How Marketing Automation Accelerates Philanthropic Impact

About This Episode

Spreadsheets can quickly become overwhelming for nonprofit marketers — and even if you think they’re working for your organization, you might be surprised by how much more organized and streamlined your efforts could be. That’s where marketing automation comes into play to remove administrative duties from your fundraisers’ day-to-day activities.

“When we take away the 32 Excel spreadsheets, the manual reporting, the manual memorization of what emails need to go out — all of that — we free up those fundraisers to be out in the community, really doing the job that we want them to do with the most effectiveness,” Abigayle Tobia, vice president of philanthropy at Verland, said.

In this episode of The NonProfit Voice Tech Series, Tobia and Erik Tomalis, Director of Business Development at Virtuous, join Mark Becker, editorial advisory board member for NonProfit PRO, to discuss how marketing automation can simplify tasks, such as pulling reports, reconciling donations, emailing a donor welcome series, bettering donor acknowledgment, making donor communications documentation accessible to all team members and more.

For Tobia, it’s saved her so much time, that she’s more able to pick up the phone now to call donors — as well as determine which donors warrant that additional point of contact — thanks to marketing automation.

This episode was originally featured on The NonProfit Voice Tech Series hosted by Mark Becker, editorial advisory board member for NonProfit PRO.

Conversation Transcript


Back again, one of my favorite special guests, our very own Erik Tomalis, Director of Business Development here at Virtuous to introduce another conversation that we had hosted by our dear friends over at Nonprofit Pro on the Nonprofit Voice podcast hosted by Mark Becker from Cathexus, was joined by Abigayle Tobia, a Virtuous customer and the VP of Philanthropy over at Verland.


In this episode, she shares how Verland has utilized marketing automation to actually overcome the amount of time that gets absorbed from administrative tasks and duties to help accelerate their impact for their mission. But before we share that conversation, I’d love Erik to share what are the big aha moments that you took away from this conversation.


Hey, Bryan, hi everyone. I love this conversation that we had. It was a unique one because I wasn’t hosting it and I was listening to the impact that Abigayle had utilizing Virtuous and automation. She works in an organization that has a small staff, but a huge opportunity to provide impact for her community here in Pittsburgh, PA of all things. I am also a volunteer for this organization. So I had a unique side, both on the Virtuous platform, on the volunteer platform, I’m a donor to the organization. So it was really cool to hear that.


She tripled her revenue year over year from when she started focusing on automation because she needed all the help she could get. And we hear this all the time from our nonprofit leaders is you have to do more with less and how do you do that efficiently? And Mark facilitated a fantastic conversation about leading into marketing automation and how to do that. Beautiful. I think if you’re feeling stretched too thin, if you’re feeling burnt out, if you’re feeling like there’s not enough time and there’s not enough resources to raise the money you need to fuel your mission. This is the conversation for you. Abigail is an incredible fundraiser and they’ve literally moved from living in 32 spreadsheets to one centralized system in virtuous and they’ve utilized automation again to increase their giving by 300% in two years. Just incredible transformational results. So this conversation is for you. If that piques your interest, here we go.


Welcome back, everyone. Mark Becker here with Catextus Partners. Here today talking about all things marketing automation and things to make your organization’s life easier, and your staff’s world an easier place to be. I think we’re gonna find this one another great conversation. To start off, Erik, do you wanna go ahead and introduce yourself? Yeah, hey Mark, Erik Tomalis here. I’m with Virtuous. I’m our Chief Evangelist, Director of Business Development, and Recovering Fundraiser. I’ve been in the field for over 20 years.


Now I get to serve on the tech side, serving nonprofits, talking about this thing we’re gonna talk about later today or throughout this conversation about responsive fundraising and how that could help our organizations grow global generosity. And I’m here joined with one of our own, one of my favorite customers, one of my favorite people here, another Pittsburgh native Abigayle Tobia. M


My name is AbigaTobiah and I am vice president of philanthropy at Verland. We support individuals with intellectual and physical challenges. We are with Virtuous, we’ve been for about a year, which means that we’ve been able to see the impact of a lot of the tools on our fundraising effectiveness and responsiveness.

And when you say you’ve been able to see the impact, we were just talking briefly before we hit the record button, you’re seeing the impact, right? You moved from, as I understand it, 30-plus spreadsheets into Virtuous. And what kind of returns are you seeing?


So we’re currently at 345% year-over-year funds raised. And there were some big wins in there. There’s some big investments in our services that we would not have been positioned and able to have those conversations without a system to really bring together where we were in our goals, what opportunities existed, and who was ready for a conversation. Those were all important keys that came through having one good CRM virtuous partner.


