September 28, 2016
Case Study

Email Marketing: Charity crowdfunding website sees 10x increase in engagement from personalized email


With many subscribers across a variety of regions, GlobalGiving needed to send highly-engaging, relevant content. To do this, the marketing team created an email personalization program that allows them to target individual donors.

Read on to find out how GlobalGiving’s team drove a 10x increase in engagement from email.

by Courtney Eckerle, Senior Managing Editor, MarketingSherpa


GlobalGiving is the first charity crowdfunding website to provide an opportunity for social entrepreneurs and nonprofits to raise money for grassroots causes in their communities throughout the world.

This means donors can fund projects that might not otherwise receive traditional development or philanthropic funding. By reaching out to individuals and communities that want direct access to projects in their area, GlobalGiving has raised more than $200 million to fund in excess of 14,000 projects worldwide.

“We work in 160 countries around the world to help organizations make change possible in their local communities," said Kevin Conroy, Chief Product Officer, GlobalGiving. "So it's everywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and in between, to do things like send kids to school, feed the hungry, preserve the environment, build houses, train women or men with job skills, and hundreds of other amazing topics."

Apart from donors, the non-profits themselves are also considered customers. GlobalGiving partners with companies that want to work on their own charitable efforts either with customers, or by providing opportunities for employees to engage and give.


GlobalGiving sends more than 3.5 million emails in a year, a volume that has the potential to make it a tremendous asset – or, if left untended, a detriment.

“We had, like many non-profits, developed a newsletter list and had been able to grow that into six digits which was awesome in terms of subscribers, but were increasingly finding that we were getting decreasing marginal returns from every send that we did,” Conroy said.

Every time he and his team would send out a newsletter, it would raise money, he said. But it was getting increasingly harder to get the attention of donors.

“They were getting more and more emails period, not only from other non-profits but from work, from social media, from friends. Just everyone is suffering from email overload,” he said.


Conroy and his team were looking for ways to make sure that emails were getting to the right people. Dramatically increasing the personalizing and customization of content was the clear solution, he said.

“Moving beyond just adding the first name of the recipient to the subject line, which is, of course, you know, a great trick, but really personalizing and customizing the content within the email,” Conroy said.

Step #1. Make an entirely opt-in email list

The first, key step of being able to personalize sends was to make sure that emails were getting into inboxes.

The team began working with a vendor to ensure that emails were certified, and using provided feedback loops, “we were able to actually identify a handful of domains that, when we sent this email out, were reporting abnormally high spam rates compared to the rest,” Conroy said.  

The list is currently entirely opt-in, and people can sign up either on the website, or by agreeing to receive emails from GlobalGiving after they donate.

In spite of this, the company was still seeing a handful of domains, and sub-segments of donors with which the campaign wasn’t resonating with. Because of this data they had begun tracking, they were able to suppress problematic domains from the list.

Conroy believes this disconnect was because, “we serve a global audience in 180 countries, and there's a handful of countries that we found where this campaign was just not landing right. It was working wonderfully here in the United States, but in other parts of the world it just was falling flat,” he said.

Because of the real-time data they were able to get, those pivots could be made quickly, and unresponsive names could be suppressed from follow-up campaigns.

For example, “we saw one particular domain that was having 5% spam reports, which was really unusual because we're below 0.1% on all the others. But there was this one domain that just had this spike in 5% spam reports … and it was not like it was just a lot of small numbers kind of situation. They had several thousand recipients,” he said.

Immediately, the team was able to assess that because the domain was for a non-English speaking country, the email could have been processed as spam because it wasn’t customized in the native language.

“Our site is primarily in English, so they had transacted with us before in English. We thought that they had English language skills … But we found, okay, this just isn't hitting home,” he said.

They suppressed this domain from the follow-up emails, and were able to control the damage coming from that domain.

Once they began tracking these elements, he said, “it was like flipping on the lights and we could see where we were aiming, and we would see when we were missing the inbox and missing our recipient.”

Conroy and his team keep the list clean by automatically unsubscribing anyone who reports an email as spam.

“We want to make sure that we are respecting their preference and being good stewards of the instructions that they've given us,” he said.

Step #2. Develop a recommendation engine for personalized giving

“We looked at the data we were seeing in our one-size-fits-all emails and we were looking, just plotting the open rates, the click rates, the conversion rates from it, [and] just saw that downward sloping line,” Conroy said.

The team reviewed all of the different data and assets available, and discovered that they did have the ability to create a personalized recommendation email. 

“We combined that with a number of other email best practices including a matching offer as well as an urgent, time-bound appeal,” he said.

A time-bound appeal encourages people to donate by a deadline. That type of email traditionally performs better than just a general appeal, Conroy explained. Especially when put alongside personalized recommendations.

