Best practices for online fundraising (part 1)

Best practices for digital fundraising are a funny thing to define.

Digital is relatively new and changing all the time – even just defining ‘digital’ is changing*. Because of that, best practices for online fundraising aren’t prescriptive**.

So here you go – my no-bullshit, non-definitive list of best practices for digital fundraising that (shouldn’t) rapidly go out of date:

1. Test. All the time.

I yammer on about testing for a reason: it’s the single best way to figure out how to engage with your audience and send them stuff you’re doing that they’re interested in too (and want to support!)

I wrote a testing guide, and there are lots of ideas for testing all over this blog.

There are a few things personal to you to make testing work best:

  • Be open to learning new stuff
  • Test your assumptions
  • Be OK with it being wrong, just learn it quickly
  • Actually change how you do things

2. Go to where your audience is

Find out who your key supporters are*** and then do some research on where they are online and how they use the internet.

Go for the low hanging fruit – focus your resources accordingly. Find out where you’re getting the best return, then test and optimise.

It’s almost 100% guaranteed they have an email address if they’re under 65 – and they’re checking it regularly. So building an email list probably makes sense.

If you’re in the UK, 82% of 45-54 year olds use their mobile phone to access the internet (65% of 55-64 year olds do too) – that’s significant, because odds are your online donors are aged between 45 and 65.

And top three things they’re doing online: checking email, searching for information on goods and services (how’s your website?), and looking at social media. That key age cohort is just as likely to use the internet for social media as they are to do their banking.

So it’s up to you to figure out what social media they use. If they’re on Facebook, go there. If they’re on Instagram, go there. You get the picture.

Remember this most of all: Use smart data to figure out where you should be putting your efforts. And then test!

3. Send good content when you have good content

I want to emphasise good content. Because you’re testing all the time, you’ll figure out what that is based on what’s resonating with your supporters (track actions to actually figure out what people like).

Here are some good ideas to help start you off:

  • Rapidly respond to things that are affecting you, especially stuff in the news (your equivalent of disaster funding!)
  • Let supporters know how you’ve spent/are currently spending their money
  • Give people a sneak peek behind-the-scenes – and it doesn’t need to be super-pro (probably better if it’s not)

Test what’s resonating with people.

Edit: Here’s another way to approach it from Jeff Brooks that I like

4. Make it as personal as you can

People love the human touch, and they love that you’re not just a robot.

There are lots of opportunities to add the personal touch – especially through email or social media when it’s SO easy to reply in real time. The Women’s March showed the potential of Messenger bots in being able to provide a personal experience to people online without necessarily needing a person involved.

And just because I’m talking digital, it doesn’t mean you have to keep your communication in the online space (even if their donation came in online).

Try calling, or hand-written cards, or anything else that’s been working for you in fundraising so far. And test out ways to do that same kind of personal touch in digital ways too (e.g. texts, IMs, video… so many choices).


Finally, a reminder: the single best thing you can do is test.


*Until fairly frequently, mobile was being chucked in its own category (hint: it’s digital)

**Beware anyone who tells you otherwise, especially consultants

***Don’t know? Ask them!

And check out the Office of National Statistics (UK) website for up-to-date internet stats. Tons of gold here.

Unsubscribes aren’t always bad

Unsubscribes from emails are one of those metrics bosses love to measure (and flip out over).

Don’t freak out too much about people unsubscribing from your list. Establish a baseline unsubscribe rate, and then just make sure it doesn’t get too high.

In fact, you should think seriously about actively unsubscribing anyone who’s been inactive* for 3 months or more.

Here’s why actively unsubscribing people from your list is good:

  • You’ll get fewer spam complaints
  • Your deliverability (number of emails hitting inboxes) will stay in good shape
  • Your email performance should increase, since the people on your list actually want to be on there

And remember: sometimes unsubscribes – like complaints – can be a sign that your fundraising is kicking ass.


*By inactive, I mean people who haven’t even opened an email from you.

The perfect email template

I get asked what the perfect email template is all the time.

My response? Keep it simple, and keep testing. 

And then MailChimp comes along with their giant data science team. They’ve just gone and published their findings on what makes the perfect email template. They have a lot of data to pull from: millions of accounts sending billions of emails (*ahem* including mine, if you’d like to sign up).

I love me some data-driven decision making! Especially from outside the nonprofit space.

Their results? There isn’t any one winning email template, it depends on you and your list.

But there were two key principles:

Keep it simple

Use a basic layout, and keep your copy concise.

Keep testing

MailChimp’s findings also show that the best performing email lists tested constantly. Testing was THE indicator of high performance.

They found the best email lists:

  • Use their own data – they didn’t assume what works for everyone else works for them too
  • Challenged their assumptions – they didn’t just accept someone else’s best practices as the final truth
  • Never stopped testing – successful design was about figuring out what worked for THEM and refining it.

Check out the full MailChimp blog post here.

Testing is so important*. Still looking for a New Year’s resolution? Resolve to test everything, all the time.


*Here’s my testing how-to guide to get you started.