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Wednesday, March 5, 2014 - 2:30pm
posted by
David Clain
Camelot Campaigns

More and more nonprofits are shifting their fundraising focus online—and for good reason. Online fundraising platforms are making it easier than ever for donors to contribute when and how they want to, and they eliminate some of the costs of direct mail solicitations and in-person events.

Data published last year in the Chronicle of Philanthropy shows this trend clearly: online donations to nonprofits increased 14% in 2012 relative to 2011, while overall donations increased by only 1.5% in the same period.


But this trend has been uneven. The American Lung Association, for example, received nearly a third of its private donations through the internet in 2012—but the median large organization raised only 2.1% of its donations online in that period. 

The lesson? Online fundraising is important—and growing more important every year—but nonprofits can't just open a spigot and watch online contributions pour in. Successful online fundraisers avoid the common mistakes that plague so many others. Here are four fundraising pitfalls we see too often, and how can you can avoid them.

Inconsistent messaging on donation pages

Many nonprofits mistakenly assume that someone who has visited their website, read their fundraising collateral, and navigated to a donation page is all but certain to donate. Those nonprofits often have donation pages hosted on other websites with no real mention of the organization, the cause it supports, or the value of a donation. In other words: they assume they have persuaded a potential donor, and they abandon their messaging. But the reality is that nonprofits should continue their pitch until their donations are in hand; donation pages are not the end result of your messaging process, but the most important part of it.


Consider two examples. This is the text above the donation form for The Salvation Army. It thanks visitors “for choosing to make a donation to The Salvation Army”—but of course they have not yet made that choice, and there is nothing here to push them over the edge.


Now take a look at the ASPCA's closing argument. It features well-written copy about the importance of monthly donations, examples how your donation will be spent, and suggested donation amounts calibrated to those examples, so donors feel like they are contributing not money but rather a specific benefit for rescue animals. The ASPCA is taking no contribution for granted.


Making the donation process too complex


When a prospect is on the verge of becoming a donor, make the process as simple as possible. Too many nonprofits have complicated donation forms that ask for unnecessary information. Don’t request too much—you might want to know a prospect’s name, gender, date of birth, address, and phone number, and you might want him or her to create an account on your website or subscribe to your mailing list.


But when you ask for all of those items in a donation form, you're simply giving a would-be donor another reason to leave. Instead, you should ask for the bare minimum you need to process a credit card contribution and accurately report the donation. Consider asking for additional information after receiving the donation. A follow-up email with a link to create an account, or a form on the donation confirmation page offering to save the donor’s payment information for next time, is a better option. By that point, the cost of overloading a visitor with form fatigue is much lower. 

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Skipping effective follow-up


Most nonprofits send an automated email or form letter to thank donors for their contributions. The largest organizations may have no choice but to rely on this automated approach—but smaller nonprofits should employ a personal touch and view a donation as the start of a relationship, not the end of one. If your organization has the capacity, try sending a personal email or a hand-written note to donors, thanking them for their donations and offering them other opportunities to be involved in the organization’s work. After all, someone who donates online is more likely to host a fundraiser at his or her home, volunteer, or otherwise help the organization.


And, of course, donors remember the human touch the next time they’re thinking about how to distribute their charitable gifts—so effective follow-up to one donation puts you on the fast track to the next.


Relying on intuition, not data


The first rule of online marketing is to gather data rather than rely on your gut or the experience of others. Nonprofit fundraisers certainly should lean on their expertise, and they’ll benefit greatly from learning about the successes and failures of other online fundraising operations. 


The most successful fundraisers test every assumption and try every possible option. Don’t just have one fundraising page that never changes—try varying your copy, using different messaging, changing suggested donation amounts, and experimenting with different images. These changes might seem small in isolation, but they add up quickly. Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, had over 500 split tests to compare different versions of its fundraising pages. 


The result? In 20 months, campaign improved its donation conversion rate—just by changing its fundraising pages—by 49%. Testing, ultimately, might be the most useful tool in the online fundraiser’s toolbox. As long as you’re measuring results, you can experiment freely and find what works for you. As the Obama campaign discovered in 2012, the results of a deep-rooted testing ethos can be spectacular. 

David is the founder of Camelot, which provides CRM and constituent outreach software and website management and online organizing tools for political campaigns and nonprofit organizations. David has worked with large and small organizations in almost a dozen countries to help improve their constituent data management, outreach, and fundraising.

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