gFundraising - Interview with Camron Assadi from Mercy Corps

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Camron Assadi Camron Assadi, Deputy Internet Director of Mercy Corps talks to us about why email still works, the awesomeness of Google Grants, and how Gmail makes it easy to check your email in Tajikistan.

Jed Sundwall: Can you explain to us what Mercy Corps is? I mean, it's huge, right?

Camron Assadi: We're pretty large. We're not as huge as some of the other NGO's, but we're sort of in the middle range, 250 million dollar organization, so it's large by many measures, but small in others. We've been around since 1979, so it's about 29-years-old. What we do is basically really three areas of humanitarian aid, so we do recovery, development and disaster relief. We do a lot of economic development, poverty relief, education, agriculture. So, we work in many different areas, depending on the country. We're in, I believe, 35 countries right now. There are different programs in different areas. Water programs in Africa are much different than some of our disaster relief in Asia. It really depends on what's most needed in that country, where we have an office.

What do you do?

My title is Deputy Internet Director, so I work on the web team. What we do is the public face of Mercy Corps, which is the website and all of our e-mails, fundraising and our storytelling. Really, every public facing thing that's online, we handle.

Is there anything in particular that you've spearheaded in that capacity that has shown great results for the organization?

I would say the one thing people compliment us on whenever I go to conferences is our e-mail strategy, our newsletters and the way we communicate to people. I was responsible for revamping what the newsletters look like. That was one of the first things I did when I came to Mercy Corps. What that boils down to is some really good storytelling. If you're on our e-mail list, we take a lot of time, and we have two writers on staff who write stories that talk about our programs, but also give an emotional attachment and give a really good picture of what Mercy Corps does, how it helps people, and who those people are. I think that's one place where we really shine.

We have several web projects going on simultaneously, so we have several websites. Generally, all things are a challenge but I think we do pretty well. I would also say we stand out on the fundraising front. For example, in the disaster year of 2005 when there was the Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, our donor and e-mail list just went through the roof, as it did with every organization that was responding at those times. But, what I would say differentiates us from a lot of organizations is the amount of those people we've been able to retain and keep either on our e-mail list or recurring donors. I think we do a really good job of fostering the relationship between us and our community.

Through e-mail?

Yes, primarily through e-mail. I would say that's the main way we communicate out to our donors. We do stuff with feeds and a lot of stuff through our website, but I would say primarily, it's our e-mail strategy that's been responsible for that retention rate. We have a project we're launching this fall that's going to use a lot of those social networking tools, but the dabbling we've done just hasn't penciled out as far as revenue. That's kind of our bread and butter as a team, is we have these fundraising goals. I'm also responsible for the Google AdWords advertising. We can talk about that in a bit, but aside from the new donor acquisition we do, e-mail is, by far, our most effective channel for raising money. If you're trying to ask for money in 140 characters, I don't how well you'd do.

Let's talk about collaborative tools you're using, like Google Doc, Apps and stuff.

Google has been a great resource to us, and we're really grateful to them for their support. We were an early adopter of Google Apps before they released Google Apps for non-profits. We were also an early adopter of Gmail, hosted e-mail. It's so great. For an organization like Mercy Corps that is distributed in 35 countries, it takes the IT load off of the headquarters office, and each of office can really manage their own e-mail systems because it makes it so easy to use.

I would say the other thing that's been sort of a blessing for the organization has been the spam filtering. That's the one thing people really say about Gmail. But really, that distributed management of that, and also Google Apps, sharing documents across locations and having multiple people in different time zones, working on the same document, spreadsheet or presentation, Google Apps really does a lot for that. We use it on our team for developing stories, keeping project lists, lists of contacts and things that have to happen. Our program side, the people that are actually working in the field, are able to use it in a similar way. So, I think for collaboration, these free tools are really so valuable for organizations, no matter the size.

Was it like a formal decision of Mercy Corps to switch over to these applications and say, "We're not using Microsoft Office, anymore; we're switching to Google?" Or was it little by little?

It's little by little. There are still plenty of people within Mercy Corps who aren't using Google Apps, and it's fine. The migration doesn't happen all at once. I'm not sure how we started using them in the first place, but I think we were either approached by Google or we went to them. It was made very clear early on that it was a lot easier to manage Google Mail than an exchange server, things like that. It was really IT looking to cut cost and management time, so I think Google Apps and Gmail especially are in that sweet spot for IT cost cutting, and that distributed management is the one thing that they love. If somebody is working in the Tajikistan office and leaves that office, they don't need to come back to headquarters and say, "Can you delete this person's e-mail or transfer it over?" It can all be done in the field. That's something a big exchange server really can't do.

