Special Report: Online Giving Is More Than The Donate Now Button

April 1, 2005       Robert Ford      

Communication with donors equals dollars. That’s a direct response truism. So why do nonprofits slap a “donate now” button on their Web sites and expect the money to roll in?

According to Tucker Ball, publisher of the faith-based magazine Sojourners and Frank Hamilton, senior Web producer for the American University radio station WAMU in Washington, D.C., it’s important to let your donors tell you how they feel about you. The two discussed email marketing and how it can support a nonprofit’s direct marketing goals at a recent DMA Nonprofit Federation conference in Washington, D.C.

The Internet can be used across the board. It can be used for email messages to donors, to post newsletters, to let members renew and it can provide information for prospective donors.

“It’s important to cultivate a relationship with your online donors,” Ball said. Sojourners combines articles about religion and politics, he added. To keep readers abreast of what’s going on, there are weekly emails. Because of Sojourners’ use of emails, readership of the online version of the magazine has doubled each of the past three years, Ball explained. At the same time, revenue from online fundraising increased from less than $50,000 in 2001 to almost $200,000 in 2004.

It’s important that nonprofits that send out emails and newsletters do so on a regular basis, whether it is weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Readers want to see consistency. If a charity fails to keep to the schedule, readership will fall off and so will donations.

Ball said the nonprofit’s campaigns, which have resulted in the added revenue and more readers, are run on a “shoe string budget,” with a small team of employees.

Their campaigns were intended to:

  • Identify goals.
  • Set schedules.
  • Engage readers.
  • Hone their message.
  • Track results.
  • Update readers — about the campaign.
  • Send targeted messages.

One of Sojourners’ major campaigns, which ran in January of this year, consisted of marketing a book written by Jim Wallis, the nonprofit’s executive director. The goal was to get the book onto The New York Times Best Seller List. To do that, Ball said, the organization had to sell 10,000 books on Amazon.com, which The New York Times uses to help determine what books make its best seller list.

The schedule called for the books to be sold during the week of January 10, 2005. To do so, Sojourners needed to engage the readers to get their support. The message asked members to “help grow the progressive faith movement.”

The results of clicks onto the site were monitored daily. Targeted email messages were sent as follow-ups to members and to keep members updated on the progress of the campaign. Wallis appeared on The Daily Show with John Stewart to help beat the drums for the book. Sojourners also put a clip from The Daily Show on its Web site.

By the end of the week, the book was listed at number 11 on The New York Times Best Seller List.

“Don’t be afraid to test new ideas,” Ball said. “Test, test, test.”

WAMU, which is a National Public Radio-associated station, runs online donations campaigns two to three times a year, Hamilton said. “We found

the most successful way of conducting these types of campaigns is to focus on our assets,” he said, which include:

  • National Public Radio (NPR) has name cache. People know they can tune into a NPR-associated station and will receive up-to-date, accurate news.
  • “We’re a nonprofit media organization in a for-profit market.”
  • “We inform, enlighten and entertain.”
  • More people want news and “we provide that,” and public broadcasting prestige is up.

While many nonprofits fundraise based on current events, WAMU plans events and creates a reason to give, Hamilton said. “We try to stay creative and make sure that people have fun, feel involved and want to give.”

“It’s also important to keep people updated about the fundraising campaign, Hamilton said.

One of the most important things that WAMU did, and Hamilton said he believes it has helped with the station’s fundraising, is to put a comment box on the Web site. The box allows listeners to click on “so they have an opportunity to let us know how they feel. This is really important,” Hamilton said.

Additionally, there is an opportunity for listeners to sign up with the station on each of its Web pages. “If you want to grow your list, it’s important to have a sign up availability at each touch point.”

There is a four-year rule, Hamilton said. “We have found that it usually takes us about four years to convert a listener into a member.”

So, whether it’s a comment box, like WAMU, or regular targeted emails like those that Sojourners uses, the key to successful online fundraising is more than the donate now button. It’s communication, Hamilton and Ball said. “And you must be consistent in your message,” Hamilton said. Each email sent can, with the new software that’s available, be tailored messages to fit the interests of members or prospects. Track the results. By doing so, an organization can see where users are going on the site and where their interests lie.