The big online fundraising success stories that emerged from Hurricane Mitch relief efforts a mere 15 months ago appear to have sparked explosive growth in online donations. Online giving in response to the Kosovo crisis last year surged, with the Red Cross alone reporting more than $1.2 million in donations in a single month. And groups such as Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders reportedly took in hundreds of thousands of dollars from their Web sites over a relatively brief period as well.
Last year's stunning success stories not only made headlines, but seemed to be saying that the promise of raising significant money via the Internet — previously limited to a handful of activist organizations with relatively young constituencies — was finally becoming a reality for mainstream charities.
Despite this demonstration that the public's comfort level with online giving is growing fast, most not-for-profits still report that revenues generated via the Internet represent a small fraction of their total revenue streams — if they raised any online moneys at all.
Sadly, it's not even uncommon for well-known national charities to report total giving in the four- or five-figure range — a far cry from the largesse the above-mentioned headlines might have you expect. Some fundraisers and marketers, disappointed by their own organization's poor showing on the Internet, have come to assume that it would take the equivalent of a highly publicized natural disaster before they too could begin to reap the rewards of the medium that has transformed nearly every other aspect of our society.
Besides, even as the public becomes more comfortable with online fundraising, few not-for-profits can expect to garner instant millions from the online environment. But with online demographics broadening quickly to include older individuals — who tend to have more disposable income and have traditionally proven to be the best donors — it is more vital than ever that organizations take pains to avoid the all-to-common online pitfalls.
In fact, there are steps that many charities can take to greatly strengthen their online fundraising programs — without spending much more than they are likely to take in. It's important to give donors the option to give! Far too many not-for-profit Web sites don't incorporate a single online giving mechanism. Simply displaying a phone number or a mailing address for checks requires a very high amount of dedication on the part of the potential donor. While most sites display basic contact information (i.e., the organization's address), some don't even take the simple step of encouraging site visitors to get in touch with the organization if they're interested in donating.
Offer Secure Credit Card Processing.So far, credit cards are proving to be the major source for purchasing online gifts. Lest you fear that accepting credit cards online is complicated and cost-prohibitive, you may be surprised to learn that your organization can already accept credit card donations through Helping.org, a site sponsored by the AOL Foundation.
Several companies have emerged that specialize in low-cost secure transaction solutions for not-for-profits (Entango and DonorNet, for example). Shopping carts (such as Americart) are another cost-effective way to build credit card capability into your site.
Provide a pledge form, too. Many organizations encourage donations from site visitors through a dedicated donation page — but then offer potential donors inadequate or onerous giving options. Organizations should take advantage of the immediate response the Internet allows. In addition to a secure credit card option, incorporating a pledge form into a site allows donors who may not be comfortable using credit cards online to “take action” by committing to a donation and providing contact information. (The charity follows up via terrestrial mail.)
The pledge is an important, especially in light of high-profile concerns about security — and the fact that many of the most generous philanthropists are still not inclined to make a donation with a credit card.
Make a clear case for need.Unfortunately, motivating site visitors to an immediate response is another area in which many not-for-profit sites fall short. In all forms of fundraising, a statement of need is a fundamental aspect of the “ask.” Organizations need to make a clear and compelling case for funds — using evocative language and striking photographs — to turn interested site visitors into donors.
Utilize human interest stories.Remember that old fundraising adage: “People give to people? It's just as true online. Use photos and copy to make an emotional connection with site visitors. Show how your organization has made an impact in the lives of people (or even animals or rain forests).
Collect e-mail addresses.E-mail is proving to be the most effective and efficient way for organizations to cultivate constituents. Developing a comprehensive plan — both online and offline — for gathering and storing e-mail addresses will prove to be your organization's most powerful fundraising tool. Even if you have no immediate plans to develop an outgoing e-mail communication stream, don't miss the opportunity to create an opt-in list of e-mail addresses, and gain permission from your site visitors to mail to them in the future.
Promote traffic — Proactively.Needless to say, the best fundraising features on the Internet won't perform for your organization if potential donors don't even see them. But too many groups take a passive approach to generating site traffic (the “If we build it, they will come” approach). Taking a few basic steps to register your site with multiple search engines, strategically linking with other Web sites, placing your site's URL on all printed material, and announcing your site to relevant mailing lists and bulletin boards will go a long way toward promoting traffic at a very low cost.
Of course, fundraising options are just part of a strong and dynamic online presence. A good Web site needs to be bright and engaging, easy to navigate and provide up-to-date content that will keep visitors coming back. And remember: The Internet is a medium that serves many other purposes besides fundraising — from promoting your programs to educating the public about today's most vital issues.
Before you throw your hands up, or feel overwhelmed by the task of building and maintaining an effective online presence, keep in mind that sticking to a few basic principles will help you develop a strong Web site, regardless of its size or relative sophistication. Nor do you need to worry about throwing money at a medium where there seems to be no immediate ROI. You might be surprised at what extraordinary things can be accomplished on a not-so-extraordinary budget!