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Q&A: Sierra Club’s Mary Nemerov on Fundraising in the Digital Era

Nonprofits today face unprecedented challenges — from fundraising, to running operations, to communicating with supporters and beneficiaries in a digi

Nonprofits today face unprecedented challenges — from fundraising, to running operations, to communicating with supporters and beneficiaries in a digital-first world. To fund and run their missions, these organizations are looking for ways to increase efficiencies, engage constituents digitally, and ensure staff and volunteer safety. Leveraging technology can help achieve those goals.

Salesforce today announced new Nonprofit Cloud innovations to help nonprofits fund and run their missions in changing times. Included in the offering is a range of new fundraising capabilities which enable nonprofits to better connect with supporters across channels, maximize staff productivity, and ensure transparency between fundraising and finance functions.

Sierra Club, the world-renowned grassroots environmental organization and current Nonprofit Cloud user, plans to use these new tools to help streamline its fundraising activities. Since 1892, Sierra Club has helped retire over 300 coal plants, establish 439 parks and monuments, organized thousands of volunteer-led outings, and coalesced 3.8 million members and supporters.

To find out more, we spoke with Mary Nemerov, Sierra Club’s Chief Advancement Officer. In this Q&A, she shares her thoughts on digital transformation, the role data plays in informing decision-making, and how technology can help to optimize fundraising.

Please tell us about your background. How did you start working in the nonprofit space?

While I was studying, I was interested in urban environmental issues, and possibly working in a government role related to that. But then I spent a year working before grad school and I landed in an environmental nonprofit. I found I really loved working with people that are passionate about creating change in the world, and it created an energy and motivation for me that I hadn’t experienced in other jobs. Ever since then, my focus has been on working for mission-driven organizations, particularly in the environmental field.

You’ve been at Sierra Club for 13 years. What has been the biggest shift you’ve seen at the organization, and in the nonprofit space in general?

The biggest shift for us has been the way we use data to inform decision-making. With data, we’re able to quickly see how excited people are about an environmental issue and can act on that accordingly.

Looking at data, we’re able to see where we are achieving maximum impact, both in terms of return on investment of time and dollars, and also how we’re managing internally. This means I can assess the effectiveness of our work and adjust which messages are resonating with different communities in real time. I don’t have to wait until the end of the quarter or the end of the year to see performance changes on my team.

What has this meant for how you think about your constituents?

We used to think of our constituents as very separate groups of people. We had our donors. We had our volunteers. We had our activists. And we had people who would go on outings we organized. But now, with more transparency over our data, we can see that over time one of our constituents might move through all those roles or switch between them.

This means we shouldn’t have one strategy for donors and a different strategy for our online activists. They are overlapping communities of people that share a lot of characteristics. We should be inviting our activists to become donors, and our donors to become activists, and determining how and when to do that in the most effective way.

We talk a lot about digital transformation at Salesforce. How has Salesforce supported the Sierra Club’s digital transformation?

The Sierra Club always had one database of our now 3.8 million constituents, but each department looked at it through a different lens and very rarely saw what other departments saw.

Now, because we have Salesforce, we have total transparency. This means I can see what someone’s full experience with our organization is. For example, in the past, we might have been able to tell that Alison is a $1,000-a-year donor who sometimes comes to events, and usually votes in our elections. But we wouldn’t have also been able to see that she attends our trip to Yellowstone every other year without pulling a report and having someone code it appropriately. Now, we can tell that she’s passionate about this cause, even though she lives in Virginia, and is also very involved in determining the endorsements her local chapter’s political committee makes. Salesforce allows us to see all these different layers of data, and mix and match them in different ways. This gives us information about people’s behavior that helps inform our decision-making.

It’s also created a lot of efficiencies. For example, instead of our various internal teams sending out different polls throughout the year, they can work together to send out one survey. This means we’re not fatiguing recipients by asking them similar things three times a year. It also means we can review and interpret the results together to see how they interact.

These are just a few ways Salesforce technology has helped us drive efficiencies and enhance our decision-making. That’s why I’m excited about Salesforce.org’s newest innovations announced today that can extend to our fundraising efforts.

How has Sierra Club’s digital presence changed in the last five to 10 years? What about in the last two months?

A big change has been realizing that we can’t really curate anyone’s experience of our organization, because our brand is out there in the world. People are coming to us and they’re engaging with our digital products in many ways.

A phrase we think about when we’re talking about the organization internally is ‘powerful together,’ which is about creating communal action and engagement. That’s something we’ve really tried to incorporate into our digital presence by giving examples of how communities in the Sierra Club come together to create change in the world.

More recently, with the pandemic, we found ourselves needing to rethink how we communicate with our constituents and what it is we’re asking them to do. Our issue is not the important issue right now, but we realized when we looked at the COVID-19 relief legislation that we needed to intervene to make it more environmentally responsible. It’s important that we continue to care for communities at this time that have already borne the worst brunt of environmental pollution. That was a message that needed to go out to our membership. We had an incredible open rate on those emails and more than 50,000 people immediately wrote emails to their elected officials saying “you can’t use this as an opportunity to roll back environmental regulations.”

Because of the transparency we have over our data, we’ve been able to keep track of how we’re doing during this time with Salesforce. For example, I’ve been able to see in real time how many people are canceling their monthly memberships and reassure our board and the finance committee that it’s not that many. There is a lot of anxiety about COVID-19 and what it means for us, but I was able to say, ‘Let’s look at what the data is really telling us.’

What have been the biggest shifts in online donations in the past five to 10 years?

One big thing we’ve done is to really lean into having monthly donors, as opposed to soliciting one-off donations. Getting people to become a $5-, $10- or $15-a-month donor creates incredible revenue stability for us. Even in a time like this, most people are not going to stop making those donations.

And obviously, when one of our issues is in the news, that’s when we will spend more on advertisements, because that’s when people will be more responsive.

The great thing about digital fundraising is you can put three versions of the same message out and know by the end of the day which one resonates with people, or if there is a geographical difference in how people respond. That allows you to refine your message instantly, which is a powerful tool.

Our core supporters have historically been very homogenous, but we’re focusing now on how we can reach out to different demographics, and if the same messages work as well across those different demographics. We’re also looking at whether different age groups engage with us differently. For example, if younger people are more likely to start as an online activist or be more responsive to online requests.

Fundraising is an area where we’re constantly trying to innovate, see what works, and figure out what could be the next big thing for us.

How has technology helped optimize offline funding?

Donors give for emotional reasons, but they want to see the data that backs that up. Technology allows us to give our largest donors a sense of the impact of their generosity. For example, we were doing an online fundraising campaign for Earth Day, and we were able to call one of our large donors and say, ‘If you make a pledge it will make it much more compelling for our smaller dollar donors.’ Two days later we were able to call her back and say, ‘Thank you so much for that $50,000 pledge. We just beat our goal for that campaign.’

Being a digital organization also allows us to support our local chapters more effectively. Until recently, people were going to events like the Earth Day Fair or their local farmers market and getting people to sign up for campaigns using paper lists. Someone needs to take all of those names, decipher the handwriting, and enter them manually into the system. That creates a time lag and you’re going to lose people.

It works both ways: we’re trying to bring our online community into offline activities like showing up at events. But we’re also trying to take those offline people and bring them online so they can feel like part of our community and we can ensure they’re getting the right information at the right time.

What are the biggest opportunities for nonprofit organizations to leverage technology in the next five years?

One of the things we hope to do is work much more in partnership with other organizations — there are many local organizations that are doing tremendous work. I hope people will be able to use technology to help boost these frontline organizations that might not have had as much opportunity to build up the expertise and funding that organizations like ours have. I think we really need to expand the ways we think about impact.

There is also a really exciting opportunity for us to use technology to gain an even deeper understanding of the impact our support has on people’s lives — to be more granular when we say ‘your contribution has prevented a coal ash from being dumped in the community.’ With the help of technology, Sierra Club has hosted 4,500 rallies and events, garnered 3M+ signatures, supported 63 cities’ commitments to 100% clean energy, and helped more than 2.8 million make public commitments to protect our public lands. Data unlocks potential for us and other nonprofit organizations to demonstrate the holistic impact we’re having in a way that resonates with our supporters.

To learn more about Salesforce’s newest Nonprofit Cloud innovations, check out this post.