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Online Fundraising: A Startup Guide

The Basics You Need to Know


Online fundraising is here to stay. It is the fastest growing area of fundraising and is joining direct mail fundraising in a multichannel world.

Is your program up to the demands of the market? Or is it just limping along or in need of a serious update? This is a fast moving target and keeping up and modifying your approach is fundamental.

Here are 11 tips to get you into the game.

1. Get Legal

Bernhard Lang/Stone/Getty Images
Just as with other types of fundraising, online solicitations must be registered with the appropriate officials. Check with your state attorney’s office or secretary of state office to find out the requirements in your state. Also, if you do online fundraising in states other than your own, you may need to register there as well.

2. Market Without Stop

It is not enough to just put a “donate now” button on your website and wait for the money to roll in. Promote your online capacity in your newsletters and include your website address on all of your collateral materials.

Include information about the option in all of your direct mail campaign literature. Put together a special promotion for online giving using your email list and your mailing list.

3. Explore All Your Options

Exploring various roads to your destination.

Expand your thinking about online fundraising to include social networking sites, now popular with all age groups, from Millennials to Baby Boomers.

How will you process credit card donations? Do you want to set up your own system? Or do you want to engage a company that provides that service for you? Would you like to be able to offer recurring donations to your supporters?

4. Make Your Website Donation Worthy

A Friendly Website

You don't need a flashy website, but you do need an attractive one that is easy-to-understand and navigate. Consider too the various generations that will be using your site. Design it in a way that will please all ages.

5. Be Considerate

Don't spam, and don't look like a spammer. Don't overwhelm your donors with too much email, and don't use email to the exclusion of other methods of fundraising. Online fundraising should be only one part of a well-balanced portfolio of strategies.

6. Give Donors Choices

Making a choice on an iPad.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Everyone has a preference for communicating and donating...by mail, online, or from their mobile phones. Make sure you accommodate as many of them as possible. See this great example from the Red Cross.

Include information about planned giving options too. 

7. Make Your Donate Button Big and Easy to Find

Hands holding the work donate.
John Rensten/Getty Images

Your visitors should be able to figure out how to donate immediately. And your button does not have to say "Donate Now." For instance, Nothing but Nets has a Net-O-Meter that is counting the number of nets bought by donors and the call to action button says send a net

8. Invite People to Volunteer

Volunteer working on a housing project.
Billy Hustace/Getty Images

Getting people to volunteer is one of the best methods of donor cultivation. Indeed, a study from the Association of Fundraising Professionals found that people who are asked to give of their time before being asked to donate will ultimately give more money to that organization.

9. Showcase Donors and What Their Gifts Really Accomplish

A child and volunteer doing art.
LWA/Getty Images
Include testimonials and photos of donors. Provide photos of people receiving help. Be liberal with success stories, stories about real people, and use plenty of inspirational photographs. St. Louis University’s giving page is laced with profiles of donors and testimonials of students.


Provide information about how a specific level of donation will work. Soles4Souls has a good donor page that tells exactly what each donation level will buy.

10. Segment Your Donors

A graph representing audience segmentation.
Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images

As your expertise and experience with online fundraising advances, think about segmenting your audience. This will require good record keeping and growing a large enough list that there is something to segment. Segment based on age, gender, income, interests, previous giving history, geography, or role, such as donor or volunteer.

Develop versions of your email campaigns to fit targeted groups and then test. Testing involves breaking down a particular group into smaller groups and testing different versions of your copy. Track the results and you will soon get a feel for what kinds of appeals work for whom.

11. Close the Loop by Thanking Online Donors Well

Thank You Note
Cheryl Zibisky/Getty Images
Most nonprofits do not thank online donors nearly as well as they do donors that give through the mail. It's a shame, since retention of online donors is notoriously weak. Beef up your email thank yous so they are more than just a receipt. Also seriously consider mailing thank you letters to online donors when they give above a certain level.
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