Your website is your nonprofit’s greatest fundraising tool. While other forms of giving are flat or declining, online donations are growing at an impressive rate — nearly 9% last year. No other medium allows you to consistently engage as many potential donors as the internet.
Many organizations aren’t realizing their full online fundraising potential. Fortunately, with a good strategy and a little bit of work, it’s an easy problem to fix. Here are seven ways for you to transform your site and make online donations a key part of your overall fundraising strategy.
(1.) Place Donations Front and Center
So many great organizations fail at online fundraising because they tuck everything away on a “donate” page.
Take a look at what’s really on your donate page. Chances are, there’s a button that takes visitors to another page, where they specify how much they want to give and actually make the donation. Most organizations also give an address for sending checks, and instructions for in-kind donations.
When a visitor clicks the “donate” button and gives you $25, it’s instantly deposited in your account. Depositing a check requires a trip to the bank. In-kind donations can be great, but they can also be sporadic and unpredictable.
If online giving is the easiest way for you to receive a donation, why do nonprofits turn it into the hardest way to make a donation?
Here’s the one-step, simple solution: put a donate button on your front page.
It should be one of the first things a visitor sees. They shouldn’t have to scroll down to find it, or click through a menu to get to it. A “donate” button should be big; as large and noticeable as it can possibly be, without becoming obnoxious or ruining the flow of your site. You can even have more than one!
Always minimize the number of steps it takes to place a donation.
Here’s an idea for making your donate buttons even more effective: Instead of redirecting visitors to a separate page, have your donate button open a modal window (pretty examples) that lets them place a donation without leaving the current page. That way, they can keep reading about your organization and place a donation whenever they’re moved to do so, without losing their place.
(2.) Rethink Your Suggested Donation Levels
If your online donation numbers have been lackluster, it’s time to think outside the box.
The average donation page features a series of suggested amounts — like $10, $25, $50, and $100 — followed by a text box that allows donors to type in a custom amount. It’s set up this way so that the average site visitor can quickly select an amount, but people who want to contribute over or below the suggested amounts won’t feel left out.
The problem? Basic human psychology. Nobody wants to contribute the bare minimum, but neither do they see a compelling reason to contribute the highest amount on the list. So most people will instinctively pick the median value.
And chances are, your site’s median donation value is pretty low.
Raise the floor and you raise the average. If your donation page currently gives options for $5 and $10 donations, that’s the smallest amount that most people will contribute. If your middle figure is $25, you can expect most donors to gravitate to that number. By bringing up the minimum to $25, and adjusting the other values to higher amounts — let’s say $50, $100, $250, and $500 — you’ve quadrupled the median.
Another strategy to try is flipping the order of suggested values. We usually order dollar amounts left to right, from smallest to largest. But many leading nonprofits are doing the exact opposite on their websites. Placing the highest dollar forces donors to select a lower value.
Here’s why it works: When suggested values are ordered smallest-to-largest, visitors have to take action to increase the amount of their donation. We usually don’t feel any qualms about not offering a higher amount. But when the order is reversed, you have to take action to decrease the value — something we naturally feel bad about, because on a subconscious level, it seems stingy.
A third method is re-designing the custom donation box. Typically, the intent behind this input box is to give larger donors the ability to put in a higher dollar amount than the suggested values. In reality, those boxes are rarely used at all, by anyone. The more steps it takes for a visitor to place a donation, the lower the chance that they will actually do it.
Use suggested donation amounts to your advantage here. Instead of representing them as boxes or buttons, why not use a slider? A slider has clear boundaries, a minimum and a maximum. If someone wants to go outside of those limits, either lower or higher, make them take some sort of additional action. It won’t deter large repeat donors, who probably don’t contribute through your website anyways. It will decrease the number of people who use the custom donation box to contribute tiny dollar amounts.
