Don’t forget your pen: Do’s and don’ts of digital fundraising

I spent my entire summer in a summer course studying digital innovation with a bunch of 19-20 year old university undergrads. Apart from making me feel very, very old, they also taught me a few very valuable lessons.

Watching them all getting writers cramps one by one during the written exam – which at the LSE is a deliciously 20th century style affair done by pen and paper – taught me the most valuable lesson of all: It is dangerous to abandon your analogue skills even in a digital world.

I think of this often as a digital fundraiser. It is so easy to get overly excited by new technology, and to herald the end of ‘the old guard’ of fundraising methods, even though these methods are still responsible for the main bulk of our fundraising revenue.

And I must admit that digital fundraising hasn’t made the difference to us as a sector that I thought it would a few years back.

Digital communication and technology underpins everything we do, so of course the availability of digital communication and technology has made a huge difference to everyone, including the non-profit sector. All fundraising has a digital aspect these days, with data management through sophisticated CRM systems, the increase of donor communication happening via Internet, email, mobile, social media and other digital channels. We also start looking at multichannel donors and how they give more and retain better than other donors.

So I’ll be more specific. When I say digital fundraising in this post, I mean fundraising solely carried out in a digital sphere. Where all contact, including the conversion and transaction is made digitally, without direct human interaction. For example banner ads that lead potential donors to a landingpage on your website.

That type of digital fundraising has not made a great difference to us as a sector. Because digital fundraising is ineffective for conversion to regular giving, the form of individual fundraising that has the best ROI.

Regular giving has in itself been the biggest revolution in terms of fundraising income generation ever. (You don’t believe me, take Sean Triners word for it)

Driving regular giving, we’ve had telemarketing and face to face fundraising, both able to generate very high volumes of new donors. But we have not yet found the formula where a strictly digital dialogue can lead to mass conversion into regular giving, the same way telemarketing and face to face has. Yes, digital one-step campaigns generate loyal donors and they give high amounts, but the potential for volume is limited.

The successful digital fundraising campaigns I’ve seen have had a two-step approach.

1)   Engage people on a digital platform – either through a non-financial action such as a petition (// or through a small financial action, such as a one off donation for disaster relief – and gather data.

2)   Convert these people (leads) to regular giving.

And how do you convert people to regular giving? Phones, good old phones…

I work with lead generation myself, which is highly effective (See my earlier post on this here). But the conversion to an actual donation is still done over the phone, at least if you want conversion rates higher than 5% and below, which is the highest email conversion rates I’ve seen from the sector so far. As a comparison, our lead conversion rate over the phone has between 10 and 22% in the last couple of months.

When it comes to converting all those digital leads, we still rely on something as oldschool as the phone. (c: photostock)

So, is that a problem, then? Not really. I love telemarketing, it is highly effective and I do believe personal dialogue is important. But it is also expensive. And, if we are to believe this piece in the NY times, calling people is going out of style. The use of phones is changing in this brave new digital world, and our contact rates and conversion through telemarketing will change with it.

Therefore it is crucial that we find new digital methods of acquiring donors that do not, in the end, rely on telemarketing.

Unfortunately, I have seen few examples of successful fundraising campaigns that converted people strictly in the digital sphere. The ones I have seen have been hard to replicate as a generic strategy for the sector. They relied either on timing, the pioneering effect of a new technology (which is shortlived) or were so specific to the organisation, that they cannot be adapted by any other charity. People (myself included) often quote the Wikipedia fundraising campaign as a great example of effective, strictly digital, fundraising. True, having banner ads that just work and displaying them for free on your own website, is everyone’s dream scenario. But how many non-profits boast of being a crowd sourced encyclopaedia with 470 million visitors a month? The Wikipedia scenario is hardly replicable.

Digital campaigns that work are either two-step or part of a larger, integrated efforts applying a host of media – TV, print, phones – and offline presence apart from the digital ones. Strictly digital conversion – or ‘one-step’ fundraising –  is not happening in high volume.

