Best Practices and Tips for Raising Money Online

Raising money online can provide your organization with a new untapped donor base. Indeed, a well-planned and executed campaign to a broad community can yield more money than a direct mail or events-focused campaign—and at a significantly reduced overhead. Before you launch your online fundraising campaign, identify your audience and a clear goal for the campaign.

(a) Your fundraising "ask" must be targeted to a specific audience who can respond to it and, ideally, pass it on to others. Successful fundraising campaigns start with previously established communities that have good reason to trust the organization asking for money. If you do not already manage an email list of people with whom you have been in regular communication, consider partnering with a group who has. Your first email to your organization should not be an appeal for money. You need to first build a relationship and establish trust.

(b) Your fundraising goal should be easy to understand and should be meaningful. What are you doing to do with this money? Be as specific as possible. Risk-taking online pays off. Being bold excites online audiences, drives people to meet goals, and generates attention – both online and offline. When the Dean campaign announced an outlandish second quarter fundraising goal of $7 million, supporters knew that reaching this goal depended on them. Consequently, they poured energy into reaching that goal—and then justly felt like they, acting individually in a collective manner, had accomplished something great. Each individual $50 or $100 contribution combined together is the recipe for success in meeting the much larger, stunning total.

As a centerpiece of the campaign, find a way for people to track their contributions. Dean for America had its contributions fill a baseball bat; Ken Salazar’s Colorado Senate campaign used an animated ten-gallon hat; and Joe Hoeffel’s Pennsylvania campaign added cars to a train as donations poured in. This visual mechanism allows your audience to understand that each individual’s contribution goes toward the greater goal. This is clearly not a new model, after all, we all remember the Labor Day Telethons and the growing local and national tote boards that Jerry Lewis used to drive excitement across the country.

You should invest the bulk of your time crafting compelling email messages, since this will be the foundation for your campaign. Authenticity is critical for success on the Internet in any venture—political or otherwise. Most of us spend the bulk of our time on the Internet using email. Since email is an inherently casual and intimate mode of communication, effective fundraising emails are both casual and authentic—you’ve got to have personality!

Here are some points to think about as you write your fundraising email:

Develop a voice. Write your email in a casual, personal tone, and send them from a specific human being. Don’t put an amorphous organization name in the “from” line. Develop a unique voice for the authors of your emails—a regular voice to which readers can relate. This does not necessarily mean the principal of your organization. Often a mid-level staffer may work as well and protect your principal for over-communicating to your list.

Make a specific ask. It’s not good enough to say that you need money—you need to spell-out why you’re asking for money, and what the money will do. People like to know what how their money will be spent—and, given the pace of the internet, it’s important that have a sense of urgency. The more specific the better. Don’t say you need $500 to fund an after-school center, say you need $250 for the teacher, $50 for the basketballs, $100 for snacks, and $100 to keep the electricity on.

Make it pretty, but not too pretty. With a few caveats, graphics don’t make much difference, and, in fact, heavily-stylized emails can distract people and slow them down. With caveats, graphics do not make much difference unless they serve a specific purpose—ie. a contribute button, photo, or image summarizing the ask.

Schedule each communication thoughtfully and with regard to real-world time. You don’t want to email your list too often, and you want to be especially aware of holidays and world events. In terms of frequency, the acceptable number of emails per week or per month varies. It depends on things like: your relationship with your readers, or if there is a time-sensitive action you are asking people to take, for example.

Track everything. Track open rates, unsubscribe rates, click-throughs, contributions, and the growth rate of the list. Look at the data to spot trends to and to speculate about what’s working and what’s not. Experiment, and be bold! Like other means of fundraising, you would not keep sending out the exact same piece of direct mail over and over again. You must try new and different things – new visuals, new language, new ways of asking for money. The only way you know if one works better than the other is with the data you are collecting.

Include actual links. Use the actual hyperlink, not words with embedded links. Links to you website or contribution page are bolder and easier for readers to find when they stand alone. Your click-through rate will be higher if you make it easier for your email recipients to find the links as they scan through message.

Develop an email and online content calendar that you plan well in advance with your entire team and can commit to following. The calendar should be flexible enough that you can act on unplanned events as they arise. The internet is a fast-moving medium, so you may only have a number of hours to get in front of a story or develop an action or online fundraising event for your community. Otherwise, try to keep your communications as consistent as possible. This does not mean that you should feel compelled to send emails on the same day and time each week/month. It is more important to email your supporters when you have something to say otherwise, you risk having them tune out your messages.

Summary of Email Sending Rules:

  • Keep it personal.
  • Keep it timely.
  • Keep it consistent.
  • Keep it action-oriented.
  • Create relationships.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment.
  • Watch the numbers to determine what is and isn’t working.