Adding too many suggested levels is counterproductive. When faced with a wide variety of options, people often choose to simply do nothing. Businesses and nonprofits offer people more choices in hopes that it will accommodate more people, but it can just as easily result in anxiety and decision paralysis.
How many suggested values should you offer visitors to your site? The vast majority of large nonprofit websites have between 5 and 10. Larger numbers in that range work better as settings on a slider than as boxes. Picking an odd number ensures that there is a middle value.
Note that asking for more money works best when you can demonstrate increased impact. Re-order your donation options as part of an overall strategy that includes better content, a more compelling call-to-action, and tighter management of donor relationships.
You know your donor base better than anyone else. Choose suggested donation amounts that make sense in your specific situation. But don’t be afraid to make changes — chances are, your organization could get larger donations simply by increasing the amount you’re asking for.
(3.) Start a Newsletter (and Get Subscribers)
E-mail newsletters are one of the most important — and most neglected — marketing tools in a nonprofit’s arsenal. Newsletters give you a chance to connect with your audience in a personal way that social media just doesn’t allow. When they are written well, they can engage even more people than a Facebook post or a Tweet.
E-mail newsletters are great for nonprofits because they:
- Cost almost nothing compared to regular mail promotions
- Are easy to forward and share
- Have higher response rates than social media (when written well)
- Make your supporters feel appreciated
If you’ve been managing an informal e-mail list yourself, it’s time to upgrade to a commercial solution. MailChimp is one of the most popular mailing list managers, and it’s also one of the easiest to use. It is also completely free until you have over 2,000 subscribers or send more than 12,000 total e-mails (messages you send * subscribers = total e-mails) per month. It’s also incredibly easy to integrate with WordPress and other content management systems.
MailChimp and applications like it offer analytical tools to show you how people are interacting with your e-mails. You can see how many people have opened your e-mails — down to the individual recipient — and even see which pictures and links your subscribers like most.
You can even get fancy and break your list into segments. You may want to send out a different e-mail to long-time volunteers or high value donors, for instance. You can also use segmenting to test different e-mail subject lines or publishing formats.
E-mail newsletters work best when messages are short and sweet. A bunch of short, single-topic e-mails — that advertise an event or talk about a program — do better than a single long one.
Commit to a publishing schedule. The frequency of your emails will depend on the type of organization you run, your programs, and staff availability, but try to publish as often as possible. At least once a month is ideal, more is always better. Experiment a little to find out which day and time work best for you.
(4.) Incorporate Symbolic Giving
Look at the two statements below, adapted from real nonprofit donate pages, and ask yourself, “Which one makes me want to click the ‘donate’ button more?”
“Your gifts enable us to help homeless and unemployed men and women find meaningful work to support themselves and their families.”
“$10 can buy a literacy workbook that helps a client learn to read.
$25 can buy a monthly bus pas that enables one of our clients to get to work.
$100 can buy a gently-used business suit for a job interview.”
Chances are, you picked #2. Why? It’s succinct. It suggests donation amounts, and tells you what kind of an impact your money would have. It talks about the people being served, rather than the organization. And if you’ve been around the nonprofit world long enough, it probably seems familiar. . .
Heifer International, the global hunger and poverty relief charity, is famous for using this strategy — known as symbolic giving. Every year around the holiday season, Heifer sends out a catalog to its contributors. Each page talks about a specific livestock animal — like a flock of geese, a llama, or a goat — and the impact that these animals can have on a farmer’s life in the developing world.
You aren’t buying an individual animal, of course. Gifts are directed so that they help the most people. But by helping donors visualize the impact that their money can have, Heifer is able to bring in over $126 million every year, much of it from small donors. Oxfam, World Vision, and Children’s Hunger Fund are other examples of organizations that use symbolic giving to great effect.
