Can’t Make Digital Fundraising Work for Your Nonprofit? Try These 5 Tips

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The Giving USA 2021 report has just been released, and their findings confirm what many nonprofit fundraising professionals have suspected: Americans responded very generously to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 by supporting their favorite organizations and causes at record levels.

Charitable donations in the U.S. reached a record high of $471.44 million in 2020, a 5% increase from 2019. While there are many interesting insights in the report, one important statistic we’d like to highlight is the growth of online giving. For the first time, online giving rose above 10% of total fundraising: 12.9%, up from 8.7% in 2019. That’s nearly a 50% increase!

If it wasn’t obvious already, digital fundraising is here to stay and nonprofits can’t afford to be bad at it.

Yet many nonprofits still struggle to crack the code and make digital fundraising work for them. Traditional fundraising channels like direct mail continue to outperform digital significantly in vital areas like annual giving, for example. Despite the latest data, digital is not a magic bullet and shouldn’t replace tried-and-true fundraising strategies.

So where should you be investing in digital? What’s been shown to work consistently from organization to organization and across subsectors?

Here are five areas of your fundraising program where digital strategies and technologies can reliably help you boost donations and see a big return on your investment.


1. Rapid Response Fundraising

More and more, charitable giving is being driven by sudden events: A social justice movement like Black Lives Matter crosses the tipping point; a hurricane devastates Puerto Rico. When the eyes of the world are focused on a specific problem, people look to nonprofits as a way to help. This is one area where digital fundraising has eclipsed every other fundraising method.

Your nonprofit should be ready to employ a variety of digital tools so that when an event occurs that impacts your mission, you can leverage that episodic giving opportunity immediately to make the biggest difference. The specifics of how will vary depending on the nature of your organization, but some ideas to start with include: Practice crafting rapid response messaging for emails and social media posts that engages donors authentically without feeling opportunistic; prepare digital ads in advance so you can simply turn them on when the time comes; and keep your donor data file up-to-date with current phone numbers and email addresses.

Remember that speed of execution will be one of the most important factors in the success of your rapid response fundraising. Digital offers an almost instantaneous communication channel to your donor audience that will allow you to mobilize them quickly in support of your work.


2. Integrated Fundraising

In a sense, digital fundraising is not an actual strategy, per se. Digital is a fundraising tool; specific technologies like web, email, and text are fundraising channels. In our experience, it’s a big mistake to silo digital from other fundraising channels, especially when it comes to evaluating data and making choices about where to spend your limited fundraising dollars.

For example, let’s say you’re a community theater. One day, a donor visits to see a show. A few days later, she receives your latest direct mail letter and reads it. The next day, she sees a social media post, clicks the link, and makes a donation. Did that person donate because of the social media post? Or did the social media post remind her of the show and/or the letter? More to the point, do you pull resources from direct mail and invest them in social media ads instead? If you do, you might find that social media donations actually decrease because it’s the combination of show, letter, and post that drives people to donate.

An integrated fundraising approach views your fundraising program as a team sport. Digital is a valuable player but can’t win the game on its own. Therefore, try to avoid asking questions like, “How can we make our digital fundraising work better?” Instead, ask, “How can we use digital tools and web channels to augment our overall fundraising strategy?” The best fundraising strategy for your nonprofit utilizes all of the players on the team to create an experience that engages your donors and motivates them to take action.


3. Impact & Outcomes

Donors give to your nonprofit because they believe you provide the best opportunity to make a meaningful impact on a cause they care about. If they stop believing this, they will likely stop giving. That’s why communicating your nonprofit’s impact to donors is so important.

Digital messaging offers an inexpensive way to provide frequent updates to donors on the good work your nonprofit does. You can use photo-centric sites like Instagram to post moving visuals that illustrate your impact. You can use Twitter and Facebook to share articles that third party news media have written about your efforts.

Remember to keep the emphasis on the donor so that your social media posts don’t look like pure propaganda. Use captions like, “Thanks to donors like you, <beneficiary name> has been able to <achievement the org made possible>.” A steady stream of digital messages emphasizing donor impact reminds donors why they give to you and helps ensure that they will give again.


4. Data & Metrics

Digital tools and channels provide data beyond the traditional metrics of fundraising. With today’s software, you can now measure how engaged your donors are at a level that was impossible with traditional fundraising channels. For example, if you send a direct mail appeal and response is low, how do you know if it’s because your case for support was weak or people simply didn’t open the envelope?

With digital, you can know who opened your emails*, what links they clicked on, and how long they spent on your landing page. You can even “listen in” on donor conversations by reading the comment threads to your social media posts. We’re not suggesting that you build an app that tracks GPS data or what people buy at the grocery store, but there’s plenty of available data that doesn’t cross privacy lines to help you better understand who your donors are and what they care about.

Using data for fundraising isn’t just about raising more money. It’s also about stewarding your donors’ investment with you. When you understand your donors better, you can save time and money by communicating more efficiently with those who most want to hear from you. That means fewer resources devoted to fundraising and more resources invested in the programs that impact the people you serve.

*Open rate data may become less reliable as Apple and Google implement new privacy protections.


5. Stewardship

Speaking of stewardship, there’s another aspect to digital you can use to help strengthen the bond between you and your donors. Digital communication like email, text, and social media lends itself to a more personal tone. Digital is how most donors interact with their friends and family, so they’ve grown accustomed to a more familiar style of communication in the digital space. You can use this to build stronger relationships with donors.

By contrast, direct mail is more formal. When money is changing hands (sometimes large sums of money), donors want the transaction to feel professional. It gives them confidence in your organization. But for most donors, especially younger donors, it’s not enough that their donation makes good sense; they want to feel like they are a part of something. Less formal interactions via social media can remind them that they like you. And more importantly, that you like them.

In addition to sharing stewardship messages of impact (see #3 above), digital communication allows for “just because” -type messaging and even interaction with donors. Share an Instagram pic of the office cat with the caption: “Max says thank you to all our generous donors.” Tweet out a conversation starter like, “What does everyone think of <trending topic related to your work>?” The caveat with informal messaging is that it must be authentic and on-mission (or at least not off-mission). But if you take care to learn about your audience, digital communication offers unique opportunities to build stronger and more nuanced relationships with supporters.


Final Words

With smart phones, smart watches, smart TVs, etc., people’s lives were moving more and more online even before the pandemic made us all pros at Zoom. If you expect your nonprofit to be relevant to donors and prospects now and in the future, embrace digital technologies as indispensable means of communicating with and engaging those who support you. While the digital side of fundraising still offers some challenges to nonprofits, it provides many opportunities if you know where to look. Start with the five areas we discussed in this article and you’ll be ahead of the pack in making digital work for your nonprofit.


On average, new IPM clients see a 34.8% increase in direct mail fundraising acquisition response rates within the first year of working with us. Want to learn more?

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