And I have to do the asterisks just for you, Abigayle, I questioned those numbers when you first shared them with me because I also volunteer with you guys, is this thought process of it wasn’t all Virtuous is I would love to say it was Virtuous is reaction to be able to get you to that point. But it was the fact that your leadership, you’re able to put everything together. You’re able to focus all the different pieces to be able to do it. It was just one of the larger pieces to be able to get you to that point. Yeah. And I mean, even the simple things, I mean, when you’re working from 35 different Excel spreadsheets, you can’t run a LYBUNT. You can’t run a SYBUNT. We couldn’t even really pull a report of everyone who’s supported an event in the past and being able to remind them that was happening this year, which is all easy things that we’re able to do now, as well as better reconciliation with finance. So we are able to reassure our donors that the donations they make are being reconciled and attributed in accordance with their wishes. I love it. I love it.


So Erik. Tell us a little bit about some of the ways that you’re helping organizations through automation and the services and platforms that you provide.

So Virtuous itself, we believe in this concept called responsive fundraising. And I tell people a lot when I’m traveling and I’m representing us out on the road and in our communities is this idea of like, when I was in the field someone would donate online. What do we do? We called them, we thanked them, and we wealth-screened them. We did all the things trying to identify why that donor made that significant contribution to our organization. And to me, that’s reactive fundraising, where virtuous is philosophy is responsive fundraising where all of our different technologies holistically talk to one another. So when someone does donate online, they automatically get thanked and appreciated, and they can acknowledge whether it’s through a mail or text or an email, multi-channel.


Let automation do that for you. So like the CRM, email marketing, the events, the volunteer, the moves management, all of those different technologies and more all holistically work together and help drive that idea of responsiveness and automation to be fair with you. It’s our backbone. It’s the pieces that connect all those different technologies and you can do it in every way you want it to be within the system to make it really easy for organizations like Verland and all the other customers out there that are utilizing it. So yeah, Abigail, do you have a couple of examples of email donor journeys or welcome series or other ways that you’re using the system? Like you said, on SYBUNT, you know, for a lot of people that’s low-hanging fruit, but when you’re coming from spreadsheets, that’s a lot of pivot tables you had to put together, right? So just having that automated is kind of just make your, your life a lot easier. But any other specific examples?


Right. So in the last three or four months, we’ve been able to kind of move from just using the base features to really engaging with those automations. And so we did utilize the Virtuous first-time donor template and then had to build it out that was consistent with our branding. What we are finding is that, first of all, when we start sending automated emails to new donors, we have a high open rate and high click rate, which is like 60, 70, 80 percent likelihood that those donors will open those emails, which is huge.


And I think it’s also a shift in our understanding of fundraising because we assume that if you care enough to give me a donation, that you already know my whole story, that you know about all the services we provide, and you’ve been listening in. But what we’re finding is that new donor automation is allowing us to continue that story and make sure that every donor who gives for the first time understands the depth of our services and our values. And through a six-week email series, in addition to a personal note and a personal phone call and a text message, if we have their number, it was starting that relationship off on a much better foot. That we’re not assuming that you’re getting every email where I’m pushing an event and then eventually remembering to donate again. We’re actually having this conversation and trying to find out what motivated you to support and invest in our services. I love it.

So that’s six weeks of like once-a-week messaging. Is that what you’re doing?


Pretty much. It’s about six emails. We kind of jump from four days to five days so that you’re not getting it every Tuesday. I guess Tuesday is a bad day for you. So one week it’ll be Tuesday and the next week it’ll be Thursday. And then I’ll sit down and I’ll write you a personal note about two weeks after you should have received your acknowledgment letter and that automation. And then once you get through that six-week series, we go ahead and add you to our general email list. So once we feel that we’ve shared with you all these other components of the Verland story, then we kind of let you graduate into our general audience and start watching what other areas you’re engaging with us in.

As you’re saying that, I’m just thinking, putting myself in your shoes like a year plus ago and what that would have taken to try to coordinate and my head kind of melts a bit. So yeah. There was no hope. We had no email acknowledgment system. We had one system where we could take online donations, but there was nowhere for it to go. So it was going, getting dumped into an Excel spreadsheet.


There was no automation. There was not even great acknowledgment. I can acknowledge you on the year of your first donation. We can see that from like a larger-scale idea of what’s going on in the entire industry coming out of the GivingUSA report and what happened this past year. Then Dr. Adrian Sargent’s analysis of why people are leaving organizations. It’s because of a lack of transparency, lack of acknowledgment, lack of personalization.


You know, and you see these mid to low-level donors that aren’t being acknowledged, aren’t being thanked, aren’t being appreciated because of these distillate systems that you’re talking about Abigayle, right? Like nothing talks to one another. And honestly, as a nonprofit leader, we’re trying to put out as many fires as we can, and we can’t go and let our systems run and focus on those relationships. And I think that’s why a lot of organizations are coming to Virtuos is because of this idea of automation and being able to personalize it at scale.


