Winning the Internet

Online fundraising best practices for your organization

After a great run, the Winning the Internet blog has been retired. However, you can still keep in touch with New Media Mentors here.

Online fundraising is so important for finding the resources to support progressive organizing. But it feels like best practices are often a mystery to people getting started, so we’re sharing some tips and ideas to improve the effectiveness of what you’re doing online.

The first and most important principle for online fundraising for non-profits and political campaigns: You must ask! Most people are not going to wake up this morning and think to themselves, today they should give to your campaign or organization. You need to go out and ask them to give. But this doesn’t mean you should overdo it — it’s better to send a strong fundraiser once in awhile rather than bug your most dedicated supporters every day until they tune out. (Note the rules may be a little different if you’re a campaign right before election day, where burnout is less of an issue.)

Test test test. It’s important to incorporate testing into your online fundraising campaigns to learn what works best for your organization, and get smarter over time. You can try everything from different $ asks, to different subject lines, different senders, different creative, to different content altogether! Try simple (graphicless) versus your normal styled emails, try different times of day, lengthy versus short, tweaks to your landing pages, anything is fair game to test. These days it’s also worth trying a all-graphics email, because that’s been shown to do really well. Also make sure your emails work well on mobile devices, or you are leaving money on the table. If you need help getting started in testing, check out the Analyst Institute as a resource. They serve as a central testing & analysis hub for the progressive movement. A corollary to testing – learn how to do tracking with your online fundraising tool of choice. You can use refcodes in ActBlue, tracking codes in Salsa or NGP or BSD or NationBuilder, or even create different donate pages if you can’t use URL modifications for tracking in your system. But you need to know where the money is coming in from to be able to tell what works and what doesn’t.

Be realistic. Online fundraising is a numbers game (and mostly an email game still, despite the rise of social media and SMS and other new technologies) – how much you raise is generally related to the size and passion of your email list. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to always be building your email list, and to keep your supporters revved up about your race. If you do not have an Obama-sized list, you are not going to be able to raise Obama-sized amounts online. But deliverability is also important to ensure your supporters actually see your messages, so pay attention to email deliverability best practices.

Look for opportunities for fundraising. Good news and bad news can both be compelling hooks. Deadlines also work well. Integrate fundraising asks with your program – if you’re working on an issue or building towards an event, ask people to donate to help pull it off.

Be detailed. The more details you give about why you need to raise $X, the more compelling your ask. Story matters. Let people know where their money is going and why – you must assume everyone on your list is on other campaigns’ or organizational lists as well. Why should they give to you? Why now? (i.e. have a theory of change and tell the story for how their donation will solve the problem/achieve your mission!)

Set goals. Give your supporters a target to aim at and they will help you hit it. Using thermometers or baseball bats etc. is more than just a gimmick – research has shown it improves fundraising totals. That’s why it’s a critical online fundraising best practice. Some systems like ActBlue let you do this pretty easily, check out what your CRM offers you.

Encourage your supporters to take ownership. If your online tools allow it, let your supporters set up their own fundraising pages for your campaign (don’t forget to ask them to!). ActBlue makes this easy, but many other tools will do this.

Be timely. Pay attention to federal deadlines, other campaigns. If you’re not a federal campaign, you may want to stay clear of the end of quarter deluge of fundraising emails. Use deadlines in your emails too, it helps make the case for the urgency to give now.

Pay attention to the mix of emails you send. Your email list is for more purposes than just fundraising, so don’t wear out your supporters until Election Day. If you send a fundraising email, you may want to make sure your next email is not a fundraiser. Asking more is not always better.

Tell a story over time. Your first fundraising email in a series may not do so well, if you are introducing a new program or campaign. But over time as you tell your story and engage your supporters, fundraising may get better and better. When possible, try to think in terms of series than one-off emails.

Segmenting works. Past donors and non-donors may respond very differently to your content, so it’s good to send to the groups separately so you can track how they perform. You can also segment by activity level, by issue interest, anything you can think of. You can treat those segments differently – could try thanking past donors and asking them to donate again, for example.

Try a low dollar ask. Not sure what the right dollar ask is? We recently saw a $10 ask perform much better for a client than their (standard) $35 ask – this is in line with PCCC, MoveOn, even the Obama campaign trying lower and lower dollar asks. It led to more donors and more dollars! Becoming a donor is a psychological leap: it makes sense that you’ll want a low bar to get more people to become donors. THEN you can ask them for larger amounts.

Giveaways generally work. Lots of PACs and campaigns offer a bumper sticker or other small giveaway with your donation – they keep doing it because it works. Make sure you keep track of all of your costs to make sure this is cost-effective to repeat, and test it as well – we’ve seen this work better in converting people to give for the first time, not for past donors. Your mileage may vary! You could also try contests (ie. a bigger giveaway like dinner with the candidate etc.) to get people to donate or donate again.

Recurring donors are gold. But you’ll generally need to ask for people to become a recurring donor. May want to set up a special program to encourage monthly donations. This is a higher bar ask than a one time donation though.

Don’t forget the report-back! Be sure to report back to your donors, let them know how their donations had a tangible impact towards the goal. This will build trust in your organization and hopefully make them more likely to donate again too.

Work on your online-offline integration with your whole fundraising team. Online and fundraising people should work together to maximize what you can raise online and offline. If a direct mail piece is going out to past donors, maybe you should chase it with a fundraising email. You can email out fundraising event invites to past or likely donors. In person events could have a signup sheet asking for email addresses of donors. For non-profits, annual giving from multichannel donors is almost four times that of offline-only donors and two-and-a-half times that of online-only donors! Retention rates also increase dramatically for multichannel donors (per M&R’s e-benchmarks study). Don’t forget to be multi-channel online too – if you’re sending out a fundraising email, put the content on your website, share it on Facebook and Twitter too.

Always be filling your (leaky) bucket. Fundraising emails in particular often have a larger than normal unsubscribe rate. Be sure to have ways identified to replenish your email list or you could wind up with an empty bucket before Election Day. Read our guide to growing your email list online for more ideas.

Remember: More asking is not (always) more money. You may be better off with one good, timely well-written fundraising email than several weak ones.

This post was originally published on the PowerThru blog: Online Fundraising Best Practices & Principles To Maximize Your Online Donations

About Laura Packard

I'm a partner at PowerThru Consulting. We're a new media consulting firm for progressive non-profits & political campaigns. We'll help you build a winning strategy online.

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