Digital is the ‘New Normal’, so why is digital fundraising still so rubbish?

Published by Rachel Beer on

I was on a conference call with someone the other day and they mentioned, “Surfing the web”, and then, immediately, almost embarrassed, added, “who says that anymore?!”

It’s true, no one says that anymore.  We’re online and using digital media so much now we don’t really even call it anything.  It’s just normal.  Or, as Peter Hinsenn puts it, ‘The New Normal‘.

For the many millions of digital consumers, digital media are just methods in the background as we go about our normal habits of accessing news and information, keeping in touch with our friends, sending day-to-day messages, shopping, buying our insurance, finding our way to our next meeting… the list goes on and on, and on.  We are choosing to use digital channels without even thinking about it.

So, since all of this is so normal, why are digital channels still so under utilised when it comes to fundraising?  And why isn’t digital fundraising making more of a contribution to the bottom line?  It’s not like the potential to generate income isn’t there – I mean, just look at Amazon, iTunes, eBay… the list goes on and on.

It’s because a lot of digital fundraising is rubbish

Maru is dangerous

For some reason, when fundraising campaigns go digital, they often seem to forget all the things that made the old normal – they suddenly become bereft of many of the key ingredients that fundraising campaigns need to succeed – important things like a good, old fashioned case for support.

No, I’m not joking; I see all too many campaigns where it’s not made clear what giving any money would change.  No reason to give?  In a fundraising campaign?  Really??  Or the reason to give is in there somewhere, within a load of stages and steps, or drowned out by all sorts of digital gimmickry – like a bit of an afterthought.

Unsurprisingly, the results of campaigns like this are usually a bitter disappointment – often enough to put a charity off trying anything digital again.  And your potential donors?  You probably just lost them to a YouTube hole, where they wasted an hour looking at videos of cats instead.

Think fundraising first

It seems that the fundamentals of fundraising are all too easily sidelined by the bells and whistles of digital.  It’s as though someone misinterpreted ‘digital first’ to mean that you should consider the digital platforms and tools first and the fundraising later.  Too often, it looks like everyone got carried away with the other bits and the fundraising bit ended up being forgotten altogether.

This useful post on 21st Century journalism explains why it’s intended meaning is exactly the opposite.  If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, this excerpt sums it up nicely:

“Digital first” demands a platform-free mindset; “digital first” is not “web only”… A platform-free operation requires an all-inclusive approach in content production. When planning a reporting project, we need to consider all forms of content: video, audio, article, photo, interactive features (data/map), etc. Get all these contents [sic] equally well-produced, then push them through appropriate platforms.

Translating this into developing a fundraising campaign means:

  1. Developing the core fundraising proposition
  2. Then bringing together all of the supporting elements you would do for any fundraising campaign (regardless of which media)
  3. Then looking at how this works through all the channels you are considering using to engage with the target audience or audiences you have identified for your campaign

Content is critical

Point two on the list above is the content bit.  No matter what media your campaign uses, you need content to make the case for support effectively.

It seems like a really obvious point, but I see a lot of digital fundraising that is so flimsy in terms of content that it fails to create any meaningful engagement – or action.

A direct mail campaign wouldn’t work without any content – no one would dream of sending an empty envelope out.  So, why are there so many digital fundraising campaigns that are the equivalent of an empty envelope?  There are so many different digital options available to get our messages across – there really is no excuse – and not doing this will lose potential donors.

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 19.07.19

As Peter Hinsenn puts it in his book, The New Normal:

Consumers will have zero tolerance for digital failure… The effect on companies will be tremendous. They were just getting used to coping with a 24 hour economy, and now they will have to cope with the ‘experience economy’: customers will demand interaction with providers of services and products on their conditions. They will expect the digital user experience to be easy and interesting. Every interaction with a customer must be viewed as a ‘make or break’ moment for the relationship with the customer.

… or donor.

So don’t be a digital dummy

Here’s a quick digital fundraising checklist to help avoid some common pitfalls:

  • Digital first does not mean put the cart before the horse – or, in fundraising terms, to put the channel or platform before the audience or before some of the core fundamentals of good fundraising.
    Your starting point should not be, ‘how do we fundraise using Twitter?’, but, ‘what are the best channels to engage with our target audience?’
  • Digital channels and tools are in our lives because they add value – they meet a need or need, they make life easier, they make a problem less problematic, they make something more fun or engaging.
    So, ask yourself, how does using this digital channel add value, how does it better help us to meet the objectives of this campaign, how does it help us engage with our audience, how will it help to uplift response, how will our intended audience benefit from it being used or incorporated in this campaign?
  • Digital media are used by normal people in normal situations.  They are not otherworldly.  Or the preserve of the young or the hip.  So don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re a digital dummy and let doing digital make you forget everything you already knew about fundraising and marketing.  Digital is normal now, remember?
    So, apply real-world thinking and don’t let digital jargon make you slip into thinking digital fundraising is anything other than fundraising with more tools in your toolbox.  The point of a toolbox is that it’s full of a wide range of different tools – all of them good for doing a different job.  Part of your job is to choose the right tool, or tools, for your campaign.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘if you build it, they will come’.  This is not Field of Dreams – it’s real life, where building a microsite and forgetting your marketing plan will mean no one will know it’s there, and no one will give.
    You need a marketing plan for a digital or an integrated campaign just the same as you do for any campaign.  Even if you are planning to rely on earned media or your campaign is to an existing audience, you have to put the right steps in place to ensure your campaign gets eyeballed by enough people to give it the opportunity to succeed.  Leaving this to chance or relying on your campaign ‘going viral’ is a risky strategy and the odds aren’t good that it will succeed.
  • Don’t – I repeat, don’t – forget the fundraising proposition, or the other elements that you know you need to make a fundraising campaign work.  Please.  Without these components your campaign might raise awareness, but it won’t raise funds or attract new donors.  If your objective is to generate income, ‘storytelling’ is not enough, however much you hear otherwise.
    You must ask, and ask directly, making the case for support strongly – just as you always have done – regardless of medium.
  • Do ask yourself, “Why should anyone care about this?”, “Is this interesting?”, “Will this campaign keep visitors on the page, reading, watching, engaging and – critically – giving?”, and, “What kind of experience is it delivering – inspiring, motivating, emotional, compelling…?”

Remember, there are plenty of cat videos just a click away…


Rachel Beer

Rachel Beer has been a professional fundraiser since 1999, with experience gained from at several fundraising creative agencies in the UK, as well as in house. Currently a fundraising consultant, she specialises in helping organisations to take their fundraising to the next level – creating fundraising brands, appeals and campaigns that excite existing supporters and attract new donors and fundraisers. She also works with teams in house at charities, helping them to develop the skills to get the best possible results. In 2008, Rachel created NFPtweetup - a regular series of events to promote effective use of technology in the charity sector, and she is well known as a fundraising expert, digital specialist and strategist for the third sector.


Charlie Hulme · May 30, 2013 at 16:53

Exactly – our sector is so excited by the ‘new’ medium it’s forgotten the message!

    Rachel Beer · May 30, 2013 at 17:58

    And potential donors are not focused on the medium at all

Nick Burne · August 6, 2013 at 12:57

Hey Rachel, it’s not that I disagree – but your post made me think about something that I think we’re missing.

I put my thoughts down here –

Let me know what you think!


Henry Larry · February 16, 2024 at 09:59

Digital fundraising indeed faces challenges in translating the new normal of online interactions into effective campaigns. It is crucial to maintain the core principles of fundraising ensuring a compelling case for support and meaningful engagement across various digital channels.
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