And then being able to personalize that email so it’s coming from me. So the from address really is from Abigayle, Vice President of Philanthropy. At the bottom, it has my email signature that tells donors and community members how they can reach out to me. It has our social media links. I’m just one step away from just putting my Calendly link down there and inviting the community to just make appointments as they wish. I’m really at the disposal of the leadership of this organization, those who want to invest in it.


That’s great. And what do you have to say to organizations or board members that are really concerned about the cost of these? Because of spreadsheets versus Virtuous or any other platform, there’s a price difference. But obviously, your results are showing it’s worth the effort. But any other advice or information or thoughts to share there?



Sure. So at a recent conference, we heard that the best thing you can do for major gift officers from research is to take administrative duties off of their plate. The more time that your fundraising leaders can be in the community, meeting with people who care and having those personal conversations, the more effective you are at inviting their investment in your mission. So when we take away the 32 Excel spreadsheets, the manual reporting, the manual memorization of when emails need to go out, we free up those fundraisers to be out in the community, really doing the job that we want them to do with the most effectiveness. And so that’s really what it’s about. It’s about what is more expensive, the billing hour of the fundraising staff that you have or their effectiveness in the community because you’re paying for it either way.

100%, I agree with that. And I go another step of it’s like the opportunity cost the law piece, right? Like the amount of staff time, using your example, Abigayle, having a major gift officer do administrative reports, what is their billable rate? What is the billable rate of a gift officer? I think of a for-profit mindset where I’d rather them out on the road doing driving impact, building relationships to your point, right? But yeah. And then being able just to easily have that tool to return a donor phone call and a document that you return the phone call being able to sync up the email. So every time I send an email to a donor, I’m able to have it automatically attached to their record. Then my administrative assistant who gets a call that they want to register for an event the next week, doesn’t have to check in with me and try to find me about what they said when I chatted with them. But it’s all there for my entire team to work from, for our leadership to pull reports on whenever they need to access that information.


I love it. That’s a great example of how what you I’m sure was consuming a lot of your time and a lot of the rest of the team’s time and trying to dig through and find information and spreadsheets and all the manual wrote processes around all of that. You’re able to hand off to a system that allows you, I’m sure you’re still wearing lots of hats, spinning lots of plates, right? But you’re, you’ve mentioned several times being able to pick up the phone and talk to people and that’s huge. And I’m sure you didn’t always have that time or you had to make extra time and extra long days to still accomplish the same stuff. So that’s a great example of where system automation can help out an organization, right? And being able to identify who needs that phone call. So sometimes it’s not clear. Sometimes it’s not just about returning a phone call, but taking that initiative to thank someone for their first donation, or the time when they doubled their donation from prior years. Our donors want to know that we see them, that even if it’s a $20 donation, to a $40, that that’s still doubling in their impact. And we need assistance to be able to flag those things for us so that we can prioritize those phone calls when it’s appropriate.

And you just hit a great point too, Abigayle. It was just who needs a phone call was the line that I heard too, was I think being in the nonprofit space. I mean, I come from the Boy Scouts and a couple of their different health organizations, but like I think through how we always communicated to our donors is how we thought as an organization what they wanted to hear.


Right? So with the Boy Scouts, it’s popcorn season. So what do we do? Push out popcorn messages to all of our prospects and donors rather than being personal and intentional that they’re interested in camp or program or something outside of popcorn. We always told them it’s giving Tuesday, it’s year-end, it’s, you know, all this stuff rather than having a two-way dialogue with them. And that’s the key to the personalization. Well, even this week, I got a lovely invitation to their hound hike, and I don’t own a dog.


Yeah. Right? Like, yeah. Yep. Nice. And I see you have a few different events coming up, a lot of golf going on. We do. I know that not every fundraiser loves events or golf, but there is a special need to have the people who care deeply about your mission in the room together to celebrate their combined impact. And for us, that’s a couple of golf events.


And then a gala in the spring. Just as an organization is of medium to large size, being able to have a hundred people in a room, all sitting there, talking about the impact of your mission and sharing stories of their loved ones who were helped by your work. That’s great, even for the staff, to just sit there and bask in the collective appreciation of the work that’s being done. And one thing I also recommend, and you’ll probably back me up on this Abigayle, is you do have a lot of events. Three of them are within what, a month, six weeks?


I recommend not doing that for any nonprofit organization of any size or scope. It’s a lot like two golf events in a clay chute. Like, yeah, it’s a lot. Last night I was talking to my board liaison. He asked how we were doing. I said, well, today my coffee is still filled or my cup is still filled with coffee. Call me in November. It might be filled with wine, but today and if anybody wants to join the clay chute, please let me know. I co-chair that.


