add them to your newsletter list and your staff won’t have to click a single button.
3. Thank you letter/note in the mail (within 3 days)Written notes can be automated, too. Create the template and use a service like Lob to send the letter. Sync with your CRM to ensure it goes out on time.
4. Board thank you phone call (within 1 week)New donor activity triggers a task, alerting board member to call. Alerts ensure that board member calls. If board member doesn’t make the call, automated email populated with details of donation is automatically sent, and board member is notified that email went out. Don’t like the email backup solution? Automation can set a task for a call to come from someone else who is available.
5. Donor survey to learn which ways they would like to continue supporting you (within 6 weeks)Once again, this will probably be email, so automation wins the day.
6. Follow up invitation for further connecting (within 2 days of response to survey)This will go out as an automated email, and will come off as very personal, because it’s a direct response to their interest. 
7. Appeal for 2nd gift (within 90 days)Depending on how you planned for this, it’s likely that you’ll do this via automated email, too. But, you could also have automation schedule a task for a phone call.
8. Thank you letter if second gift received (within 1 week)Yep. This can be automated. See number 3 above.

And that’s just one example welcome series. You can tailor any welcome series to meet the objectives of your nonprofit. Now, you could do all of that manually, or you could use automation like Virtuous offers to help you

Note that when you automate that series above, out of the eight touches listed, humans are only required to act for step 4 and maybe step 7. At this point it’s a matter of ROI.

How to Create Personalized Experiences with Automation

Let’s explore how automation actually serves to create engaging, personalized outreach.

Automation can be set up to ensure timely communications that align with your donor’s journey. The donor journey should take into account who your donor is, why they are supporting your cause, and then deliver messaging that aligns. To properly design automated outreach, you have to understand the donor journey and map it out. We have a free ebook on how to map your donor journey, in case you’d like to explore this a little more.

Once you understand the journey, you need to design a responsive fundraising strategy that is conscious of the who, what, when, where, why of each donor’s moment in the journey. This is done in the following way:

  1. LISTEN for donor signals (one simple way to do that is to survey them, as recommended in the sample welcome series above) to understand why they want to support your cause. Most often, this is done by using your CRM to monitor behavior. 
  2. Once you learn a little bit about them, you find the appropriate way to CONNECT. This can be email or a phone call or direct mail or social, or whatever. 
  3. You then SUGGEST the next action they should take, whether that’s to make another donation or to volunteer, or to share your cause with their friends on social. Every suggestion should feel natural, the same way you’d suggest they help your nonprofit if you were sitting down to have coffee with them.

When you practice The Responsive Framework, your automated connections will come off not only personal, but will be welcome. This will inherently result in higher engagement. Let’s not forget, these are people who give unselfishly so that you can do more good. If the choice is an immediate automated email that your team spent time to carefully plan and write 3 months ago versus feeling ignored until you get around to acknowledging their support, donors will choose automation every time. 

We’ve developed an informative page that explains in detail how responsive fundraising works, including a Blueprint for Responsive Fundraising to help you discover how you can execute a responsive fundraising strategy right away. 

You Can’t Scale Fundraising Without Automation

One thing that we can all agree on is that your supporters expect you to understand them. They expect you to reach out to them in a personal way that takes into account who they are and why they supported you. We also agree that you don’t need to limit your welcome series only to email.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on the role that automation should play in fulfilling that expectation.

I would appeal to the numbers here. SocialMediaToday found that a whopping 75% of marketers currently use automation tools, and that number continues to grow. Given that this technology has been adopted so broadly by for-profit and nonprofit marketing professionals alike, it begs the question: does it make sense to stay in the 25% who don’t use it?  


In fact, if your goal as a fundraiser is to increase efficiency and grow your donor support, you will need to rely heavily on digital insights and behavior tracking in order to learn about your donor base so you can deliver the kind of personalized experience they already expect. 

Automation provides a natural extension by putting that data to use. It will help you trigger the right actions and send the right messages at the right times so that your fundraising staff isn’t bogged down trying to manage the wrong tasks.

In short, nonprofit marketing automation is here today, and it’s here to stay. Sophisticated AI and machine learning already exists that enables you to deliver automated email sequences based on a combination of a donor’s gift amount, gift channel, gift method, geography, demographic and motivation. All of these can already work together with your staff to deliver highly personalized experiences that will create greater engagement with less wasted energy for your personnel.

Want to see how Virtuous can do this for you? Let’s talk.

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