It’s easy to discount the importance of an email address when it comes to donor acquisition. For most of us, the donor contribution is the highlight of the transaction and gets the immediate attention. We often think that all the other information is secondary and that the bigger the gift, the better the donor. Any extra information is then added to the customer relationship management (CRM) system for future communication.

However, according to recent data, nonprofits should be as invested in collecting email addresses as they are donations. The Agitator shares having an email address on file is directly correlated to donor retention:

They found first-year donor retention was double (25% versus 12%) for online donors if you have an email address versus those for whom you don’t have an email address.  But this holds true for offline (37% versus 30%) and multichannel (65% versus 60%) as well.

Wow. This means that you should not only ask online donors to volunteer their email addresses, but you should also seek them out from donors who pay via physical check or cash through postal mail.

However, we suggest that you take these stats with a grain of salt. Although they are true across board, there are a few elements which factor into this massive boost in the email to donor retention ratio.

It’s not certain that this relationship is causal.  That is, it could be that donors who like you more are also more likely to give you their email address.  (I’d argue that email is almost certainly the driver for online donors, where email is a primary means of getting the person to donate again, but can’t prove that from these data.)

Or it could be that having an email address allows you to do online co-targeting display advertisements and it is that, not the extra email you are sending, that drives additional retention…

Or, it could be that email is the easiest way to get more information about a donor.  Yes, some paper surveys have strong response rates.  But you are only likely to send a paper survey to someone who is an active donor or one too valuable to lose.  Online surveys, on the other hand, have little marginal cost to send, can engage people who haven’t given in a while, and have advantages like skip logic to make taking a survey easier.

In the end, the level of success you will find with prioritizing email accumulation will vary from nonprofit to nonprofit, contingent on the dynamics listed above. However, although your nonprofit may not see as radical an increase in retention, there is still some benefit to asking donors for their email addresses. Not only will you increase your direct mail list, but it will give you the opportunity to connect with offline donors, leading to higher conversions. As email becomes a more prevalent and accepted method hearing from a donor’s favorite charity, it will be that much more important to have the email address attached to the donor record.

What do you think? Should your nonprofit prioritize collecting email addresses? Or do you think that it is a waste of time?