“Making Ideas Move” at ComNet 2015

More than 500 social sector communications professionals from foundations and organizations across the globe gathered this month for engaging dialogues on using the power of digital storytelling to drive social impact, demystifying design and the making of movements. They joined together for the Communications Network conference in San Diego themed “Making Ideas Move.” Fellow communicators from organizations like the Ford Foundation, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Center for American Progress, Rockefeller Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, ONE Campaign and many others trekked to sunny California for the two-day learning event.

Here are highlights from two of the sessions that I participated in over the course of the convening and takeaways on how to move ideas forward, by making big bets and failing forward.

  • Fireside Chat with Soledad O’Brien

    I had the pleasure of joining Soledad O’Brien, one of the most well respected working journalists of our time, on stage for a fireside discussion on opening day. Our talk included a discussion on: the changing dynamics of news agencies; the rise of Millennials and how they are consuming news; and her launch of Starfish Media Group. A multi-platform media production and distribution company, Starfish Media Group is dedicated to uncovering and producing empowering stories that take a challenging look at the often divisive issues of race, class, wealth, poverty and opportunity. O’Brien produces two hit series “Black in America” and “Latino in America,” which are among CNN’s most successful domestic and international franchises.

    O’Brien also created the Starfish Foundation, an organization that sends young women to and through college. The organization has supported dozens of young women in their educational pursuits, believing that they too can succeed when faced with difficult circumstances. In her book, The Next Big Story: My Journey through the land of possibilities, O’Brien shares valuable lessons and insights into her journalistic career, many of which we discussed during our time on stage.

    “My storytelling is an exploration of the world’s problems—that people have the potential to do good and make good and seize from the bad if they will only make a choice to do it,” she noted. O’Brien also shared her lessons on failure with the audience, saying, “Making mistakes should be about learning lessons, not wallowing in failure.” You can watch the complete interview, below (beginning at 14:55):

  • You’ve Got the “Big Idea”, How the Heck Do You Execute It?”

    I also joined the panel discussion “You’ve Got the “Big Idea,” How the Heck Do You Execute It?” with Kate Emanuel of the Ad Council, Alex Kennaugh of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Amy Levner of KaBOOM! We shared with attendees how communications can turn big, audacious goals into a tangible, executable and measurable strategy—that doesn’t take years to achieve—and how to use smart research to achieve those goals.

    Case in point, NRDC aims to combat food waste in the U.S., where 40 percent of food goes uneaten equating to more than $165 billion in wasted food each year. Kennaugh explained how the NRDC published an essential guide called the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, packed with “engaging shopping checklists, creative recipes, practical strategies and educational infographics” offering an easy ways to save food and money. Meanwhile, Levner explained how research confirms that play—physically active, imaginative and interactive play—is a powerful, healthy living solution that benefits the whole child. KaBOOM! has teamed up with the 50 Fund and the NFL Foundation to support nine counties of the Bay Area alone, helping to transform sidewalks and spaces that encourage activity.

I look forward to joining Communications Network in 2016 as they head to Detroit and gather social sector leaders from foundations and nonprofits who share the belief that big ideas, coupled with smart and strategic communications, have the power to transform society, improve lives and change the world.

Finding Your Organization’s Digital Road Map

Creating and maintaining a cohesive digital communications strategy – one that brings together proprietary websites, external outlets for content (e.g. Huffington Post, Forbes or Tumblr) and popular social networking platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to name a few) – is a critical way for organizations to connect with audiences and solidify their online presence. However, with thousands of platforms and apps to choose from, and new ones emerging every week, it is becoming increasingly challenging for organizations to effectively utilize these communication channels.

As early adapters to new technologies, our team at the Case Foundation has learned from experience that juggling too many platforms can become a distraction when your goal is quality engagement with your target audience. What is an organization to do? The answer—start by creating your own digital road map.

Collaborating with our partners at Weber Shandwick for the Communications Network’s publication Change Agent (in conjunction with the ComNet15 conference), we’ve identified five simple steps for anyone looking to streamline their online channels and more effectively engage their audiences.

  • Define your audience
  • Map out your digital ecosystem
  • Leave room for experimentation
  • Define and realign your content strategy
  • Make adjustments as you go

Our hope is that these tips will help you focus your efforts in the ever-evolving digital sphere!

Digital Road Map 1

Digital Road Map2

Latest Email Marketing Benchmarks and Tips for Nonprofits


Email remains one of the most effective communication tools for organizations when they want to engage with constituents, peers, community members and others. But like many of us across sectors, we are not using our email channels as effectively as we could be—and for those of us in the nonprofit sector that is ultimately costing us volunteers, donors, advocates, website visitors and more.

Earlier this week, Laurie Hood, VP of Product Marketing for Silverpop, an IBM Company, presented a webinar titled, Email Marketing Benchmarks: How Do You Measure Up? Hood’s presentation aimed to answer one of the key questions communication leaders consider every time they hit “send” on an email to subscribers—how are your email marketing campaigns performing compared to the average? If asked this about your own email program, would you know the answer? Does it matter?