And the other thing I should mention is IMAP. A lot of places in the field have really slow, dial-up level connections. So, just being able to download the headers of a message, rather than logging onto e-mail and waiting for every full message, including spam to come down the line, has really actually made their work more efficient. They can just click on the header and download that message at that time. It seems like a really simple thing for us here with broadband connections, but out in the field, it's really been huge, from what I understand.

Do you get to go out and work in the fields?

No, I'm a web guy, unfortunately. Eventually, I'd like to. I just get to travel all over the country, which is cool, but it's not very exotic.

It's not Tajikistan.

Well, interestingly enough, we have two writers on our staff, who have sort of the dream job. They travel to all of our different programs. So, they take four, five different trips a year, going to these different programs to collect stories. So, those guys on our team get to go, and it's a pretty sweet gig. One of them just got back from Mongolia. The other one is going to Guatemala. I'm not sure where their next trip is. Nepal, Namibia was another one. So, it's like travel writer, but doing stuff, documenting the work that Mercy Corps is doing. I'm envious of those guys.

Do you manage AdWords also?

I do. We've been an AdWords recipient since 2003. I think it was March of 2003. We've used it since then. When I came on, which is about a year and eight months ago, I really turned up the volume, so we were using the full grant benefit. We do paid campaigns, too, I should say.

Can I clarify that? You receive a grant from Google, they just give you free AdWords?

Yeah, Google Grants is the name of the program. It's up to $10,000 a month of free Google ad placement. The bidding is calculated a dollar per keyword, so there's a limit there. And then, certain organizations that qualify can go up to $40,000 a month and pay just a small percentage of that. We get about $40,000 a month of AdWords' value for, it's like $1,500, it's really crazy. So, that's a main channel for us to get just new site bidders, visitors. We really use that to try to recruit new e-mail subscribers. And because you can do such targeted traffic, like I can say, "Mercy Corps Tajikistan," talk about our women's development programs in Tajikistan. There's probably not many that are searching on that, but we can take them to a specific page on the Mercy Corps site that talks about that program. Hopefully, that's a better user experience and they'll spend more time learning about Mercy Corps.

So, it's like a branding opportunity, but it's targeted traffic, and you can really reach a lot of people. We use that grant quite heavily. Since 2003, there's been three quarters of a million dollars in advertising value given to us. It's more than a million visitors over five years. The value of that, besides the dollar amount, is immense to Mercy Corps. It's probably responsible for half our web traffic. It is wonderful. I try not to be scared about if they cut us off, what will happen, but it is amazing. They've really expanded the program and they really take care of non-profits. They make it really easy to use. There's a lot of training that's available. I've been working in it for years, but for someone to just get started, they make it super easy. You get the benefit of Google's money machine. That's the way they make however many billions of dollars a quarter. Those tools are made easy enough for anybody to use, it's easy to get started, and you can also get really advanced with it, and a lot of really interesting targeting, whether it be geographical or topical, whatever.

Would you mind explaining maybe one advanced tactic you've used that's been successful, some of the targeting? And you don't have to give away any secrets or anything.

It's really those campaigns for specific topics, that's really gone a long way because you're capturing people by their interests.

Have any of those been successful? You mentioned women's issues in Tajikistan. Have there been any that surprised you?

It's interesting because we responded to the Myanmar cyclone and the earthquake in China. Those are two examples where if we can get our ad up within hours, 24 hours, the sooner the better, then that many more people who are looking to donate can get to our site. That's a really interesting way to look at it. We kind of stick to issues on that, and if we're responding to something or it's in the news, it can really turn into a huge value for us.

Right, if it's timely.

One of the things we did for the China earthquake and the Myanmar cyclone is we added the Google checkout option to our pages. So, if our ad shows along the search results, the Google checkout button also shows. That makes it really pop out, and if someone has a Google checkout account, they have that many less clicks to make that donation. So, that was really successful, too.

Does Google offer any kind of processing discount for non-profits or anything with Google Checkout?

Yeah, I think it's free through the end of this year for checkout.

Really? So even they waive the credit card processing fees?

If you search Google for non-profits, they have a page there. They process all donations through the Google Checkout for free until 2009. There's no monthly setup or gateway fees. That's one way to get a lot of non-profits on board with it. I know they've talked about extending that. I think it's just like a trial thing. You know how they are, just try it? So, no processing fees. Mercy Corps, our standard rate is a whole lot more than that. It's really huge to be able to collect all that money without paying anywhere from three percent to ten percent on transaction processing. Of course, not everybody has Google Checkout yet, but when they do, that'll make it a lot easier.

It's not a significant barrier either? It's just another account, anybody can sign up for it.

Exactly, it's a competitor to PayPal. AdWords, you might also mention that for highly contested keywords, like the China earthquake when that was happening, there were a bunch of NGO's essentially competing for top placement in the search results, in the ad placement results. We pay quite a lot to get that top placement, sometimes, when it really matters because the Google Grants limits you to a dollar per keyword. Some keywords are worth a lot more than that, so we pay to be in those top rankings.

So, for any kind of bidding over $1.00, you just pay out of pocket?

Yeah, we have two accounts. We have one Google Grants account and then, we have a paid account. And I think that's pretty common in these non-profit NGO's that do a lot of advertising. It's kind of fun. It's like gambling in a way because you have to know what you're doing. You have to write a good ad and also have a really good landing page. I can't really emphasize the value of that enough. It seems obvious, but a lot of organizations don't do that. They don't have a landing page that is what the person searching is interested in.

On that note, have you used Google Website Optimizer at all or any optimizing tools?

We use Google Analytics to analyze our traffic. We use the optimization for the AdWords campaigns, themselves, just to look at what other keywords or what we could be spending for that, but I don't think we've used the full website Optimizer. I don't know if we need to. I just haven't looked at it.

I've never used it, but it keeps coming up, so I think I need to learn how to use it. It's specifically for that, so you can run multivariate tests on different landing pages and just see which ones convert better.

We've talked about that. We do testing, but we kind of do it the old-fashioned way. I'm also interested in that Google Ad Planner product. I started looking at it, but I haven't been able to get too far into that, but that could be really interesting, especially for the money we spend.

What else are you looking for? Are there any technologies you would really love that would really benefit you like your dream product, or if there's any sort of trends you're seeing you think would be really beneficial?

This fall, we're launching the Action Center To End World Hunger. This is a learning center in lower Manhattan, a physical space that aims to teach children and everyone about hunger, poverty and everything that causes it. And then, what people can do about it and what they can do to take action on it. So, that's going to be actioncenter.org. We have a preview site up there, and we're really excited to be using Google Earth to showcase a lot of our stories, a lot of current events Mercy Corps is working on, but also pulling in feeds from other organizations. That's one thing that's very exciting for us. We have that in development.

And then, we also are going to be using You Tube quite extensively for hosting our videos. We would never have the money to host that much video online, and You Tube is obviously free. That will, then, be able to allow us to show these videos we're collecting from all our programs and feature that on the web. That's another marketing channel for people to find out about Mercy Corps, by seeing these videos.

So, those things are exciting because it's a new way of getting the Mercy Corps message out to the world beyond just e-mail and website stuff. It's not exactly new. A lot of organizations have been doing it. But, it's new for us. We have a bunch of videos up there now, but we're going to be generating much more, so that's really exciting.

I guess the last area would be our marketing strategy is a little bit old school, in that we have heavy reliance on e-mail. So, we have, I don't know the number, but over 200,000 subscribers to our e-mail list. They just get messages from us, they don't interact with each other. It's not really a community. The next phase for actioncenter.org and mercycorps.org is to really enable a lot of these community features. We're building the new site and all of our new sites on the Drupal platform, and that has a lot of community features built in. So, it will have simple stuff like commenting on stories and things like that. But, the Action Center website will also have a lot of actions that people can take, online actions, so that will also be the basis for a community. It's like a narrowed down version of Care2, so you can sign petitions, have your page and things like that.

So, taking our list from just a broadcast list to an actual community with real interaction is the thing that's very exciting. It would give our community another way to interact with Mercy Corps besides just reading our newsletter and donating. They'll be able to interact and take action and post things. So, that's exciting for us. Again, it's not really new. We're a little bit old school, but it's exciting for us.

Famous last words: anything else you want to say to the NetSquared audience?

I've mentioned this before, I don't think anyone should be intimidated by those tools and those technologies. I think it's getting a lot easier. There're still a lot of organizations out there that might be intimidated or not so inclined to take that on, themselves. But really, whether it be Google Apps or any of these other things, they're doing a lot better job of making it easy for non-profits. You can't explain it easily enough. I think there's a lot of opportunity for organizations of all size to get into this stuff.

That should hopefully encourage people to save a ton of money and make their lives easier.

Yeah, efficiency and collaboration, those are the things I think non-profits can learn a lot from. People turn over in non-profits a lot, too, so those collaborative tools are another way to keep documents all in the same place. It seems really rudimentary for companies, but to keep that knowledge within the organization, so when there's that turnover, people can get up to speed. I could go on and on.