And no wonder! The reason people find face2face and telemarketing annoying is, that well – they are. They’re annoying because they put people on the spot; they nudge you and ask you to make a decision right there and then. Nobody does that to you online. There’s no stewardship. You can comfortably close your browser, or forget the whole thing midway because you couldn’t find your credit card.

If you do have examples to counter my argument, please put them in the commentary field! Even though I am a digital believer, I’m always looking for the burning bush. And I do believe that there are new fundraising models waiting out there, if we keep trying and innovating.

Digital technology enables us to venture into a dialogue with donors and potential donors along loads of new interesting channels, but it does not allow us to abandon the old school fundraising methods or mediums – quite the contrary. Our digital fundraising must be firmly integrated to work.

However, this does not mean that you can stay out of the game – quite the contrary. Don’t use this post to get smug and overrule the new digital kids in your organisation.

Digital media has changed and is continuing to change the way the world works, and we charities are going to have to follow suit. It matters when you’re not digital, because your audience will expect you to be present and up to date.

 So a few do’s and don’ts I’d recommend to  stay ahead of the current:

  • DO keep trying. New technologies and methods are conceived all the time, and just because they didn’t work last year, it doesn’t mean they won’t today. Most technologies need to mature. Therefore, DO keep up to date. Follow Mashable, read WIRED, check out this blog and be curious about new tendencies.
  • DON’T believe the hype. Remember when everyone talked about QR codes and apps as our saviours a few years back? And now we kind of laugh about it? There is often a long time from a technology’s introduction into a market to the point where it starts rendering hard benefits to businesses. The same goes for charities. Check out this ’hype cycle’ applied to digital fundraising, done by the blog ’giving in a digital world’. It’s a good navigation tool.
  • DO have a digital ’one-step’ program, especially incorporating Google ads and SEO. Those people actually looking for your non-profit must certainly be exposed to your message. Donors converted this way may not boost your acquisition much in terms of volume, but they’re extremely loyal and generally give higher amounts than donors recruited via e.g. Face to face.
  • DON’T expect this to give you enormous volumes. There’s a limit to how much you can get out of one-step digital conversion to regular giving currently. Find out where your critical mass is and invest at that level.
  • DO work digitally with donor retention. Digital communication is an excellent way to keep donors updated and to boost your retention rates. Run a programme which communicates appropriately – meaning along the expected channel. Don’t, as Jonathon Grapsas puts it so well in this blog about out how to communicate with face to face donors use a square peg to a round hole. Use the medium preferred by your target group.


  • Paper is dead. Except… When it isn’t. Do yourself a favour and watch this hilarious ad on that subject here //

    DON’T rule out print. Don’t jump to the conclusion that the ”death of paper” means you can skip using print or sending something physical to your donors. They may say in a survey that they don’t want your letters or magazines, but the effects of suddenly cutting e.g. the quarterly magazine, can be devastating. Plus your best donors are still of an age where they can be insulted by the assumption that they can just find stuff online.
    I’ve heard the same refrain from other sectors. An acquaintance works with an agency running political campaigns. In the last election, they were running the campaign for one of our largest political parties. You know what most of their budget was spent on? Outdoor campaigns. And it’s not because they’re hanging on to old habits. These people are the best in the communication business. They do it because it works.

  • DO use a two-step approach on your online presence. Try to harvest data when you engage people online. Lead generation and conversion to regular giving is one of the areas where digital tools excel. Whenever you develop a new digital platform, optimize your website or venture into a new social media, try also to think about how you can get people’s data.
  • DON’T let this out of your sight. You should nøt let your colleagues from other departments run the lead generation part alone. Get your hands dirty when designing online forms and apps – so many opportunities are wasted in, otherwise, well thought out digital communication campaigns because data is not harvested.  And that’s because people who aren’t fundraisers don’t think about this or don’t want to ‘be pushy’.

These are just a few of my own digital do’s and don’ts – please add your own in the commentaries.

My main point is that we must keep trying to break new ground as a sector. But we must also bear in mind that ’digital’ is not such a distinct field, and that the main gain right now is upgrading our existing fundraising programs with the new technology and methods available.

Although we’re at the digital frontier, we should not forget how to use a pen. We never know when we’ll need it.

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *