Nature Nonprofit Tweaks E-mail Messaging, Donations Grow by 22.52%

Hal Conick
Marketing Insights
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Key Takeaways

​What? The Trust for Public Land raises money for access to parks and other public lands, but needed a boost to its e-mail program for better fundraising results.

So what? TPL's e-mail campaign had no true impact statement or message to donors regarding how monetary contributions benefit the organization. 

Now what? "Put your donor at the center of something and show them the impact,” BJ McHugh  says. Give readers a way to feel connected to your mission-driven messaging.

​Nov. 17, 2016

How did small changes to an e-mail campaign help the Trust for Public Land grow donations 22.52% from 2014 to 2015? Letting donors know why they were giving


Nature is a boon for human health. Studies show being outside in natural areas can relieve stress, reduce inflammation and improve memory. It could even prevent children from developing myopia.

However, many U.S. residents, especially those in urban areas and big cities, have little access to the great outdoors. The Nature Conservancy found less than 40% of American youth hike in natural areas or state parks, nor do they visit beaches.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) aims to fix this by improving access to parks and natural areas. The organization was founded in 1972 with the mission of giving every American access to a park or natural area within a 10-minute walk. TPL works to bring 7 million people within a 10-minute walk of a park, garden or natural area.

“We work with partner organizations to rehab cities, urban areas and some of our land and water,” says Kim Elliot, TPL’s director of annual giving. “Some of it can be as simple as us buying a parcel of land that a homeowner wants to sell. We put that back into the park system. It can be working with ranchers and making sure they’re part of the environmental picture in that area.

“We’re working to protect land that offers more destinations for people to enjoy the great outdoors,” Elliot says, adding that they’re looking to create land for people to use.

TPL’s projects include Chicago’s 606 trail, New York’s QueensWay, the Atlanta Beltline, Boston’s Climate Smart Cities and LA Green Alleys in Los Angeles.

TPL must raise money from willing donors to carry out its mission as a nonprofit. TPL’s cornerstone fundraising method is its e-mail marketing campaign. TPL sends e-mails throughout the year, but fundraising has vastly improved by sending messages to its list on Giving Tuesday​, an international day of giving on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving in response to spend-friendly days, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday.


TPL began working with Chapman Cubine Adams and Hussey, a full-service marketing firm, in an effort to refine and increase the money-raising marketing campaign last year to improve its messaging for Giving Tuesday and other campaigns. 

BJ McHugh, senior digital account executive at CCAH, says TPL’s campaign had expressed its ethos and message well in past days, but was a bit too general. There was no true impact statement or message to donors regarding what their monetary contributions would mean for the organization.

“We were able to build a really mission-centric excitement about what was going on and what TPL was doing instead of just being really broad about it,” McHugh says. “We tried to tie it into the larger movement and make people feel connected. … TPL has been around for some time and done a lot of good, preserved a lot of wilderness area and public spaces. We used that to tell that story; I think the donors had a hard time seeing why their $25 or $50 made a difference [before the revamp].”

McHugh says the campaign shift started through e-mail, the campaign’s “workhorse,” as he called it, and this is where the biggest lift was felt. The campaign started using pins, such as the anniversary of the Wildness Act, which saved 109 million acres of land over its half-century of existence.

“[We were] trying to reactivate these lapsed people, but also trying to excite a broad group of people sitting in the e-mail file who just weren’t interacting financially,” McHugh says. “We tried to reframe some of the topics and [write about] what they were doing.”

As TPL improved its copy, subject lines also became better. Subject lines such as “Your lands for sale,” “Be one of the 109” and on Giving Tuesday, “Before the clock strikes midnight” caused open rates to skyrocket. McHugh says they even stopped capitalizing every word to give the subject line a more “approachable and casual appeal.”

“It used to be a longer, broader subject line,” McHugh says. “I think we got shorter and wittier. The purpose of your subject line is to get them in there. We were creating that intrigue without making it click-bait. They knew still what they were opening and interacting with, but it also piqued an interest.

“Messaging has allowed us to come up with wittier subject lines,” he says. “When your messaging is a little dry, it’s harder to tease out a good subject line.”

Giving Tuesday’s donation deadline was also shortened from a three-day span to one day only.

“This, by far, outperformed all of our campaigns outside of year end,” McHugh says. “We started seeing the fruits of a short campaign. There were symbolic goals and messages and we really tied it in with the next deadline.”


McHugh says there has been a “significant increase” in campaign numbers over the past two years. During TPL’s September 2015 membership drive, the organization’s campaign experienced: 

  • 16.1% open rate, up from 13.02% in 2014.

  • 0.76% click through rate, up from 0.4% in 2014.

  • 8.06% completion rate of donation form, up from 3.16% in 2014.

  • 358 donors gave $10,657, up from 26 donors giving $1,810 in 2014.

TPL’s social media pages also had increased action, including 20 million impressions via 14 million users and 476,930 stories created from its posts.

On Giving Tuesday in 2015, McHugh says there was a lower open rate and click through rate—12.44% and 0.22%, respectively—due to the amount of nonprofit messaging that tends to be sent on these days. However, TPL saw a 23.83% completion rate of the donor form. This was good for $42,028 from 239 donors.

Overall, TPL raised $611,000 in 2015 from 4,997 donors, a 22.52% increase over 2014 dollars.

McHugh says CCAH will continue refining the strength of TPL’s message to raise money for public lands. This refinement, he believes, will create more engagement with the e-mail list.

“You want to put your donor at the center of something and show them the impact,” McHugh says. “But it’s often a difficult nut to crack. We’ve found some winners and continue to play on that impact although the subject matter might change.”

Sabra Lugthart, associate director for annual and online giving at TPL, says the organization was pleasantly surprised by adjustments they made that led to Giving Tuesday’s $42,000 pull. The TPL team now wants to make additional tweaks to raise even more money throughout this year, particularly on Giving Tuesday.

“I think the strategy that drove most of the success on Giving Tuesday [in 2015] was that we ended our matching gift challenge on Giving Tuesday, whereas the year before we extended the match,” she says. “We’ll definitely continue with what worked last year. I’d like to add additional social posts and consider doing some Facebook ads. I’d like to send out more e-mails.”

Elliot says she’s hopeful 2016 will be even better, as TPL is “in the midst of a major acquisition campaign and there’s just more people on file.”

“So fingers crossed,” she says.

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Author Bio:
Hal Conick
Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.
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