Hosted by the American Marketing Association, the session was based on Silverpop’s 2015 Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study analyzing emails sent by nearly 3,000 brands and 750 companies from more than 40 countries between January 1 and December 31, 2014. The takeaway for those of us in the nonprofit sector and really anyone providing communications through email is that yes, it does matter how your email is performing because the content you share is useless if no one opens what you have painstakingly prepared.

Here are some of the most often used benchmarks when it comes to email marketing that you can use to determine how you measure up:


Unique Open Rates: how many people “view” or “open” the email based on whether or not the recipient enables the images in the email or the recipient interacts with the email by clicking on a link.


  • Mean* = 21.0%
  • Median** = 17.4%
  • Top Quartile*** = 41.3%
  • Bottom Quartile**** = 7.0%


  • Mean = 20.7%
  • Median = 16.7%
  • Top Quartile = 40.9%
  • Bottom Quartile = 7.5%

Nonprofits, Association, Government

  • Mean = 27.5%
  • Median = 24.7%
  • Top Quartile = 48.1%
  • Bottom Quartile = 8.0%

Transactional Opens: transactional emails are most often sent by a company, store, vendor or service provider for example, as a follow up to an action taken by the email recipient. Opens for these specific emails are referred to as “transactional opens.”

  • Mean = 44.9%
  • Median = 45.9%
  • Top Quartile = 72.2%
  • Bottom Quartile = 16.6%

By nature of it being a follow-up with an already engaged recipient who trusts the sender the open rates are extremely high compared to when no transaction has occurred. In the social sector, transactional emails often occur after a donation has been made, a volunteer service has been performed or online engagement such as signing a petition has taken place. The follow-up email is often a good place to further engage with your recipient due to the predictable level of engagement shown by the transactional open rate.



Click-Through Rates (CTRs): the number of users who click on a specific link out of the total users who viewed the email.


  • Mean = 2.3%
  • Median = 1.4%
  • Top Quartile = 9.4%


  • Mean = 3.0%
  • Median = 1.3%
  • Top Quartile = 9.0%

Nonprofits, Association, Government

  • Mean = 4.0%
  • Median = 2.0%
  • Top Quartile = 11.4%
  • Bottom Quartile = 0.3%

Click-to-Open Rate: of the subscribers who opened the email, how many clicked on a link or image, etc.


  • Mean = 12.6%
  • Median = 9.4%
  • Top Quartile = 28.7%


  • Mean = 11.8%
  • Median = 8.5%
  • Top Quartile = 27.2%



Hard Bounces: a permanent reason an email cannot be delivered such as a non-existent domain or when a user has blocked your emails.


  • Mean = .547%
  • Median = .021%
  • Top Quartile = 0%


  • Mean = 0.568%
  • Median = 0.260%
  • Top Quartile = 0%

Unsubscribes: when someone chooses to no longer be on a mailing list.


  • Mean = .130%
  • Median = .021%
  • Top Quartile = 0%


  • Mean = .131%
  • Median = .021%
  • Top Quartile = 0%



Hood also shared several tips to help anyone improve their email communications. I found these three to be particularly helpful when it comes to increasing the success of your email program.

 Tip #1: Make your email as easy to read as possible. The simplest way to do this is to increase the size of the font for the copy. Hood suggests using the following guidelines for font size:

  • Body Copy 14 px+
  • Headlines 22 px+
  • Buttons 44 px by 44 px

Tip #2: Remember to design your email for the devices your readers are using. Hood reminded listeners that in some cases, more than 50 percent of emails these days are being opened on mobile devices. This percentage is only going to increase over time, so be sure to take design for desktop, mobile, etc. into consideration.

Tip #3: Tell your readers what you want them to do – make it obvious! This means making sure your copy is action-oriented and provides readers with a direct and specific call-to-action.


One final note—remember, data and benchmarks should be used as a diagnostic tool and taken into consideration alongside elements of design, strength of your list and how active your subscribers are relative to your content, rather than alone or without context.

As part of the Case Foundation’s efforts to improve our own online presence and strengthen our communication channels, we too are taking a look at our own email program and assessing what we can do to improve the experience of our subscribers and future readers. I hope you can also put these benchmarks and tips to use in improving your email distribution!

If you have your own email marketing tips, questions or ideas specific to the nonprofit sector, please share and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #CFBlog.



  • *Mean – the “average,” derived when you add up all the numbers in your data set and then divide by the number of numbers.
  • **Median – the “middle” value in the list of numbers or data set.
  • ***Top Quartile – the top 25 percent of data, which Silverpop then took the average to determine what the “Top Quartile” was.
  • ****Bottom Quartile – the bottom 25 percent of data, which Silverpop then took the average to determine what the Bottom Quartile was.