Nathaniel Ward

Hey there! I’m an online marketer and fundraiser living in Washington, D.C.

I love understanding why people make decisions—why they say yes to an offer or unsubscribe from an email or make a purchase.

I’m fascinated by psychology and how technology and experimentation can help us understand people better. This helps us marketers communicate better with each person we reach.

These are the subjects of my frequent talks on online marketing and optimization, including at the Marketing Sherpa Optimization Summit, the Nonprofit Innovation and Optimization Summit, the Bridge Conference, and the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Conference.

Most of the time, I can be found at the Leadership Institute, where I oversee online fundraising and drive marketing optimization.

P.S. Opinions expressed on this site are my own.

I don’t have comments enabled, so here’s how you can get in touch: Send me a tweet. Or find me on LinkedIn.

Recent scribblings

When data analysis goes wrong

Writing in Wired, Gary Smith explains the dangers of mindless data mining:

The Feynman trap—ransacking data for patterns without any preconceived idea of what one is looking for—is the Achilles heel of studies based on data mining. Finding something unusual or surprising after it has already occurred is neither unusual nor surprising. Patterns are sure to be found, and are likely to be misleading, absurd, or worse.

This approach can generate spurious correlations—patterns that are true but meaningless. More Smith:

In 2011, Google created an artificial intelligence program called Google Flu that used search queries to predict flu outbreaks. Google’s data-mining program looked at 50 million search queries and identified the 45 that were the most closely correlated with the incidence of flu. It’s yet another example of the data-mining trap: A valid study would specify the keywords in advance. After issuing its report, Google Flu overestimated the number of flu cases for 100 of the next 108 weeks, by an average of nearly 100 percent. Google Flu no longer makes flu predictions.

A better approach to data analysis, one that will return the most useful insights, starts with questions to answer and hypotheses to validate.

By Nathaniel Ward on


Fundraising short-termism

The nonprofits and political movements that endure are those that build meaningful relationships with their donors.

Yet the temptation remains to make decisions that are effective in the short run but catastrophic over time—to sacrifice long-term success for victory today.

This is particularly true in politics. For political campaigns, what counts is winning the election; considering a future beyond Election Day is just a distraction. This can lead political fundraisers to eschew meaningful relationships with donors in favor of gimmicks, misleading language, and constant shrill appeals for money.

The Washington Post profiles one firm, Mothership Strategies, that takes this approach:

The company’s profits are built on exaggerating fears, some fellow Democrats say, and could erode trust among small donors needed to help 2020 presidential contenders compete with Trump’s loyal base of contributors — and beyond…

The company’s three millennial founders are unapologetic about their tactics — so much so that one employee’s bio on the company’s website touts she has “mastered the ALL CAPS SUBJECT LINE.”

These shortsighted tactics, a bipartisan affliction, are justified as being effective. Indeed, this approach may work quite well in the short run, drawing eye-popping returns that exceed anything from a more durable approach.

Over the long haul, though, treating your donors poorly erodes trust. Donors will catch on eventually that the sky isn’t always falling. They will tire of the one-way relationship, disengage, and stop giving.

By Nathaniel Ward on


Why test in fundraising? Because your gut instincts are probably wrong

Testing is fundamentally about learning and making decisions based on data. It’s about understanding who your donors are and what inspires them. Moreover, it reflects a humility — a recognition that we fundraisers don’t necessarily have the answers.

There’s a great quote from a senior member of Barack Obama’s 2012 email team: “We basically found our guts were worthless.”

Here was a team that ran circles around Mitt Romney when it came to fundraising. It turns out the campaign wasn’t run by a bunch of fundraising naturals who knew just what to send their donors.

Instead, this effective fundraising team was great at learning what works and what doesn’t through testing. They made decisions based on data, not gut instinct or some fundraising “best practice.”

Testing is not a check-the-box exercise

It’s not something you do at the last minute. It needs to be fundamental to your process.

Testing needs to deliver results you can learn from and apply to your next campaign, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Let’s think again about the 2012 Obama campaign.

They famously tested their way into an email with the subject line of “Hey.” That email made huge sums of money.

A lot of email marketers learned from that that they should send emails with the subject line of “Hey.” I got a lot of emails with that subject line in 2012. We tried one too at Heritage. It didn’t really work.

The Obama campaign learned a different lesson, the right lesson. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people.” That’s according to Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s email director.

That’s a useful insight, because it’s about what their donors think and believe. It can inform future fundraising campaigns.

When testing, you don’t want to test this word against that word. You want to test different theories of the donor against one another - theories about how your donors think and act.

By Nathaniel Ward on


No, your email fundraising probably isn’t cannibalizing your direct mail fundraising

Several years back, The Heritage Foundation conducted a substantial test to determine the effect of a multi-channel approach to fundraising.

We sought to definitively answer the question: are we better off sending just a direct mail letter, sending only emails, or sending both?

The real worry - one I’ve heard from other nonprofit fundraisers - was that sending emails alongside a letter would cannibalize the letter and reduce mail response. In other words, people would simply give online instead of through the mail.

So we took one of our best mailings and split it three ways: one segment got just a letter; one got a letter with no ask and an email; and one got both a letter and an email. The emails, which made an ask mirroring the mail piece, were timed to arrive shortly after the letters hit mailboxes.

Unfortunately, this test was never properly documented, and the results became the stuff of Heritage lore. Until now.

I dug up the data, and the results are astounding:

  1. Donors who got both direct mail and email saw a 60.5% lift in response rate in the mail compared to the mail-only group. The multichannel audience had a 23.9% response rate, compared to 14.9% for mail only.
  2. Donors who got just emails had a 90.6% lower response rate in the mail than the mail-only group. This audience had just a 1.4% response rate.

Not only that, people who got the multichannel treatment were also more likely to give online too. That means the worst option is to send people only email! More on that in another article.

This boost from multi-channel fundraising can be seen across the entire direct mail program. According to another study we ran, donors who receive emails give roughly 25 percent more annually than those who get only direct mail.

While we don’t necessarily expect these exact results in every campaign or for every organization, we can conclude that sending followup emails strengthens rather than cannibalizes direct mail.

By Nathaniel Ward on


Why do you still ‘blast’ your donors?

Each of your donors is probably open to receiving a personal email from you making the case for a gift.

None of them wants to get an impersonal “e-blast.”

Even if you’re sending a single message to everyone on your email list at once, always remember there are unique people at the other end. You’re sending a message to each individual person, and your terminology should reflect that.

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