Converting Donors to Online Habits

Charities left and right are trying to find ways of getting direct mail donors converted to the Web. Communication would be timelier and conducted at lower costs; donations could be processed automatically via online tools; e-mail addresses could be stored in an online database; and donors could help manage the information pertaining to their identities.

While these are wonderful goals, charities need to be reminded that some donors may not want to be converted. Many people like old-fashioned letters and prefer to get snail mail other than bills. But for those who are willing to convert from paper to the electronic medium, the transition may be well worth the effort for all parties. One great method to smooth the way is to create the appropriate incentive to convert.

Bending the rules. There is an old mantra in direct mail: Do not ask a donor to do too many things. As the process of donating and becoming a member of a charity becomes more complicated, response rates tend to drop. The processes of unfolding extra paper, tearing off reply devices and filling out forms seem to interfere with donations getting back to the charity.

While many agencies agree with the rule, there appears to be one extra step that many charities are willing to add to their donation request. It is the request to add a stamp to the return envelope to reduce postage costs. The request is simple enough. Donors have the option of helping a charity save money by using their own postage. It is a violation of the mantra, but not a big one.

The important aspect of this rule-bending is that the violation does not hinder the donation process. If a donor wishes to make a contribution and use the traditional business reply envelope, that process will work as well.

Charities can use a similar technique in Web conversion. Just as a request for a stamp is viewed as saving money, a request to donate online to help save time and money could boost transition rates. Also, by making the transition a request and not mandatory, people will not feel forced into converting. The switch from paper to cyberspace will be a difficult one because of the mixing of mediums, but it is possible with the proper incentives.

Tell them it will save the charity money. Donors like to see every dollar given to a charity go directly to the cause. Through online giving, more of the overhead associated with processing requests can be trimmed. Online credit card processing occurs much faster than check clearance, and the process can be automated. Let donors know they can contribute online and that by doing so they can save the charity money. Just as a stamp saves postage costs, donating online saves postage and handling costs.

Tell them it will foster better communication. After the first donation, many donors like to hear back from the charity. The good feeling created by donating in the first place is extended. Donors are reminded how wonderful they were to contribute, and the charity has a chance to receive the all-important second donation. By letting donors know they can receive material online more frequently than they could through regular channels, they have an incentive to donate online. Communication can be personalized with the information received with the online donation.

Many charities produce newsletters to help educate constituents and meet their mission goals. However, donation response rates to newsletters are traditionally low and the cost of such mailings can be high. Through offering the incentive of online newsletters rather than paper copies, communication can become more efficient while driving down costs. Let the donors know they will receive more information and it will be done more efficiently.

Tell them the data will be more accurate. Charities have been including space for e-mail addresses on reply devices with little success. The expense of the data entry is high, and accuracy of such information is low. The cost of keying this information is a serious barrier to moving constituents to the Web. To make matters worse, people change e-mail addresses constantly.

Let donors know that the information they enter online will save the expense of keying the information, the cost of maintaining an accurate list will go down, and the information they enter online will be safe. Privacy is still one of the big concerns influencing the decisions to act online.

The process of getting donors online will take some time. Converting is in a charity's best interest as far as money and effort are concerned, but some donors will not want to make the jump. Constituents should be given the option of converting; it should not be pressed upon them. To move to the electronic medium, the transfer also needs to be in the donor's interest.

Remember that a charity's Web site is another fundraising tool and it can work well for communicating with the public. It is not a replacement for direct mail, which continues to prove successful.

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