DonorsChoose.org is an online charity that makes it easy for anyone to help students in need. Public school teachers from every corner of America post classroom project requests on DonorsChoose.org. In turn, individuals and companies can donate any amount to their project of choice.

Founded in April 2000, DonorsChoose.org pioneered crowdfunding to enable teachers to ask for the materials and experiences they need for their students to learn. By directly connecting individuals with the classroom, DonorsChoose.org has fostered a unique level of civic engagement that improves education through a simple philanthropic solution.

In 2014, DonorChoose.org appeared on the cover of Fast Company’s “50 Most Innovative Companies in the World,” the first time a charity ranked in the Top 10.

The challenges of managing email in-house

Email is central to DonorsChoose.org’s operations, and it accounts for one third of the dollars raised by citizen donors. Over the last year, DonorsChoose.org raised more than $63 million for classrooms in need, of which more than $10 million is attributed to their robust email program.

Beyond revenue, email is key to fostering and nurturing long-term relationships between donors and classrooms. DonorsChoose.org has a database of over 1.4 million opt-in users and sends approximately 2 million emails per month (more during the back-to-school and holiday seasons).

Email serves as the main communication channel for DonorsChoose.org. Donors receive regular email updates on projects, thank you notes from teachers and students, as well as photos and progress reports. Donors are also notified of classroom projects that match their interests and geography as a way to foster the spirit of continued giving. Teachers use the DonorsChoose.org platform to post, manage, and update their projects while communicating directly with donors on project status and results.

When it came time to change data centers in 2012, they realized that they’d be leaving behind their email IPs, on which they’d established an excellent sender reputation over many years. They also realized that as the importance of email to their philanthropic mission grew, so did their sending volume.

The technical challenges of managing their transactional email in-house had surpassed the expertise of their technical team.

To avoid future constraints and a large in-house technical investment, DonorsChoose.org began searching for a platform that was purpose-built to provide email infrastructure and deliverability as a service.

In order to become their vendor of choice, this system would have to:

  • Enable DonorsChoose.org to decouple transactional email servers from their production servers
  • Provide the flexibility to host their email from anywhere
  • Offer insights into their deliverability and response rates with clear and actionable statistics
  • Enable key transactional email functionality with minimal effort like DKIM, click tracking, and bounce tracking
  • Integrate with their existing platform
  • Provide hands-on support for transactional email best practices, troubleshooting, prevention, and solvability

Finding the right cloud-based email provider

DonorsChoose.org evaluated six vendors, but Twilio SendGrid was the only provider that met their criteria.

Easy Integration

Whereas other provides required them to move or rebuild their email templates into their systems, SendGrid only required a quick SMTP and DNS configuration change to integrate.

Easy Configuration

Configuring their transactional email to follow best practices like DKIM signing and click-tracking simply required turning the feature on.

Easy Access to Email Statistics

Using the Event Webhook, DonorsChoose.org could collect real-time email performance statistics in their own system. This enabled the reporting and analytics their Marketing and Product teams needed to manage and improve their transactional email.

A robust email program increases donations

This past school year, DonorsChoose.org raised more than $63 million for classrooms in need, of which more than $10 million is attributed to their robust email program. This is due in part to their ability to better optimize and measure the effectiveness of their transactional email campaigns using real-time deliverability and response data.

For example, the team was able to reimagine their monthly project recommendation emails that are delivered to over one million donors.

By experimenting creatively with the content, they went from raising $15,000 in donations to over $150,000 each month.

The switch to Twilio SendGrid freed up valuable time for their engineers and product team. They no longer have to maintain a homegrown transactional email delivery solution and troubleshoot issues. Instead, they rely on the Twilio SendGrid platform and account management team to monitor, diagnose, and help fix potential delivery problems that may surface.

With a cloud-based email infrastructure in place, they no longer have to worry about moving servers or losing IPs should they choose to change where their systems are hosted.

Overall, with a database of over 1.4 million opt-in users, DonorsChoose.org emails continue to achieve high delivery and response rates. Delivery rates now hover around 99% ensuring that both teachers and donors continue to receive the necessary communications that drive activity on the site and lend transparency to the organization.

Most importantly, DonorsChoose.org team members can focus on what matters most—innovating in the non-profit space and connecting the community with classrooms in need.

Email is the heart and soul of our business. It drives meaningful connections between our 1,400,000 donors and teachers, and raises millions of dollars for high-need schools across America. We needed to partner with an email service provider that could ensure the delivery of our transactional emails, with minimal engineering overhead, to support the growth of these relationships between citizen donors and hardworking teachers. Twilio SendGrid was the only provider that had the email tools, expertise, and platform flexibility to let us put transactional email infrastructure on autopilot so we could fully focus on product and engineering challenges that are unique to our cause. —Oliver Hurst-Hiller, Chief Technology Officer

It’s challenging to know when to switch from an in-house email management system to a cloud-based email provider. For information of the pros and cons of both, read through Your Guide to Email Infrastructure: Build It or Buy It?



SendGrid Team
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