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Vinay Bhagat

About Vinay

Lessons for Nonprofits from Howard Dean's Use of the Internet

Regardless of whether you support former Vermont governor Howard Dean in his bid to win the Democratic party's presidential nomination, his campaign organization is proving to be phenomenally successful at incorporating the online medium into its fundraising and grassroots mobilization.  Every nonprofit organization -- not just political campaigns -- can learn from Dean's success.  
As of July 21, Dean For America had raised more than $5 million online this year.  Nearly $3.6 million came in online during the second quarter alone.  That is almost half the total $7.5 million Dean raised online and offline through Q2 2003.   Dean also has amassed a huge network of supporters using the Internet.  Between early June and mid-July, his email subscriber list quadrupled from 50,000 to more than 200,000. Through, the campaign also has recruited approximately 1,600 grassroots volunteer fundraisers to be "Dean Team" leaders who use Internet tools to raise money from and recruit friends and relatives.
Lesson One:  Recognize and treat the Internet as a strategic marketing tool.
Early on, the Dean campaign recognized that the Internet could be a significant medium for constituent outreach, engagement and fundraising.   The organization developed a strategy with full executive support from the campaign manager and has invested in an integrated online marketing solution, utilizes online community tools (Blogs, and is staffed appropriately. In contrast, most nonprofits use the Internet much less.  They have Web sites to communicate basic information about their organizations and some handle online donations.  Groups that use email for direct communication with constituents are the exception, not the rule. There are several reasons for this:

  • The Internet is not a "Top Five" priority for most nonprofit CEOs;
  • Few nonprofit groups have a comprehensive Internet strategy, sized their potential return-on-investment or defined meaningful success metrics;
  • Nonprofits tend to view their Web sites and email systems as a cost center managed by the IT or communications department versus a strategic marketing tool.  Marketing, fundraising and public policy leaders at nonprofits rarely direct or heavily influence their organizations' Internet efforts; 
  • For many groups, investing in the Internet is synonymous with having an aesthetically pleasing Web site with good content versus developing an online marketing strategy and infrastructure;
  • Individual functions typically take on Web projects, with limited central coordination for managing constituent relations holistically; and
  • Many nonprofits are trying to determine whether an in-house or outsourced Internet solution is better.  Although the latter is more efficient and allows a group to focus on its mission versus complex technology management issues, it is a relatively new (although proven) approach and sometimes perceived -- erroneously -- as risky.

Nonprofits should rethink their historical approach to the Internet and treat it as a critical marketing channel. 

Lesson Two:  Actively recruit and cultivate an online constituency
As of July 20, the Dean campaign had built a list of 200,000-plus email subscribers primarily through Web site registration.   In June alone, the campaign grew its list from 50,000 to 130,000, with more than 45 percent of those people making contributions.   Dean for America plans to grow this list to more than 450,000 by September 30.  A large, well-qualified email list is an extremely valuable asset.  The Dean campaign demonstrates that people who sign up, receive email updates and become engaged can be converted to contributors.  Comparable donor acquisition through mail is much more expensive.     
Nonprofits can implement several strategies used by Dean to recruit and develop an online constituency:

  • Ask people to sign-up through Web site registration or petitions.  The Dean campaign prominently asks people to sign up for updates or join petitions, requesting minimal information so the process is easy and fast for constituents.

Fig. 1 -- Dean campaign petition and sign-up today promotion, July 24.

  • Send regular email communications with compelling and consistent messaging. Dean emailed more than 1.5 million messages in June.  The messaging is consistent and compelling.  Although such frequency probably exceeds what's appropriate for most nonprofits, regular email communications have impact if the content is relevant and reinforces key messages and success metrics are monitored, i.e., email open, click-through and unsubscribe rates.

  • Give constituents a voice. Dean has created a dialogue with constituents through online surveys, polls and petitions, and he also uses online forums called "blogs."  Constituents feel that they have a voice, which fosters engagement and inclination to contribute. 

  • Actively ask people to forward messages -- use "viral marketing."  Because it's a more costly method of communicating, direct mail focuses on getting a contribution.  In truth, constituents may only contribute once or twice in a given period, but often want to show additional support through advocating (contacting a legislator), participating in an event or volunteering.  The Internet makes it easy for constituents to provide this additional support.  A well-written email asking constituents to forward a message to friends can increase distribution exponentially.   "You can make this happen," a July 22 Dean campaign email told supporters. "We have 70 days. If every person who receives this email fires up three people about Howard Dean, and gets them to sign up for the campaign, we will have not only met our goal -- we will have exceeded it."

  • Create urgency.   The Internet is a great vehicle for creating urgency.   With robust Web content management tools, Dean staff members update Web pages multiple times a day, e.g., fundraising tallies every 45 minutes.  They also issue powerful "calls to action" via email, for example, asking supporters to contribute by a deadline.  Nonprofits, too, can create urgency to drive activism on political issues or stimulate donations as the deadline approaches for matching gift campaigns.

Lesson Three: Leverage volunteers as fundraisers

A nonprofit can turn its strongest supporters into volunteer fundraisers.  Dean has recruited approximately 1,600 people as "Dean Team" leaders to raise money from and recruit friends and relatives.   Using campaign-provided Internet tools, each supporter can: create a personal Web page that explains why he supports the candidate; log in to a personal fundraising center to email solicitations to his contact list; and check on responses and thank contributors.  Some nonprofits already use these tools to drive online registrations and donations for offline fundraising events such as charity races, walks and bike rides.   Now they should put these tools to work, like the Dean campaign, to drive support without physical events.  


Fig. 2 -- Personal Page of a Dean Volunteer Fundraiser

Howard Dean's presidential campaign demonstrates the power of the Internet for significant fundraising and mobilizing supporters. Nonprofit and membership organizations should be heartened to know that they, too, can use similar Internet strategies and tools to generate excitement, urgency, participation, donations and other forms of support.

categoryFund Development

categoryePhilanthropy and Technology Review

nonprofit fundraising