This is taking forever!

(and other online giving utterances)

Have you been waiting for the moment your charity’s online giving revenue will zoom past direct mail and all the other dinosaur fundraising tactics?

Please, for the sake of your health and your very survival, do not hold your breath.

I’ve been waiting the golden era of online giving for 15 years.  The fundraising equivalent to flying cars, robot maids and all inclusive vacations on Venus, à la the Jetsons.

A couple of weeks ago a person researching this question for a well-respected fundraising industry journal asked me why Online Giving is still such a small piece of the revenue pie for most charities and whether there were any solutions for charities to change this.

I must have scared her away with my answer because I never did her back from her.

I guess that’s because the more I thought about it, the more the premise concerned me…and, OK,  the crankier I became.  Also, the floodgates may have opened a little.

Give or take, here’s my response:

Donors aren’t ‘direct mail donors’ or ‘telephone donors’ or ‘street-fundraising donors’ or ‘digital/online donors’.  They’re just donors.  Reduced even further…they aren’t donors, they’re people.

We ascribe these labels to people based on a narrow set of behaviours.  That worked better (though I’d argue, still not that well) in the past when we were taking about limited communications channels being available to the vast majority of people who may choose to give to charity.  Right now, people are or rapidly becoming multi-channel.

My mom writes me letters, but also calls me every week and definitely wants to Skype if it’s been longer than a few weeks between visits.  My sister texts me most days, sends an email with links to the holiday rental she wants me to look at, calls me from her car (hands free of course) while running errands, will Facebook message my wife to ask about a new favourite recipe but mostly wants to get together in person to cook amazing food and drink good wine.  My uncle prefers this method of arranging family outings: I send him a text, he responds by calling me…OK, so maybe my family is a little (OK a lot) strange.

But the point here is we are seeing this behaviour with people who donate to charity.  Some recent shocking research showed GenX (my generation) donors were highly mail responsive.  I found this shocking, since it’s certainly not true for me personally (which is more than a little ironic) or anyone in my immediate circle of similar (middle, sadly) age.

The twist is the response was primarily through online giving (so bonus tip…keep mailing GenX and older donors and make sure you make it easy to respond online).

And we’ve seen this behaviour before, with strong integrated Annual Giving programs that used the phone to boost results of direct mail campaigns.  I did some extensive testing a little over 10 years ago to integrate email follow-ups to boost direct mail campaign results and still use these findings today (including regular re-testing to make sure it’s still working).

So, the first part of my answer is that we may not see online giving portals as the primary vehicle for gifts for some time.  But it has a very important role to support giving (and donor relationships) in general.  This is my feeling about social media, too.

Now there are some exceptions.  I think the use of online tools for peer-to-peer (especially mobile apps) fundraising events (like walks/runs/bike/challenge events) is really the standard for most organisations raising significant funds this way.  The same goes for Special event/silent auction type events.

Online will also continue to grow as we get better at digital acquisition, but the most effective digital acquisition campaigns still need telephone conversion calls for the final step.

We all WANT online to be IT right now, because it seems easy and inexpensive.  It’s our natural (though irrational) desire as a sector to always be looking for the magic bullet, our charitable version of the ‘get rich quick’ scheme.

The reality is that fundraising is most effective when a charity effective and genuinely communicates with people in a personal and emotive way, no matter the medium used to inspire the donor.

Charities do well when they connect to donors’ deeply held values and demonstrate that their gifts will/have an impact on the issues they care about most.  This is not easy to do.

In the annual giving world, we have had a lot of practice doing this with older media like print.  We’ve had two or three of generations of professional experience with this.  We’ve been able to take many lessons from for-profit sector marketing research and apply it to things like direct mail.

When it comes to digital media, we’re still figuring it out.  Let’s not forget that Google’s revenue (and the revenue that Facebook and Twitter and others are trying to capture) is still based on little ads, primarily text and some simple static images (and usually no image at all) that appear in a margin on a screen.

The lesson in that is humans that look at screens are not much different than humans that look at paper or at the TV or that speak on the phone.

The issue with online or digital fundraising is that we think the magic is in the medium, when really it’s the message that’s important (sorry, Marshall, old chap).

Compare a typical email solicitation to a typical direct mail letter.  Most emails I see are very short, have no emotional or personal content and are very organisation-focussed.  These sins are compounded by firing these emails out constantly to the same person in a year without much thought or strategy.  And when a person miraculously decides to act on these uninspired and rather clunky solicitations, they are often greeted with an unpleasant online donation process that feels just as warm and caring as ordering knock-off inkjet replacement cartridges.

And people who choose to give chiefly through online channels often receive very poor stewardship, usually much worse than that of a direct mail, face-to-face or telephone donor.

Maybe they get added to a (usually terrible) monthly eNewsletter that offers multiple photos of giant novelty-sized cheques handed over by local car dealership owners or announcements about the new board president that reads more like a CV than an explanation of why she/he is passionate about dedicating their precious personal time to the cause.

All of this is because the entire online giving program in many, many charities is too often the result a fundraiser’s boss (or a very enthusiastic board member) who decided ‘We should do online giving!’ without fixing what ails the other fundraising programs and/or devoting the appropriate planning, staff and resources.

So please:

1.  Get started.  Integrated giving is more important than ever to maximise revenue.

2.  Put relationships first.  Great communication creates great results, no matter the tool a donor eventually uses to to make their gift.  The corollary is that crap communications create crap results…yes, even if you have your very own mobile app!

3.  Be Persuasive. The secret to fantastic fundraising results? Inspire and people to give to a cause they care passionately about.  Then make it easy (read convenient) to make a donation.

4.  Be Patient.  Online/digital is rapidly growing and it will eventually become a much more significant piece of the fundraising pie.  It will just take time.


Do you need some help creating donor chemistry online?  Call David toll-free in North America on 1-800-991-3318 x101 (or on our New Zealand freephone 0800 995 054) today for free, no obligation advice.