- A listing on a host fund-raising website costs a tiny fraction
of the expense to mail appeals or telephone prospective donors.
- The Internet's all-encompassing penetration is an almost
irresistible lure. What non-profit wouldn't like to enlarge its base
of potential donors to national or even global proportions?
The promise of new and increased fund-raising
opportunities through the Internet is being made by many organizations
and touted by numerous individuals. These early adopters see a
cyberspace frontier that non-profits must explore. I agree, but it is
an exploration best undertaken with a healthy degree of caution.
Not every breakthrough, to which those first to adopt new technology
rush, proves to be a winner. And even if the underlying concept is
sound, its first implementation might not be the way to go. Remember
Betamax and eight-track? When it comes to fund-raising, the Internet
has yet to prove that it can deliver substantial rewards to the many
types and sizes of non-profit organizations that makeup the
philanthropic world. While online fund-raising may work for some, it
just might not be the ticket for all.
A crisis-driven Internet appeal can net significant amounts of money
following a hurricane, flood, earthquake, or other disaster. The
response in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11 is proof
of that. However, an enormous number of non-profit organizations and
agencies throughout the world have no such crisis factor working for
them. Nor are they wrapped in an emotional appeal that will cause
strangers to give them money.
Which Forms Of Solicitation To Use
The Internet offers new ways to communicate with donors and solicit
gifts. However, while adding to a fund-raiser's list of techniques, it
does not replace any of them. Through experience we have learned that
some forms of appeal work better than others. We know that one-on-one
solicitations made to individuals in their home or office by peers at
scheduled appointments work best.
Such solicitations yield the highest percentage of commitment and the
largest gifts. Other proven methods of solicitation include direct
mail, telefunding, and door-to-door. Now, we have Internet
solicitation to add to the mix. The question is how will that addition
The number of websites offering to solicit, receive, and process
contributions for non-profit organizations seems to be in constant
change. Some of the first to appear have already closed shop, while
others will have come online between the time I write this and you
read it. In addition, many website developers are urging non-profits
to build their own websites for the primary purpose of raising money.
Websites and fund-raising are a hot topic on the Internet and much
information can be found there. A recent query for the word
fund-raising using the search engine Google yielded more than 1.25
million hits. When I narrowed the search to sites also featuring the
words non-profit and website, I still had more than 25,000 returns. It
is no surprise that a wide variety of companies offer services to aid
non-profits in using the Internet for fund-raising. The usual services
offered are either to list an organization for potential donors to
find, or to develop a non-profit's own fund-raising website.
List Or Display Non-Profit Organizations
The idea behind these websites is that a �philanthropic portal� will
attract visitors who will select charities to which to contribute. The
gifts are sometimes even processed through these portal sites which
make money by charging a fee and/or selling space to advertisers.
Non-profits affiliate with philanthropic portals to raise money and
create awareness. Because the cost is low, they see such opportunities
as a way to achieve a global potential at little expense. However, a
non-profit organization listed on a philanthropic portal website
should recognize that:
- It will be competing with many other organizations for
- Success will be based on the portal site's ability to attract
visitors willing and able to make gifts of meaningful size. The
number of donors who surf the Internet looking for places to give
money is at best unknown, and to my thinking questionable.
- Most likely, an initial Internet gift will be far harder to
renew than one obtained in a more traditional way.
- Meaningfully increasing an Internet gift presents a formidable
challenge. It is very hard to build the type of relationship needed
to turn a casual donor into a true stakeholder without a program of
communication and involvement.
- Relying on the Internet could tempt the organization to neglect
tried and true fund-raising methods and practices.
- Philanthropic portals are often unclear in explaining how their
system works. Fee structures and contract clauses can be confusing.
You may not know in total what your affiliation is costing until you
get the bill.
- The practice has legal implications in many states where
philanthropic portals may possibly be designated as professional
Organizations Operating Their Own Fund-Raising Websites
Many non-profits with websites primarily devoted to marketing and
networking are seeking to increase the fund-raising potential of these
sites. Still others are considering the development of websites
devoted principally to fund-raising. Either way, a non-profit
organization can use its own website to:
- Enhance or augment traditional fund-raising programs.
- Assure it maintains complete control of its Internet
- Communicate with more people, faster, at a minimal cost.
- Promote a sense of the organization as progressive.
- Create communication that is more cost efficient once a working
relationship has been established with donors and prospects.
- Post information and alerts immediately.
However, a non-profit organization should be aware
that if the principal reason for developing a website is fund-raising,
chances are new money raised that can be attributed directly to the
site will not justify the considerable time, money, and expertise
expended to create the website. Not to mention, the ongoing expense of
maintaining the site and keeping it loaded with fresh information.
Nothing is staler than a website that isn't updated on a frequent and
regular basis, and a stale website is not an effective fund-raising
tool. In fact, it is likely to have a negative effect on fund-raising.
A website which just sits out there with brochure-ware for visitors to
read is impersonal. A great website that lets donors and prospects
interact with staff can do much good, but that interaction is limited.
And it can discourage donors from developing independent relationships
with peer board members and other volunteers --- the very people best
positioned, professionally and socially, to ask for substantial gifts.
The danger here is that staff will become the primary contacts and by
default the primary solicitors. If that happens, the challenge to
obtaining initial major gifts and substantially increasing renewed
gifts will become even more formidable. Another danger is that staff
will hide behind technology. The last thing you need is for staff to
be glued to a keyboard and screen, rather than interacting with
volunteer leadership, donors, and other stakeholders.
I believe that most of the philanthropic-portal providers and website
developers who enthuse over fund-raising opportunities on the Internet
are honorable and well intentioned. However, like true-believers
everywhere, they have a tendency to overstate their case, and some of
those statements have given me an uneasy moment or two. Remember, they
are selling something in which they really believe. So, we shouldn't
be surprised by the puffery they sometimes employ in their pitches.
However, as they sing their sirens' song of easy money, the majority
of them, having little or no experience in the non-profit world, fail
to realize just how desperate many organizations are for cash. As a
result, non-profits could be led skipping down a path they should
venture upon with great care or not at all.
One philanthropic-portal provider says he is working to make the
electronic giving process on his site familiar and comfortable. But
does he acknowledge a most important aspect of fund-raising?
Prospective donors don't give money until they are familiar and
comfortable with the organization and its cause. This provider might
succeed in making the transaction process easy, but he should also
counsel that attracting distant benefactors who have little or no
relationship with an organization is in itself no easy thing.
The credentials of some philanthropic-portal providers and website
developers suggest they have little or no fund-raising experience.
Thus, their claim that they advise non-profits not to abandon
traditional methods raises the question, How then can they make
recommendations about fund-raising techniques? In any other
circumstance, would we accept fund-raising advice from individuals or
organizations with little or no development experience?
Some philanthropic-portal providers and website developers encourage
non-profits to experiment and dare them to be entrepreneurial. That's
acceptable with one's own money or with funds from a venture
capitalist. But a non-profit is obligated to spend donor contributions
wisely and to use them first and foremost to carry out its core
mission. As stewards of other people's contributions, those who manage
non-profits must resist the temptation to experiment at the expense of
mission. They must not allow the influence of these experts of the new
technology to unduly drive an organization's development plans. The
negative risk is twofold:
- The money spent on experimentation may not bring back a return
that justifies it.
- The effort and resources expended on achieving that low yield
will have been taken away from proven fund-raising processes.
Before you take the time, make the
effort, and spend the money to go global for support, you should
maximize your fund-raising potential in your own service community.
It's where your organization delivers its programs and services. It's
where your organization is best known. It's where the greatest number
of people likely to care about your organization can be found. It's
where you will raise the vast majority of your money. It's where you
should concentrate your fund-raising efforts.
Non-profits are being told that more and more people with means are
purchasing commercial products of ever-increasing value through the
Internet. Some philanthropic-portal providers and website developers
are coupling such commercial purchasing practices with the making of
charitable contributions. They say that people will be just as likely
to make donations over the Internet, as they are to purchase a
computer or any other product. What they fail to recognize is that
while we are inclined to buy from the place that gives us the most for
our dollar, we make donations to the place that addresses the things
we care most about.
A non-profit organization needs to understand that few, if any,
prospective donors will give it money if they live outside its service
area. While it is possible for a distant benefactor who knows little
or nothing about an organization to give support, don't count on it.
Such an occurrence is truly the exception to the rule, and a rare one
The Best Way
To Ask For The Money
Most fund-raising programs for non-profit organizations should be
based on the Optimum Gift Principle (the most money from the fewest
donors in the shortest time). That's hard to do through Internet
fund-raising, direct mail, or telefunding efforts. I write
fund-raising articles and give fund-raising counsel based on what
works. Over the years, I have learned that fund-raising in person is
by far the best way to ask for money. It really is the only way to
consistently obtain large gifts.
Non-profit organizations whose support constituencies are
geographically distant might have no choice but to rely on long
distance fund-raising, even when it comes to asking for major gifts.
But except for organizations that are truly national or international
in scope, operations are far more likely to be concentrated in a local
community. And that's where they should look for the lion's share of
These organizations, especially when they are seeking major gifts,
should adhere to the traditional fund-raising principle of looking
someone in the eye when asking for money. There is no substitute for
it. Every other form of fund-raising pales in comparison.
Some non-profit organizations have begun to let slide opportunities
for personal contact with key supporters as they have become enamored
with the Internet and what they hope is its ability to cultivate and
solicit major donors. This results in fewer face-to-face opportunities
for contact and communication and a diminished awareness and
sensitivity on the part of staff and volunteer leadership to donor
This loss of personal contact has the potential -- I would even say
the probability -- for disaster. Experience has taught me that you
can't get someone to part with many thousands or tens of thousands of
their dollars without personal contact. Large gifts still come down to
one human being asking another.
Experience and judgment are our most valuable sales tools when it
comes to winning support for our worthy organizations, and these tools
are at their best when we have the ability to read the person we are
soliciting. That can't be done when you are asking for gifts on a
website. There is no way to see through the opacity created by the
Internet. You can't read a person who is sitting in front of his or
her computer. You aren't there to see the body language. When there is
no dialogue, there are no inflections of voice to give subtle hints.
The computer masks all the small personal ways in which we communicate
and express our intent, our fears, our dislikes, our confidence, and
And bear in mind that it is considerably easier to click a website
closed than it is to say no in a meeting, shut the door on a
neighborhood solicitor, or even cut short a telephone solicitation.
Those all require that you turn away from a person, not a machine.
Clients' Needs First
Philanthropic-website hosts, site developers, and online fund-raising
counsel must work with their client organizations to determine when
Internet fund-raising efforts work and when they do not. They must be
ready to tell an organization that online fund-raising is not for
everyone. The question is whether or not Internet fund-raising efforts
- Maximizing an organization's funding potential.
- Cost effective.
- Distracting an organization's leadership from other more
reliable and proven fund-raising methods.
Internet fund-raising should be rated and evaluated by the
providers of its services in partnership with their non-profit clients
in the same way that other fund-raising methods should be assessed and
prioritized. The good judgment and the integrity of fund-raising site
developers should be used to value and position Internet fund-raising
for each individual client according to that client's overall
fund-raising plans and needs.
If they do these things, their clients will have the best shot at
success, and that in turn will make them successful. Reputable
fund-raising advisors always put clients' needs first, especially
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Those are my views on the subject. What are yours? I welcome
your comments and suggestions.