Free Supporters (No, Really!)

Let me paint a dream scenario for you: your goal is to grow your email list by 50,000 supporters in 2013. So, you simply ask your boss for a cool $100,000, hit up some paid acquisition vendors, run a few paid campaigns, upload your new buys and then take off the rest of the year to travel around the world because your job is done. Sounds pretty great, right?

Now allow me to burst your bubble by reminding you that it’s never going to happen. As nonprofit employees, we know that budgets are tight. And, as savvy online strategists, we know that doing such one-source, bulk acquisitions isn’t the best idea if we want a healthy email list. But, as frazzled people responsible for the growth of our list, we may feel like our choices are really limited if we want to grow our list in a smart, strategic way while still leaving enough time to handle the dozens of other things that fill our plate.

Trust me, I was right there with you, longing for a bigger budget, a sexier issue, or that elusive viral campaign. Unfortunately, none of those materialized for me, which is when I realized that it was really time to get serious about getting some free supporters in the most efficient manner possible by focusing as much as possible on organic growth.

My greatest frustration, however, once I started exploring what other people had to say about organic growth was that many of the examples I came across focused on once-in-a-blue-moon examples of viral campaigns that were able to jump on an issue right before an explosion in the news cycle. In other words, these stories and blog posts were profiling campaigns that were exciting, provocative, and inspirational but probably not reproducible.

So, our team at Food & Water Watch set out on our own quest to find new ways to get more organic list growth. As a result of the work we’ve put in over the past two years, we’ve been able to shift our list growth such that we gained over 75 percent of our new supporters via organic (read: free!) methods — all while keeping our sanity.

The process wasn’t easy, but we learned a lot along the way. Here’s just a peek at the strategies and tactics we’ll be discussing during our NTC session in Minneapolis this spring:

  • Decide you actually want free supporters: Yes, this one sounds silly – of course we all want free supporters! But, when looking around internally in your organization you may find that other stakeholders are more interested in maximizing donations, promoting materials, recruiting volunteers or probably about a million other things. Given all of these competing goals, it’s pretty near impossible to actually do all of them well. That’s why goal prioritization is so important. While we want to accomplish all of the different goals put forth by our stakeholders, we need to determine which one is the most important. (Hint: it’s gaining new email supporters, and we’ll tell you why!)
  • Optimize your list: At Food & Water Watch we have two mantras we try to live by: “Always be recruiting” and “Always send the best.” While these two mantras were initially developed for our field organizers, they have been invaluable in helping us to optimize our organic list growth. By focusing on sending the right content to the right people we’re able to maximize the number of new supporters we get, while minimizing unsubscribes, because we are actually sending people the content that they want, not just what we think they should want. Additionally, we’ve made sure to focus on identifying critical “recruitment” points for our supporters, as well as our top recruiters, and tapping into their passion for our issues in order to connect with their friends and thus fill our list not only with free supporters, but ones that actually care deeply about our work.
  • Share the wealth: Over the past two years, we’ve been able to engage in list shares with a variety of other like-minded organizations. Not only does sharing our list help us gain new (free) supporters, it also allows us to work closely with allies and support their work. That being said, it’s important to understand that list share are NOT simply a give-away of your supporters, but rather a two-way process that involves some investment on the front-end. But, the results are totally worth it!
  • Hit the “easy” button: I feel pretty safe assuming we all want to make our lives as easy as possible. That’s why we’re going to go over systems and techniques for making the list growth process painless by automating, streamlining and simplifying . While this isn’t rocket science, there are definitely lessons we’ve learned the hard (and time-consuming) way, which we’re glad to share with you.

In the end, we’re not just going to spend this session talking about list growth, but smart list growth. By focusing on simplifying the process while getting the most return for your investment, this session will leave you with an actual plan you can take back and implement, with your own tweaks, in order to save your organization money, while still gaining the supporters you need. And who knows, maybe your boss will be so impressed that they’re give you that $100,000 allocated for paid acquisition. A girl can dream, right?

Hear more from Maria at her session at the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference, “Free Supporters!


Maria Tchijov
Organizer, Education and Outreach
Food & Water Watch
Maria Tchijov is a San-Francisco-based online organizer at Food & Water Watch. She works to engage with Food & Water Watch members and supporters online and connect them to the work of our offline organizers. Prior to joining the Food & Water Watch team, Maria worked as the Outreach Director at, helping build an online organizing platform for citizen-led campaigns. In the past, she has also worked as an online organizer at SEIU, focusing on healthcare reform, and freelanced as a social media consultant for nonprofits in the Chicago area. Outside of work, Maria enjoys exploring the many free activities San Francisco has to offer.