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How not to ask for money

‘Tis the season to be… generous.

Of course, that’s a load of hogwash. Supporting worthy causes is important year-round, not just in December, when the idealists get all imbued with holiday spirit and the cynics think about tax receipts. But for a number of reasons – habit, practicality, what have you – millions of people write out cheques to their favourite charities at around this time of year.

Or, don’t write cheques, which is what this post is all about.

An article last spring in the Chronicle of Philanthropy pointed out that online giving growth slowed in the US in 2008, after steady increases in previous years. (Canadian statistics are probably somewhat better, given our relatively stronger economy and our relative technological advancement when it comes to donations). The picture it painted wasn’t bleak, but it wasn’t pretty, either. Among other findings:

  • The median percentage of all donations raised online in 2008 was a measly 0.8%. Even if you consider the 80/20 (or, some say, 90/10) rule about major gifts, that’s still ridiculously low.
  • Many charities, when they think of online giving, are just converting direct mail thinking into digital, focusing on email solicitation – which, on the whole, works not at all.
  • Online giving, while still growing (compared to other channels), saw slower growth – a 28% median last year compared to 42% and 45% respectively the previous two years. Even when you factor in economic conditions, that’s still a significant drop in growth rate.

All of this tells me that there is a great opportunity that is being squandered by cash-strapped charities who are seeing their traditional funding sources wane. Nobody writes cheques to pay the groceries or the heating bills anymore, why are we still expected to do so with charitable gifts?

Now, my perspective when it comes to fundraising is hardly objective, having worked in the field for a number of years. But, from a donor’s point of view and not a marketer’s, I have a few words of advice for organisations seeking donations online:

  1. Make sure your website works.
    This year alone, I’ve personally encountered one website that insisted that my perfectly-valid credit card number was invalid (it claimed to accept Amex but was validating for a Visa or MasterCard number format), another that simply returned a 404 error when I hit submit, a third that – despite being a Canadian organisation – did not accept a province or postal code in the address form, and a fourth that double-charged my credit card even though I only hit ‘submit’ once; I was forced to phone the organisation to get the second charge reversed.

    And, yes, before you ask, these were all major, reputable charitable organisations, not little maw and paw shops.

    Now, since I’m such a nice person and I believe in the work that these fine organisations do, I took the extra step of donating anyway, even writing cheques and mailing them in a couple of cases. But think of all the people who won’t bother going to the trouble. Now multiply that by your average gift. Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say.

  2. Make sure your website is professional and secure.
    Yes, it costs money to have a professionally-designed website that reflects your organisation. And believe me, I understand that you would prefer to direct that money to the work you do, and not to what many people would consider “administration” or “overhead”.

    Having said that, you aren’t going to get people to trust online giving without making a few basic strides. Up-to-date security encryption is a bare minimum when asking people to enter their credit card details. A website that actually looks like it’s run by your organisation, and not by phishing scam #2012, helps too. And, would it kill you to post updates about the work you’re doing to give the people who support it something to read? The converted online brochure with blinking text is just not going to cut it, not in 2009.

  3. Make online giving easy.
    Present various donation options clearly. Use easy-to-understand forms, user-friendly navigation, and clear language. Make sure your website is easy to find, ranks highly in search results, and has clear, present donation links from the homepage. Don’t make people have to work at it.

    Really, this is simple stuff – it’s the equivalent to a business reply envelope. The easier you make the process, the more donations you’ll get.

  4. Eliminate redundancy.
    If I’m giving online, I’m not also giving by mail. Or by phone. Stop wasting your postage stamps and telemarketing dollars on me; you’ve got me already, and via the most cost-effective channel you’ve got.

    If the left hand is spending money trying to convert offline donors to online while the right hand is still sending out 6.2 letters a year to existing online donors, then invest in better database maintenance because you’re wasting money, not to mention trees.

  5. Be open and transparent.
    Charities often come under attack for being less-than-honest about how their funds are allocated, or what their programming priorities are. Of course, all of this information is public record, and with a little digging, you can generally check up on your favourite charities and make sure that they’re above-board.

    But this is no longer simply about posting your annual report in PDF format and calling it a day. If you’re out there in the digital space, you can expect to be called out and taken to task about your campaigns, your programs, your work and your priorities. Are you going to run scared from it and look like you have something to hide? Or are you going to embrace it and look like you have everything to gain?

  6. Communication is a two-way street.
    Giving to a cause is no longer just about writing a $25 cheque and forgetting about it all year. What works with commercial marketing works with charities, too. The simple fact is, the more engaged your donors are, the more they will support you – financially, by spreading the word, by volunteering, by getting involved in myriad ways. But only if you encourage them.

    As the rest of the world declares Web 2.0 so very passé, charities are still catching onto what was standard practice online a decade ago. Sure, most major charitable organisations have a Facebook fan page these days, but how many of them really have an active, engaged online community that is supported by the charity? That’s what I thought you’d say.

    A few smart charities get it. They’re the ones looking for innovative ways to reach out to donors, through social media and other channels, encouraging true two-way conversation. But most are still resorting to the opaque, sanitized, digital version of a fundraising letter – support our great work, blah blah blah, have a nice life.

    Well, that and a buck and a half will buy you a pack of gum. If you are a charitable organisation, the people who support you are a gold mine waiting to happen. They’ll wave the flag for you, spread the word, volunteer and organise and raise money for you – all you have to do is engage them and ask them and get them involved. If you’re still just broadcasting as opposed to communicating, you’re basically telling them that you don’t want their help.

Us Canadians tend to be fairly generous people. But we’re not the same as we were thirty years ago. We don’t think the same way, we don’t act the same way, and we don’t expect the same things.

If you’re a charitable organisation soliciting donations, then you’re also a marketer, and you may have noticed that marketing has evolved quite a bit. If you’re out in front, you’re likely reaping the benefits. If not, well, nobody knows as well as you do that competition is fierce for donor dollars. Lapse behind, and you’ll miss out.

Happy December, everyone. Give early, give often.

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