online fundraising strategies worth testing

Attending the DMA Nonprofit Conference triggered many a thoughts. The DMA Nonprofit Federation, who drove the programming for this conference, mostly come from a Direct Mail/ Direct Marketing framework of fundraising, accruing years of experience, perfecting their industry best practices, raising billions of dollars by mailing appeals and/or premiums.

Believing that “A rising tide floats all boats,” I’ll share some of my thoughts and suggestions.

For this audience, the WWW of the world wide web is more like the Wild Wild West. There’s a sampling of things that people are beginning to try, but the online world is too fast moving (blog posts go around the world in minutes vs. direct mail appeals take months to plan, prepare and mail) for them.

2 thoughts stood out: (1) results and (2) testing. The offline world of direct mail is constantly doing these two things over time. Why not in the online world? The online world is fertile soil for the first mover among major nonprofits to do just that, and go far beyond the Direct Mail adapted techniques that major technology vendors like Convio, GetActive, and Kintera have packaged. These tools provide a catcher’s mitt for online donations and provide an easier way to publish content via web and email, but so much more could be done and tested.

Idea #1: nonprofit storytelling will increase audience size & engagement.

A nonprofit’s life-changing impact from its programs and services do not make it on the headlines of newspapers and evening tv news. The nonprofit has to tell those stories, and it can tell it often via the web, far more often than a monthly or quarterly appeal via snail mail.

  • Suggestion #1: Tell your nonprofit’s story and history via web: blogging, podcasting, streaming video or vlogging, and do it often. Weekly updates on what’s happening, and if you’re ambitious, daily updates. Let the compelling stories go forth (with occasional appeals.) Tell it often, tell it well. On the web it doesn’t cost much to test, and you can track results.

Idea #2: audience growth & engagement will lead to fundraising revenue results.

Nonprofits are all about the cause, the passion for the cause, and the stories of changed lives. The passion is not only embodied in the founder, it’s embodied in the staff who sign on to help at a cut-rate salary compared to comparable for-profit jobs, and it’s embodied in the volunteers who help tangibly. It’s also embodied in the financial supporters (For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also), and even the recipients of those who are helped by the programs and services. In the age of corporate transparency, nonprofit transparency can only increase trust and spread the contagious passion for the cause and mission of the nonprofit.

  • Suggestion #2: Empower nonprofit staff and volunteers to tell their candid stories of their work for the cause, in their own passionate, unfiltered, and authentic voice. No need for time-delaying approval sanitization– just put in some guidelines and policies, let the best writers and voices to bubble up. Test and measure results. Keep the best and effective, fade out the ones that don’t “perform.”

Idea #3: what worked for another nonprofit might not work for your nonprofit.

Best practices are yet to be proven in the online world when it comes to fundraising. There are lots of tactics you can deploy to ask for more money via email blast, search engine AdWords, intercept pages, Flash graphics, advocacy campaign microsites. But this depends more on your nonprofit’s specific audience and what they respond to, more so than how many tactics you can deploy quickly. We all run on limited revenues, right?

Here’s the thing, fundraising isn’t done by appeals (making the ask) alone. With the online world, it’s more communication, not less; more content, more depth, more immediacy. This is counter to the offline world of direct mail, where response rate drops dramatically with more details. You still have to focus on a theme when communicating online, but you can also provide more detail for those who want it. Again, test, track, and review results.

  • Suggestion #3: Get to know your audience by quick surveys, interests selection, and tracking results. The online medium provides detailed tracking on behavior, so as you tell your stories, you can see which one is most popular (via page views), which one was most forwarded to others (viral, assuming your technology has that), and empower your audience to self-select their channel preference and interests (not every supporter is interested in every aspect of your nonprofit). Here at, I’m using MyBlogLog to track clickthroughs of the 1000s of links here. The most popular click last week: Bono Speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast.
  • Suggestion #4: Free up staff and volunteers to innovate and try new things. Use the Google concept of 1-day-a-week to work on their own projects, those that would further the cause and express the passion for the nonprofit. Sweat equity + passion can go a long way in the online world. Do lots of tests and review results. Failures Are Good. Good Failures Are Better.

Most compelling case study I heard at the DMA nonprofit conference: went from $0 online revenue to raising $1M online within the span of a year! How’d they do it? The insider info they did share was: (1) search engine friendly text throughout the website to drive organic search results, (2) ask for email address prominently and often, (3) active communication to constituents weekly and more often too, (4) frequent testing and tweaking of website content and layout [daily?], and (5) celebrity involvement [more than just endorsement] via web columns and other campaigns. Implied too was that they drove traffic to the website using traditional media and ad buys.

My thoughts are not new, they’ve been circulating around the blogosphere for months now. Some good finds: Nonprofits, Blogs and Fear, Nonprofit Blogging Panel: Myths from Hype + Asking the Right Questions about Nonprofit Blogging Readiness + Podcast on Nonprofit Blogging [Beth’s Blog is gold!], Nonprofit Corporate Blogging, Lisa at The Rhetoric Of Me has great thoughts on nonprofits and social network technology, and a pretty face 🙂 , NonProfit Blogging from a NonProfit Blogger, American Cancer Society is incorporating new web strategies for Relay for Life, and ED Blogging, Impact and the Power of Storytelling.

Event-wise, the Nonprofit Tech Conference coming up March 2006 in Seattle, for those who want that in-person learning experience [ht: Nonprofit Blog Exchange].

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  1. Bumble says:

    Aaah, this is some good stuff – you are truly a connector!

  2. rob says:

    Fantastic stuff, DJ. This is an area I would like to be stronger in. In my ministry, we raise all of our financial support. I would love to be able to do more of this using the internet.

  3. Franziska says:

    Here are some cool links to how nonprofits can use podcasts and blogs to tell their stories:

    There will also be a NetSquared conference on using “Web2.0” tools (and more) in San Jose, CA on 5/30 and 31.