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8 Online Fundraising Tips for Political Campaigns and Non-Profits

With the recent release of our new online fundraising features in Grassroots, we’ve been thinking a lot about best practices for online fundraising.

We’ve compiled some of the most important lessons for online fundraising from successful political campaigns and non-profits over the last few years.

1. Simplify the donation process

Once a supporter is considering donating to your campaign or non-profit, it’s important to make the process as simple as possible.

One method to do that is to store information from past donors or known supporters and fill it in for them. If someone visits your donation page while logged into your online organizing software, you know his or her name and address. Fill in that information automatically, and remove one reason for somebody to leave your site.

Another approach, which the Obama campaign used successfully in 2012 and the Romney campaign later adopted, is to create sequential donation forms: that is, unveil the form in small chunks so it is less intimidating to fill out. (Our standard donation forms take precisely that approach.)

The extreme—albeit very effective—version of this is to allow people to donate by phone. There are some challenges with that approach—it’s technically complex and opens the possibility of accidental donations—but it helped the Obama campaign raise tens of millions of dollars in 2012.

2. Create a sense of urgency

Campaigns and non-profits with successful fundraising operations create a compelling reason not just to donate, but to donate now. This is an important distinction: campaigns can’t just convince people to support them, or that they need donations to be successful—they have to convince website visitors to donate right now.

Deadlines—real or artificial—are an effective way to create urgency. For political campaigns that might mean the end of a quarter or an important primary date. For non-profits, it could be the end of the year or a period during which donations are matched.

Artificial deadlines work as well. In the political arena, “moneybombs”—single-day fundraising drives largely pioneered by Ron Paul—have proven remarkably effective. During one 24-hour moneybomb in 2007, Paul raised $4.2 million.

Even displaying progress toward a goal can be effective. By showing supporters how many people have donated and how much, campaigns can help would-be donors understand their role in the fundraising drive.

3. Personalize your fundraising pitch

Personalized fundraising pages—also called crowdsourced fundraising or peer-to-peer fundraising—can be an effective way to increase donations to your organization. Typically peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns allow supporters to create custom pages on an organization’s website to include their stories and reward them for the contributions they generate.

With peer-to-peer fundraising, you can tap your supporters’ friends and family for donations. A fundraising appeal from a friend or family member lends instant credibility, lowering the bar your organization has to clear to convince somebody to donate.

Moreover, personalized fundraising pages can spark a sense of competition between supporters that inspires them solicit donations more effectively.

4. Choose the right default amount

People are surprisingly susceptible to anchoring, the psychological tendency to be influenced by an initial piece of information in forming judgments. That’s the effect that makes us think we’ve found a good deal when we see a significant markup from a high initial price, or that can cause a negotiation to center around the first price that one party mentions.

Anchoring can be a powerful force in fundraising as well. By setting a default donation amount, you can influence the amount that a donor will ultimately choose to contribute.

You’re also providing information about who you are and who you want your donors to be. A non-profit with a $1,000 default donation signals it is looking for wealthy or corporate benefactors, whereas a campaign with a $5 default donation is advertising its interest in common people.

There is no right amount for every organization—as with all things, testing is the way to figure out what’s right for you—but the default amount should not be an afterthought.

5. Don’t send your supporters to a foreign-looking website

For technical reasons, many donation forms—especially for smaller campaigns and non-profits—are hosted by payment processors, rather than on the organization’s own website.

But your supporters don’t care about the technical and regulatory challenges in accepting online contributions. All they know is that, after clicking a “donate” link, they have found themselves on a website that looks unfamiliar and is asking for their credit card information.

There’s no doubt that this process costs campaigns and non-profits money. In the worst case, a potential donor might worry that he has been redirected to an unscrupulous page designed to steal his credit card information. In many more cases, redirecting somebody to a page with none of your organization’s branding might change their mental context and cause them to think twice about donating.

Make sure your organization has full control over the layout and information on your donation pages—they should be a seamless extension of your website, not an unknown detour.

6. Don’t squander your thank-you emails

Most organizations send follow-up emails to thank donors after they contribute. But too many of these are cold, perfunctory receipts of the transaction.

Instead a thank-you email is an opportunity to engage your donors more deeply. Explain again what your organization can accomplish with the your donor’s contribution, include links to social media accounts, and let donors know how else they can be involved in the cause.

A truly personal touch can be effective as well. For small organizations that don’t receive many donations, consider following up with a short thank you from a candidate, volunteer, or staff member. An auto-generated email can be great for providing more information—but a two-sentence, personal thank you from a real person’s email account has an important place as well.

7. Take advantage of your email list

Your email list is one of a campaign’s best ways to drive donations. Once you have a supporter’s email address, you’re not compelled to secure a donation based on one visit to your website or donation page—even if a supporter doesn’t donate today, there’s no reason he or she won’t in a week or a month.

Campaigns can target their emails to the people who are most likely to donate at a time they’re most willing to do so. On the heels of a new plan, a major attack from an opponent, or a newsworthy event, email subscribers can easily turn into donors.

For past donors, your email list provides a way to solicit future donations. This is part of the tremendous value of small donors: they can often be persuaded to donate again, and the limiting factor is often attention rather than willingness to donate. Give past donors a reason to step up to the plate again, and they’re likely to do so.

8. Relentlessly test your assumptions

Finally, The most important tool in the online fundraiser’s toolbox is relentless testing: a willingness to compare how different fundraising pitches, donation forms, and images affect fundraising numbers. Intuition is a good starting point, but it’s no more than that. Even past successes do not offer the final world: the lessons here have helped many campaigns boost their fundraising numbers, but that is no guarantee that they will work for everyone.

Instead, campaigns should test everything, to see what works and what doesn’t.

This ethic was evident in spades in the Obama campaign, which ran 240 a/b tests in the six months before the 2012 presidential election.

The result? An eye-popping $250 million in online donations, with a 49% increase in donation conversion rate. Most campaigns can’t reach $250 million—but there is no reason they can’t target a similar improvement in conversion rate over time.


Interested in learning more about how we can help with your online fundraising? Take a tour of our online fundraising platform, email us, or start a free Grassroots trial.