Getting digital really working

Published by Jonathon Grapsas on

So what does a solid, well performing digital fundraising program look like?

It’s the question I’m often asked, and am going to share, as best I can in a little under 1,300 words.

Dispelling the myths

One of the most frustrating things about the digital world is that it is full of illusion, and quite a lot of BS.

Here are some of my favourites:

  • Social media is the next big thing and will transform charities fundraising programs
  • Digital is completely different to the offline world, and as such different teams should be working on each program
  • Email and landing page copy must be short

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

The problem is these myths permeate all over and are considered truisms by most. The reality is that good practice direct marketing crosses channels. Sure, there are some nuances, but there are more similarities than differences.

Understanding where digital fits in

It’s essential as fundraisers we have a clear pathway, and that the role of digital fundraising is well defined.

For some, it may be a significant driver of acquisition growth if other vehicles are being used extensively. For others it may simply play a supporting (retention/integration) role.

The key is knowing what’s a reasonable amount of time and energy to dedicate to getting it working. I see far too many fundraisers spending a disproportionate amount of time obsessing about finding Facebook fans when they can’t accept regular gifts online or stressing over the content of a tweet when their website is cluttered, unclear and not mobile optimized.

Ask yourself, what value is this delivering for our program? Could I be delivering a better return elsewhere?

Getting your house in order

Too many try and run before they can crawl. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest technology craze, but are QR codes really going to change the world?

Consider this as a checklist for getting your house in order:

  • Is your website focused? Providing a clear navigation for visitors, making it apparent what you want them to do. Relevant, updated and rich content. ensure the most important stuff is above the fold in the page.
  • Do you make it easy to support you online? Ensuring we don’t paralyse with choice, including a well laid out and compelling donation form.
  • Is your email marketing working? Email is still king, do you use it effectively to support appeals, acquire new supporters and care for donors?
  • Are you easy to find? How far up Google’s 1st page are you ranking, if at all? Remember, what other people say is more important than what you say about yourself. Find ways to get reputable sites to link to you.
  • Are you mobile optimized? Over 10% of all web traffic comes from mobile devices, is your website optimized for mobile? Can visitors easily view, touch, feel and use your site on their mobile device?

If the checklist above has more crosses than ticks, it’s fair to say your priority online is getting the basics right before leaping into unchartered digital territory.

Make it feel the same: integration

The key to getting your online and offline programs living in harmony is making sure they say the same thing. If it sounds important in the post, make sure it sounds just as important online. That includes ensuring it’s prominence on your website.

Same goes for asking. If you’re asking me for a specific amount offline, but give me the option to go online, ensure the asks marry. Failure to do so confuses, and ultimately suppresses response.

But don’t forget to surprise and delight every now and again. How many of you provide a moment where your supporters would shriek, “wow, have you seen this?” as their partner walks in the door. Invited them to a teleconference/webinar, said thank you in a way you’ve never said it, invited me to the opening of your new shelter.

Finding new supporters online: recruitment

The great part about the digital world is that it doesn’t discriminate against small charities. It is possible to have success finding new supporters online. It isn’t easy, but it’s doable.

Here are they keys:

  • Look for tepid prospects. That is, people who have some relationship/affinity with you.
  • Spread your wings. It’s difficult to get one online channel working in isolation. Display advertising, re-targeting, paid search, Facebook Advertising, email prospecting etc. They all have their role, but usually as a joint approach, not as a standalone campaign. Economies of scale make it much easier to run an acquisition program with three or four of these running simultaneously rather than on their own.
  • What’s in it for me? Incentivise. Why would I give you a phone number? There’s got to be something in it for me. A gift, the chance to win something, the promise you’ll send me a fun update. Incentives help increase participation, particularly important if you’re trying to capture phone numbers.
  • Consider a staged approach. That is: ask for something small upfront (cash, action, lobby, share) then move people, very quickly, along to the next stage of the relationship.
  • At the heart of every conversation, think “how can I convince this person to become a regular giver”?

I call the process of getting all these items in sync, fuelling the funnel. It’s illustrated in the diagram below. Begin with several prospect sources, filter them to your left with less prospects, ultimately finding new, long term regular givers.

And finally, be realistic when it comes to online acquisition. Give yourself a year of testing and refining before passing judgement. A return of around 0.5-0.6 in year 1 is reasonable, and would provide the evidence needed to rollout.

Hanging onto them: retention

Finding donors online is tough. But the magic for me is the effect that digital communications can have on “keeping” supporters. Not necessarily those recruited online, but those that we know like to look, listen, touch and feel in the digital environment.

One such group (traditionally a little younger: late 20’s through to mid-late 30’s) are those recruited on the street (face to face). We’ve been undertaking some interesting testing over the past year with clients and found the following works:

  • Developing rich content. That includes lots of video, podcasts, stuff people can “do” (surveys, advocacy pieces), regular stories shared, the odd SMS here and there. Keep it interesting, story driven and about “me” and the impact I’m making.
  • Delivering regular content. So much that it feels uncomfortable when you see it written on an annual activity plan. Lots in the first few months post sign up (minimum weekly), still lots thereafter (every few weeks). The important thing is the positive reaffirmation. Keep reminding me how I’m changing the world, even one person’s life.
  • Automating it. If you can, develop a system (a set of email triggers) that automates the process. Doesn’t mean content isn’t up to date, changeable etc., but placeholders can easily be filled. If you don’t automate it, you won’t do it as often as you should.

The wonderful team at Cerebral Palsy Alliance in Australia have developed a program like this. Take a look below at one of the “magic moments” videos created to remind our wonderful regular givers why they give up a few dollars a month.


Struggling with attrition on face-to-face acquired donors for a while, after just a few months they’ve managed to slash attrition rates, including the average month 1 attrition reduced from 12% to 4%. All by sending rich, regular and automated content.

Oh, and don’t forget to ensure its mobile friendly.

Digital really isn’t that difficult

Once you cut through the chaos and get the fundamentals right, the digital world really isn’t that scary. The most important thing is to understand exactly where it fits into your plans.

Jonathon Grapsas

Jonathon is the founder and director at flat earth direct, an agency dedicated to fundraising and campaigning for good causes. Jonathon has spent the last decade working with charities all around the world. Initially in the UK, and more recently in Canada and his native Australia. An influential blogger, writer and speaker, Jonathon's spends most of time now helping charities reach out to people online.


Ajay Ochani · April 11, 2012 at 06:28

Hi there Jonathan:

Thanks for the post and sure do agree – investing in media-rich content can really boost the retention rates. One tactical question for you – do you have any practical tips for increasing email open rates (beyond day-time of delivery and email headers).

Thanks again for the post.

– Ajay

Jonathon Grapsas · April 11, 2012 at 06:58

Hi Ajay

Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated.

A few simple things to consider:

– Ensure the sender is recognisable. Charities often send emails from “Bob Smith” or the CEO, Save the Children. Instead it should be from Bob Smith, CEO – Save the Children. No-one is likely to know who Bob Smith is, and an email from the CEO is faceless and likely to be binned.
– On subject lines, three key things are to tease, be ‘sticky’ and create a sense of urgency. If you can do all three at once, terrific. Don’t give it all away (tease), make it something a little different and interesting (‘sticky’) and ensure we understand how critical is now (‘urgency’).
– Always deliver rich, insightful, regular and authentic content. The residual impact of that will be better open rates down the track.

Hope that helps.


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