Approaches like this aren’t just for big charities. Your organization can harness the power of symbolic giving, too. Here’s how:
- Brainstorm a list of items (or services) and donation amounts
If your organization provides after-school arts enrichment, common supplies might include a selection of paints, a roll of canvas, or a 50-lb box of clay. Services work, too. Once you’ve made a list, write down what each item costs. Resist the temptation to round numbers to common donation amounts — uneven figures like $13 and $17 are easier to believe, and reinforce the fact that your organization needs the money for program costs.
- Write descriptions and take high-quality pictures
Now that you have a list of symbolic gifts, it’s time to get creative. Write a short description for each one, emphasizing the impact that the object or service will have on a person’s life. Then, have someone who is good at photography take some photos of the object or service as it’s used in your organization. Double points if it’s a picture with a client in it, or if you can get a testimonial from someone who was impacted by receiving that product / service.
- Incorporate symbolic giving into your website
Now that you have your items, descriptions, and photos, it’s time to feature them on a web page. This is easiest if you’re using a content management system like WordPress. Because symbolic giving is a little like shopping, e-commerce solutions work great, too. You will want a hub page featuring all of the items together, and individual pages for each of them.
Symbolic giving campaigns also encourage gift donations. Instead of donating a dollar amount on someone’s behalf, people can say that they “bought a cow” for a birthday gift or “dug a well” as a memorial.
Pick common donation amounts, and choose symbolic gifts that make sense. The more concrete you can make it, the better. And clearly disclose the fact that your organization will use donations in the most effective way possible.
(5.) Crowdfund Your Big Projects (or a Bunch of Smaller Ones)
Donating can feel distant and impersonal. Even if you trust the organization you are giving to, it’s hard to know what kind of an impact your dollars are having.
Crowdfunding is an amazing tool for getting people involved on a personal level as well as a monetary one. Donors relate better to defined goals, like raising $15,000 to buy a new transport van, than they do to simple requests for money. Even if they have nothing to give, it’s easy for someone to share a campaign on social media.
The typical crowdfunding page features a story about a specific project or person. Social buttons allow users to quickly share the campaign with others. A donor wall records contributions, along with donor names and messages, if they want to add them. And, of course, there’s the progress bar.
Progress bars are awesome for fundraising. They’re visually-engaging. They’re easy to understand. And they provide users with a way to see the impact of their donations in real-time. Progress bars also instill a sense of urgency that a simple donate button can’t. Adding a deadline can increase the effect.
As the bar fills and the goal gets closer, crowdfunding campaigns tend to build extra momentum. People have an innate desire to finish things, even if other people started them. Successful crowdfunding campaigns can even exceed their goals, leaving you in the enviable position of having more money than you anticipated.
For a crowdfunding campaign to stand out, it needs three things:
- A cause that resonates with a large number of people (preferably older millennials and thirty-somethings)
- A clear impact statement (“$30,000 will enable us to. . .”)
- A group of dedicated, enthusiastic supporters to advertise the campaign
Because crowdfunding is so popular and effective, there is no shortage of apps, tools, and plugins for managing campaigns. Donate.ly (2% + $0.50 per user) and Classy (multiple plans) are designed for nonprofits. They give you detailed, elegant fundraising reports and allow your supporters to set up their own peer-to-peer pages to fundraise on your behalf. CrowdRise (5% processing fee) has a beautiful interface and a dedicated following of philanthropists. Nonprofits can also use IndieGoGo (8-10% processing fee), a popular platform for creative projects and startups.
(6.) Tell an Impact Story
The best nonprofit websites emphasize the people that are served, not the organization that serves them.
Running a nonprofit takes a lot of work, and most of it isn’t glamorous. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day job of keeping an organization running. But the ultimate purpose of every organization is to serve a community and make the world a better place. It’s the reason your organization exists. And it’s time that the world knows about it.
An impact story is any piece of content that shows your organization at work. It can be a news piece, a picture series, or a video. Great impact stories combine all three. Impact stories can be long or short. What ultimately separates a good impact story from an outstanding one is the degree to which readers are moved to act.