“We developed a recommendation engine similar to Netflix, but it's a recommendation engine for giving, and so it looks at people's past giving habits, at the interest that they've shown on our site, projects that they've shown some sort of an affinity to,” Conroy said. 

It looks at projects similar to the ones people have already shown an affinity to, and suggests them to donors.

“Maybe run by the same organization, or … if you donated to, say, a women's empowerment project in Kenya, maybe we've got a great women's empowerment project in Uganda that you might also be interested in, that's run by a different organization but achieving really similar goals and having equally amazing results,” he said.

Conroy said that he and his team found that the recommendation engine “dramatically outperforms every other means that we had of doing it.”

Compared to the previous approach, "hyper-personalized recommendations and content to users we see, easily, a 10x increase in the number of donations and engagement from the email, compared to a one-size-fits-all,” he said.

Step #3. Constantly A/B test to grow with customers

“We tried to set ourselves up for success and added in the recommendations and did an A/B test,” Conroy said.

The team tested people receiving random projects pulled from the top 10% of options on the website, rather than recommendations that were specific to the donor. The team saw “the recommendations dramatically outperformed the folks that were just getting random projects,” he said.

The team went farther, testing the results when they layered on the donor’s giving history – not just similar projects, but projects they had supported in the past as well. That test saw a 20% boost as well.

“With every single email sent … We do an A/B test. They range from the fairly standard, you know, let's A/B test a subject line, but more and more we're focused on, let's A/B test the right kind of content, A/B test the right kind of appeal,” Conroy said.

He added that the company uses testing as a way to discover the right language to work well with the list, as well as different layouts that will appeal to and engage them – especially on mobile devices.

GlobalGiving has sent emails for 14 years in the non-profit space and, in that time, people have transitioned from consuming email on desktop to consuming them on their smart phones.

“In that process the nature and the challenge of email for non-profits has really changed dramatically because not only do you need a really clean, responsive design, your call-to-action has to be much more simplified because people are flying through emails on their devices,” he said.

Then he said, email sends and the landing page need to be optimized to benefit mobile donors who want to quickly and easily support a cause they support.

“Your email program really needs to support them where they are with whatever time that they have available, be it on a mobile device or on a desktop,” he said.

Conroy and his team also test what content will appeal to donors, and an example of that is a test they ran based on a report that the Gates Foundation funded, called “The Narrative Project.” The objective of the report was to see if there's different ways one can approach the discussion of philanthropy and the need for charity, to better empower the beneficiaries of the donation. This provided them with respect in the charitable process, rather than focusing on the donor as the hero.

“Donors are wonderful, but . . . they are donating in order to help someone, and that someone is as much a part of the puzzle as the donor is, and so really trying to acknowledge that in the appeals. We ran a number of A/B tests trying to really see if this hypothesis that had been put forward by the Gates' funded research, was working,” he said.

Through testing, Conroy said GlobalGiving discovered that content focused in that direction “it was not as promising as we had hoped, and pivoted back to using some of the more donor-focused language because we found that that really resonated more in terms of fundraising,” he said.


“'One-size-fits-all' appeals are becoming increasingly less effective, or decreasingly effective,” Conroy said.

He added that appeals to donors now need to track the manner in which donors are engaging with you, and match up with the programs they’ve supported in the past.

“And you shouldn't just assume that all donors love your non-profit equally,” he said. While you will have donors that love your organization and all of it’s programs, he said, you’ll also have many people who are supporting you for specific reasons.

“If you're able to acknowledge those reasons in your communications with your donor and appeal to the common ground that you have with them, you're going to find much better results,” he said.

The results GlobalGiving saw from doing just that have been a 10x increase in engagement from email, as well as a sustainable email program focused on keeping a clean list.

“Before … I felt like we were in a large room, we'll call the Internet, and we had a bunch of paper airplanes, we'll call emails, and we're throwing them across the internet, across the room, trying to get them to our donors and we had no idea if it was working or not,” he said.

Now, he said, their aim is precise. A vital asset in the perennially resource-strapped non-profit world.

“You need to be in it for the long game, particularly in the non-profit sector. You might be able to burn a list for a short-term win and burn your IP address that you're using. But if you are intending to really cultivate a donor base over time you need to have a really high sender score,” he said.

An email program’s reputation reflects the reputation of your brand, he added, and should be treated as a “sacred trust that your donors have given you in terms of allowing you into their inbox, and you should respect that.”

This is especially vital for non-profit brands, which need to leverage that trust into fund raising appeals for donations.

“If they can't trust you to respect email preferences on their inbox,” he said, “how can they trust you to use donations effectively?”

Creative Samples

  1. Personalized email



Return Path – GlobalGiving’s vendor

Related Resources

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Email Marketing: 5 actionable tips and tactics from your peers at MarketingSherpa Summit 2016

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