Why We Still Miss the Mark With Digital Fundraising
For some organizations, digital fundraising efforts are humming along quite nicely. They have an organized campaign calendar and work closely with their marketing and development departments on new initiatives. Their offline and online efforts are integrated, they have a strong customer relationship management (CRM) database structure with robust application programming interface (API) support, and their gift processing is accurate and efficient.
But for most, this scenario is a distant utopia. In reality, things are really quite bleak.
There are those who cannot send email because they have no communications staff. Others spend inordinate amounts of time reconciling online donations in the database of record because the systems are not integrated. Some have no technical support to update their donation forms. Others have internal silos that are so impenetrable, they are referred to as “steel curtains.” There are ones who must regularly justify the need for paid advertising, if they get any budget at all. And then there are staff members juggling so many hats, they barely have time to put together an online fundraising effort, much less try to keep up with posting to social media.
While the “2023 Digital Outlook Report” found 80% of nonprofits have a dedicated digital fundraiser or team in place (a positive increase from less than 60% in 2019), 40% are still struggling to implement their plans.
What is at the core of these issues and what can we do about them? Aside from some of the more obvious solutions of hiring skilled staff members and creating a cohesive strategy, there are three foundational areas that contribute to the persistent problems related to the failure of establishing strong digital fundraising programs.
How Digital Fundraising Fits in Development
Traditional development offices often have fully staffed and strong fundraising programs that align with one of the oldest philanthropic models: the giving pyramid. They have direct mail or events to cultivate annual giving donors, major giving staff with distinct portfolios, a foundation or grants team, corporate support and sponsorship, and perhaps a team for planned and legacy gifts. Thus, when digital fundraising is introduced, it can be quite perplexing. Where does it fit?
Digital fundraising is, in fact, a two-fold strategy. There are digital tools used to support all levels of the giving pyramid (and all development offices), as well as intentional online engagement campaigns that align with the growth funnel incorporating acquisition, cultivation, conversion and stewardship.
For example, the digital fundraising team will support annual giving by pairing branded donation forms and paid ads for direct mail campaigns. They work with the major giving staff on special e-newsletters or virtual events. Online recognition may be included in sponsorship packages. An email series might be used for a planned giving promotion.
Simultaneously, the digital fundraising team will oversee campaigns targeted to online audiences or integrated with other efforts. Consider a campaign that starts at GivingTuesday and continues with engagement efforts leading up to solicitations at year-end. At other times, campaigns are designed to acquire new prospects and grow the email file. Creative initiatives are crafted to engage online communities and steward new and existing donors.
Understanding how digital fundraising fits within the development structure is often the first step toward providing clear direction and defined roles for staff.
Collaboration Is Critical
Unlike many traditional fundraising techniques, digital fundraising requires the collaboration of nearly all departments. At the very least, the collaboration between development and marketing is critical to campaign success. This includes the support of social media, email, paid ads, print and other marketing efforts to promote online campaign efforts.
But there are many other support areas required for success. At larger organizations, web developers help with campaign landing pages, website ads and popups. They might also provide donation form maintenance, email sign-ups, online surveys, trivia, polls and automations. Video creation or livestreaming could be provided by a production team. Events staff might assist with virtual efforts, volunteers or in-person activities. Corporate partnership would be tapped for matching gifts, campaign sponsors or benefits through discounts with local retailers. Finally, finance is essential for reporting and budgets.
For nonprofits on the smaller end of the spectrum, the digital fundraiser is likely to be responsible for coordinating and executing many of these tasks. They may have to work with direct mail or marketing vendors for integrated campaigns or placement of online ads. The company providing support for the CRM might also handle donation forms and other online elements.
In any combination of the structures listed, it is essential that the digital fundraiser has the freedom and flexibility to collaborate effectively.
Strong Leadership and Resources
Despite the best intentions of organizations that have a strategy and internal support, their efforts are flailing because of a dismal tech stack and lack of budget. Email platforms may not be integrated with the database of record, so personalized or conditionalized content is not possible. They are unable to edit the language on donation forms, much less optimize them through A/B testing. The website is outdated and the user journey is disconnected. There’s no budget for online paid ads or new innovations, like texting.
This is where strong leadership and advocacy for supportive technology is critical. Digital fundraising and engagement efforts can be very hard to understand in traditional, legacy organizations. Strong leaders are needed to advocate for new technology and marketing investment. The issues need to be documented, prioritized and resourced appropriately. Too often, digital fundraising is pulled together with string and tape. These workarounds, though creative, are not sustainable for future growth.
As with any new project or initiative, digital fundraising programs require time and patience. Establishing the foundations, creating a collaborative environment, and ensuring that resources are available for innovative technological advancements are steps that will allow so many talented and creative digital fundraisers to flourish. And this ensures future sustainability in an age where digital dominates.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Jen Newmeyer, CFRE, is a digital fundraising strategist specializing in integrated campaigns and online engagement. Through her groundbreaking work and creative approaches during her more than 20-year tenure, she's raised more than $10 million in online revenue for nonprofit organizations while managing development budgets of more than $25 million and leading teams through collaborative campaign projects.
She is the author of "The Insider's Guide to Online Fundraising: Finding Success When Surrounded by Skeptics" and host of the podcast “From The Nest with CharityJen: Where Fundraising Takes Flight.” Jen is the director of digital fundraising strategy at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the vice president of education for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Washington, D.C., Metro Area Chapter.