Impact stories are powerful because they touch us on an emotional level. They offer us characters that we can relate to. Stories that include the subject’s own thoughts and recollections can help donors relate to stories that might be unfamiliar or uncommon. The best stories allow us to see the world through another set of eyes.
Every story has a plot, and most plots have a similar structure:
- Exposition and Action
We need to know who the characters are. If your organization rescues and shelters abused animals, readers would want to meet one of the cats or dogs you are currently working with. They would also need to know the backstory. What happened to them? This is the part of your story that should cover the protagonist (whoever or whatever the story is about) up to the point that your organization gets involved.
At what point did your organization intervene? What form did your intervention take? How was it received at first? Were there any unforeseen problems? If so, how did your organization deal with them?
As a result of your organization’s work, what is better now? What has changed, and what has stayed the same? Most importantly, what is the future outlook for the subject of your story?
Videos really shine in this role. A simple interview with a person your organization has helped speaks volumes more than a written testimonial or a page of marketing copy. Video interviewing is an acquired skill, but the internet is full of helpful tutorials. Tap into your volunteer base for people with camera or audio production skills, or post a listing on Idealist. If all else fails, you can hire audiovisual help for a day.
If you’re on a limited budget, a photo-essay is a great alternative. Use photographs that show the subject of your story and the work that your organization does. If you have a bunch of photos, use the best ones in your story, and include a link to view the rest on a social image sharing site like Instagram.
Infographics are a great way of showing important statistics. In an impact story, they’re especially useful as sidebars that offer a visual break in long blocks of text. You can use a tool like Piktochart (free for nonprofits) or Canva’s Infographic Creator to make your own.
At the end of your story, be sure to include a call-to-action. You could ask for a simple donation or prompt the reader to sign up for your newsletter. You could ask people to share the story. If your impact story isn’t concluded, and the subject of your story needs ongoing help, one particularly powerful strategy is to make the story a lead-in to a crowdfunding campaign.
Crafting a good story takes practice. If you’re looking for a way to jump-start your creative energies, consider reading a book on the art of storytelling, taking an online course from The Story Studio ($60 – $70), or subscribing to The Storytelling Nonprofit — a great blog that covers every aspect of story-driven fundraising.
(7.) Use the Magic Words: “Please” and “Thank You”
Donors want to feel appreciated. Too often, they’re ignored instead.
Large organizations use custom email responders to send out formulaic “thank you” messages when people make contributions on their sites. Many smaller nonprofits do nothing at all. At best, they might redirect donors to a generic-looking “thank you” page after their payment is processed.
And then they wonder why people stop supporting them.
Fundraising professionals know that donations aren’t about the money; they’re about the feeling that comes from making a difference. When organizations take donor appreciation seriously, they are telling their supporters, “Your contributions are making a difference. You’re an important part of this, and you matter to us.”
Thankfully, donor appreciation is one of the easiest problems to fix. Here are a few cheap, easy, and effective strategies that you can start using today:
- Create a virtual donor wall on your site
- Give businesses and foundations a special page that features their logo and talks about what they do and how they’ve helped you
- Thank sustaining contributors —people who have donated twice or more in the last year — with a short personal message from your executive director
- Express gratitude offline: Send a hand-signed thank-you note to everyone who participates in a certain fundraiser, or to everyone who gives above a certain dollar amount
By showing donors that you care, you’re building a relationship with them. A positive relationship increases the chances that they will contribute to your organization in other ways, or move up to planned giving.
Share your own web fundraising ideas.
If you have stumbled upon a great online fundraising strategy, we want to hear from you. Leave a comment below and we’ll get a conversation going. And if you liked this post, spread the word by sharing it with other nonprofit professionals on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Thank you!
UPDATE (2/17/2016): We added Donate.ly and Classy, two great fundraising platforms, to our list of suggestions. We also removed IgnitionDeck and WPMUDEV’s Fundraising plugin, which have had some mixed reviews lately when it comes to service and support.