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Online fundraising

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Charities, individuals use Internet to increase donations.

By Ret Boney

Online fundraising is burgeoning and charities across the sector are working to tap into the wealth.

The country’s largest charities raised more than $167.3 million online last year, up 63 percent from the year before, according to a new tally of online giving by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

And in the month following the December 26 tsunami in South Asia, $350 million in aid poured in over the Internet, says Kintera, a San Diego company that provides software for nonprofits, and whose clients alone raised $100 million for tsunami relief from more than 570,000 donors.

Easter Seals, the Chicago-based charity that has raised funds for programs and services for disabled people since 1919, is one of the nation’s largest nonprofits, with fiscal 2003 revenue of almost $700 million, but fairly new to the online fundraising scene.

“Direct mail was the primary fundraising and communications vehicle,” says Shirley Sexton, the group’s assistant vice president of Internet marketing. “The average age for our direct-mail donor-base is 72.  Easter Seals recognized that we need to engage a younger audience.”

To do that, Easter Seals and Sexton developed a strategic plan in 2001 for using the Internet, one that would connect its national headquarters, 88 independent affiliates and 13,000 employees.

At that time, affiliates had developed their own websites, which had nothing in common with other Easter Seals offices, and none linked to databases of supporters, resulting in only about $27,000 in online fundraising in 2001.

“They all looked and felt different,” Sexton says. “Inconsistency and brand confusion was the name of the game.”

But less than four years later, that’s all different, with over 100 Easter Seals websites presenting the same branding and messaging, linked to one another, resting on the same database of about 200,000 supporters and on target to increase online donations more than 16-fold to $450,000 this year.

“I’d like to think that now that everybody is on the system and getting it more incorporated into their marketing mix, that it will increase,” Sexton says of online donations.

The group uses its new system for marketing and communications now as well, sending monthly newsletters personalized based on where constituents live, and communicating with them about their individual needs and interests, which Easter Seals is able to glean from its data.

It also has linked all offices through an extranet, allowing employees across the organization to communicate and exchange data, and is getting more involved in advocacy, with a legislative newsletter, policy alerts and educational information.

To make it all happen, Easter Seals is using a host of tools from Convio, an Austin-based software company that specializes in working with nonprofits.

Among the tools it uses is software for constituent relationship management (CRM), online donations, email marketing, advocacy, walk-a-thon fundraising and all the tools needed to create and manage its websites.

“It’s helped unify the brand,” says Sexton.  “This is allowing us to get some things out there and get tools into the affiliates’ hands, segment some groups and do some CRM work.”

It’s also helping them pursue their mission of equality for disabled people by making all Easter Seals websites accessible to people with disabilities.

And the charity recently received a grant of $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Commerce to help Convio make its tools accessible to people who are disabled.

The grant will also support internships, training programs and job-placement assistance for disable people who want to become web developers and managers, “to prove that people with disabilities can be content mangers if they have the right tools,” Sexton says.

She says even smaller nonprofits can benefit from using technology to pursue their missions more effectively.

“It starts with a simple belief in the fact that providing a consistent voice to your constituency is going to benefit you,” she says.  “That would lead you to a CRM approach online naturally.”

While small organizations may not be able to invest in a suite of tools for online fundraising, they can access Internet giving by partnering with groups like Network for Good in Vienna, Va., and JustGiving, with U.S. operations based in Lexington Mass., both of which handle online donations for smaller nonprofits.

JustGiving offers a different twist on the practice, however, allowing individuals to create their own fundraising web pages to benefit nonprofits they care about, with donations going directly to the charity, less a 5 percent fee.

In a recent effort on behalf of the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America, a nonprofit based in Austin, 15 of the group’s supporters created their own web pages, enlisted friends to make donations to the nonprofit and raised about $10,000 to plant 1,000 trees in El Salvador.

With a staff of three-and-a-half and annual income of $500,000, that’s significant, especially for a nonprofit that had raised almost no money online previously.

“Our supporters can lend a hand in time-efficient ways,” says Sean Hale, the group’s assistant director.  “We can involve new donors through them who might not have been aware of us.  It allows supporters to take their passion for what we do and share it with other people.”

Hale hopes that will mean new supporters and more income in the future, especially since the nonprofit retains the donors’ information for future marketing efforts.

JustGiving has helped 1,500 U.S. nonprofits through about 10,000 individual web pages, each of which receive about 10 donations averaging $50, says Dana Hagenbuch, marketing manager.

In the last three months, individuals have raised more than $2 million for U.S. charities, and so far this year, the company is on track to triple its revenues, due in part to what Haganbuch calls the viral nature of the service.

“It’s an exponential reach a nonprofit can get,” Hagenbuch says. “It allows people to reach out to their social network online.  They’re also reaching people the nonprofit would not have been able to reach otherwise.”

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