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Automation for Nonprofits: 3 Dangerous Pitfalls to Avoid

By Steven Shattuck
July 6, 2021

A person at a desk with papers and books holding a phone

How often do you read about the wonders of automation for nonprofits? Chances are, you’ve seen a little bit about this everywhere. As technology continues advancing, we see more articles discussing how automation takes pressure off of staff members and how organizations need to increase their use of software to optimize their communications with supporters. 

From developing email streams to scheduling social media posts to importing new data on donors, automation in fundraising and communications has become very advanced indeed. 

However, when used incorrectly, automation tools can actually run the risk of damaging an organization’s relationships with supporters, hurting your fundraising potential. 

By itself, automation isn’t the answer to all of an organization’s problems. Automation technology is designed to support your nonprofit’s team, but it’s not a replacement for people. For example, adding a personal touch is a key aspect of nonprofit donor retention, which is necessary to help nonprofits continue to grow and develop. And rarely does anyone discuss the dangers associated with incorrect usage of automation. That’s exactly what we’ll be covering here: the dangerous pitfalls that come with automation and how organizations can avoid them. Let’s dive into some of the main hazards to avoid.

Hazard 1: Using automation to fill the gaps of your strategy 

Technology and automation should be leveraged to improve already well-built-out strategies, not fill in the gaps in an attempt to build from the ground up. 

Remember, automation supports rather than replaces your team’s efforts. Therefore, if there are gaps in your organization’s strategy, it’s unlikely that automation will solve those issues. 

Let’s consider how you collect data when a donor gives to your organization. Perhaps your donation form collects some basic information. Then, after submitting their gift, supporters receive an optional survey to collect additional information about their interests, why they gave to your organization, and their employer. 

All of this information can be very helpful. But if you don’t already have a plan for how you will use it in your outreach strategy, having all of this data can create a cluttered and disorganized donor database.

If you want to leverage automation for your organization, consider the elements of your strategy that you have already built out over the years. Then, see how you can automate the tasks that are already being accomplished by team members to make them faster and more efficient. 

Bloomerang’s guide to strategic planning discusses a few nonprofit marketing strategies, such as how you should lean on donor-centric fundraising. This guide emphasizes that donor stewardship “ties in well with your marketing strategy and ensures you’re communicating regularly and effectively with donors.” 

If you’ve already built out a cadence for this regular communication, you might be able to automate certain aspects of it. Let’s say that for new supporters, your first email (after the confirmation message) generally contains additional information about your mission and a link to your last newsletter. Instead of manually sending this to each supporter, you might automate the message to be sent three days after a new donor gives to your organization. This uses automation to support an existing strategy rather than try to automate a new email for a brand-new process. 

Hazard 2: Poorly setting up automated messages 

Careless or poorly configured automation settings can actually harm your relationships with supporters, so double and triple check any automated settings in your communication strategy.

Of course, all of your messages should be well-written and appeal to your supporters. However, when automation comes into play, you need more than a well-practiced pen. You’ll need to leverage the technology at hand to set up the message properly. 

Consider if you received a message that looked something like this: 

Hi %%user%%

Thank you so much for your contribution of %%amount%% to %%campaign%%. Your generous gift helps Save the Planet clean garbage out of the ocean every day. 

How would you feel upon receiving this type of message? Would you feel seen and like the organization really cares about you? Probably not. You might even choose not to give to the organization again. If your nonprofit’s automation is poorly set up, you may send a message that looks like this and end up damaging relationships with supporters. These relationships are key for your organization’s donor retention rate

It’s better to have generic messages that go out to every donor than to have messages like the one above. While generic messages that are not tailored to your audience may not do much to help build relationships, they don’t hurt like poorly automated ones can. 

If you choose to automate your messages, be sure to check them regularly. Send an automated message to your own email address to ensure all elements are running smoothly. 

Hazard 3: Failing to leverage good data 

Before you choose to automate your activities, be sure you have data strategies in place that you know will be effective, especially when reaching out to your donors. 

Even if you start with a general fundraising email template, you’ll need to customize it to make it your own and use data to ensure it appeals to supporters. These customization decisions should be made based on what you know resonates with your audience based on concrete data. 

For instance, you might decide to: 

  • Conduct A/B tests to make sure your subject lines, images, button placement, etc. all capture the readers’ attention and encourage engagement. 
  • Personalize messages by including supporters’ names and details about how they engage with your organization. 
  • Segment your audience and write emails designed to appeal to each individual group, such as a series of messages that expand on your organization’s work to brand-new supporters. 

After you’ve taken these types of strides to leverage your data without automation, you should start seeing consistently higher open and click-through rates. After you implement automation to support the process, you’ll need to continue monitoring these results to be sure your strategy is still working well. 

Finally, when you automate various aspects of your organization’s strategy, be sure to maintain good data hygiene throughout your donor database. This means removing duplicate donor profiles, fixing typos and capitalization errors, and systematically organizing your data. If there are errors in your data management, you’ll have errors in your automation.

Your team is incredibly busy, and a lot of information out there makes it sound like automation will solve all of your problems and free up time for your team. In reality, automation is a handy tool that can support your team, but it also takes hard work, thoughtfulness, and time to do it right. Thinking long and hard about your organization’s current strategies before turning to automation will help you put a successful automation program in place. 

Tags: Automation; Email; Fundraising