All right. So you’re a year in, moving from spreadsheets and all these silos to a more automated environment. What’s next? What’s on the horizon?

So continuing to make sure that Virtuous is robust for us, that we’re putting information into it. I would love to get to a point where we can have birthdays in it so we can automate birthday appreciations for our donors. We are very confident in the historical data that we have just because we were going from 32 spreadsheets, so there’s still some tentativeness to make sure that we got all that data right. But I would love to be able to start automating lifetime achievements for investments, thanking donors when they’ve reached the $1,000 investment or the $5,000 investment, and making sure those automations are accurate. We had a great survey of the families that we serve recently, and they indicated they wanted more text message communication.


So being able to again kind of make sure that our systems are set up so that cell phones are acknowledged, we can do more text messaging acknowledgments for event registrations. We were at our first gala this past January and had a parking challenge, but being able to go into Virtuous and send a text message to all of our registrants and let them know that even though they were on their way, that parking on the street might be better than trying to park in the lot was really impactful. I just heard the other day at a conference.


An average person has I mean, let’s say five, or ten email addresses in their lifetime. Right. Like, I mean, we’ve all changed from an AOL to a Hotmail to a Gmail, whatever it might be. We changed our email addresses. So how do we ever communicate with people? But 90% of the people have the same cell phone number that they had 20 years ago. And like the open rate and the click rate of just a text message is, is enormous. I mean, even if it’s a spam, you get it and you open it.


I love the fact that you’re leading into cell phone communication and text mess, SMS, and everything else, because I think that’s the wave of the future. Yeah. And then we are very excited about the raised donors, virtuous giving 2.0 that I know that their development team is working through. We use virtuous ticketing events. We’re looking forward to some of the expansions of those capabilities. I have been with other CRMs that sit and get stale.


And one of the reasons we’re grateful for Virtuous is that we get regular updates and improvements to the software that they take into consideration, how it’s being used, what’s working, and what needs to be shifted a bit, because there’s nothing worse than being in a three-year contract and ending up at the end of three years with the same software setup experience as you started with three years ago.

For sure. Any final thoughts from either one of you? Lessons from the trenches, Abigail from the last year, things that you wish you had done differently or recommendations, Erik, any final thoughts as well?

So I think my advice to fundraisers and to executive directors is always to pad your budget, see if a little bit of room and space to try something new, to put a little bit more resources towards creativity for your automation, or to put a little bit more towards purchasing an acquisition list, that we can’t expect fundraising growth if we’re not willing to give ourselves a little bit of risk and a little bit of push and opportunity for growth.


Well said.


Abigayle, I value you guys at Verland and I know your team really well. And it’s, you know, you have a couple of staff members who don’t like technology and are scared of it, right? And it’s hard to use it. I think that a lot of individuals out there in the nonprofit space have that kind of mindset. But you said some things in the front end, which was we’re crawling, we’re walking, we’re running. We’re not doing a marathon yet, but you’re just doing the basic blocking and tackling today to be able to lean into where your strategic vision is for the organization.


And that’s why I wanted to be in this role at Virtuosu to tell people, we should do an audit of our technology. We should look at what things we need to do to make our lives more efficient and focused to drive impact. And we should review on an annual basis what’s out there. And there are a lot of tools, Virtuous included, as well as many other tools out there, and it’s continuing to grow. And I think we should always continue to do that. So I’m excited for Bridge Tech.


I’m excited for all the people that are going to be participating and speaking there. And, but look at everybody that’s out there and see what works for your organization and to be able to help you guys out. I think the more that our technology partners can take really great practices and tools that are being utilized in very effective ways in the for-profit corporate marketing world and make them affordable and accessible to organizations of a wide variety of sizes, the better we serve our overall missions, the greater impact we can have.


Well said both of you. All right. And well teed up too. Yeah. Don’t forget to check out the Bridge Conference. There’s going to be Bridge Tech Day on the 2nd of August and Eric will be speaking. A lot of great sessions throughout the day. And there’s a lot of technology out there and a lot of organizations that have great case studies like Abigail and her team. So definitely thanks for your time today so much. And thanks everybody for listening. Have a great day.


And that’s a wrap, folks. Thanks for tuning in this week to the Responsive Nonprofit Podcast. We are so grateful for your time. We know how busy you are and consider it a privilege to journey alongside you as you work to make a change in our world. We believe in you and would love to hear from you. Projects like this are only as good as the feedback we get, the guests who come on, and all the topics we get to discuss. So if you have an idea, if you know of an impactful guest that must come on the show, or if you want to be a part of the responsive community, check us out over at and join the conversation.

Don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite station. Your mission needs your collective talent and passion. So go forth and lead the charge forward and we’ll be here cheering you on. We’ll see you next week.

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