Technology and the Modern Face of Donations

Fundraising is tricky. It just is. Sometimes putting together a giving campaign feels like trying to hit a moving target with hand darts from the back of a running horse. How long should we run the campaign? How much do we need to raise? Who’s our audience? How do we get in front of them? How do we get them to open their wallets once we get their attention?

There are a lot of moving pieces to giving campaigns and, to make things harder, the established campaign tactics that we’ve been using for decades are just not working as well as they used to. We hear all the time, “Giving is way down!” or “People just aren’t donating anymore.” But the data doesn’t support these statements. What the numbers do tell us is that people are donating more often than ever before. The data shows that giving isn’t dying… it’s just changing.


When putting together a fundraising campaign, most organizations tend to focus on top 5-10% of their established donor base. These are the “sure bet” givers – the folks who have proven that they are willing to give large amounts to your cause. I call this the “handshakes and letters” crowd. We give them extra attention by mailing them personalized print materials, sending them special gifts, and calling them just to let them know we’re thinking of them. We put a lot of effort into nurturing these donors because they’re worth it. They support our organizations and we love them for it.

But there’s a big problem with this type of giver. To put it delicately, they won’t be around forever. As one person put it to me, “they’re super viable… until they’re gone.” Frankly, this type of giver is fairly rare anyway and statistics show that they are dwindling in number. They are becoming few and far between and there just aren’t any more big-dollar givers coming up behind them. The modern giver is a different breed and they give altogether differently.


Statistics and surveys show that millennials are one of the most socially engaged generations ever. They consider the ethical, moral, and charitable stance of just about every company or organization that they engage with. This can be seen in the rapid rise of brands such as Chipotle, Toms, Warby Parker, and Better World Books. One of our employees recently purchased a new camping hammock and even the hammock company has a section outlining their social impact efforts in a prominent place on their website. Smart brands in all sectors are promoting their charitable and “green” initiatives in order to engage this generation.

And they’re smart to do so. In 2013, 73% of millennials had donated to at least one cause that they believed in. If you narrow it down to just millennials above 30, that percentage rises to a staggering 91%. This is the giving generation, but they’re doing it very differently than the previous generations.


It’s no surprise that, as digital natives, millennials prefer online giving to more traditional channels. This alone sets them apart from the “handshakes and letters” crowd who are often uncomfortable giving any amount of money online. Not only are millennials comfortable giving online, they are comfortable with several digital giving models: donation forms, mobile giving, crowd-sourced funding drives, this list just keeps growing.

But the biggest shift is not in how millennials donate – it’s in where they donate. While older donors tend to give large amounts to a single charity, Millennials give smaller amounts (between $5 and $100) to multiple causes – an average of 3.3 charities or organizations per year. This signals a major shift in how we have to view giving drives and the tactics that we use for raising funds.


With a huge percentage of millennials donating to multiple causes every year, we have to rethink how we engage and grow our donor base. Instead of the traditional model of focusing on 50 or even 500 donors who will give large amounts, we need to connect with thousands of donors who will contribute $50 each. If you’re able to grow a donor base that looks like this you will, in effect, have created a “diversified portfolio” for generating income. If one or a dozen of your donors stop giving, you still have a large pool of donors to work with. The impact is minor. Compare that to the older model. If only a few of your “handshakes and letters” donors stop giving to the cause, you could potentially be facing a major shortfall in donations and need to spend a great deal of time and effort to find and court new donors that are capable of giving large sums of money.

This diversified, “crowdsourcing” model has been popularized by platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The idea of the positive, cumulative power of small amounts has struck a chord with the millennial generation and smart organizations are adapting their fund-raising campaigns accordingly. By offering giving levels with small incentives you’re taking the guesswork out of “how much should I give” and providing compelling reasons for them to give those amounts.

These incentives don’t have to be things that cost your organization money, either. World Vision does a great job with their Christmas campaigns by pairing up giving amounts with practical, physical “gifts” – $75 buys a goat to a needy family, $16 buys two soccer balls for a school in Africa, $60 buys life-saving medicines, etc. Remember, millennials are one of the most charity-minded generations ever. Knowing the kind of practical impact that their money will have is a powerful value proposition in this demographic.


Just because they aren’t part of the “handshakes and letters” generation, doesn’t mean that millennials don’t want to connect. They just think about relationships differently. It’s important to build and engage your audience before you start your donation campaign. If your first touchpoint with a possible donor is you asking for their money, you run the substantial risk of looking like all that you care about is money. That’s a fast-track to turning off millennials. You want potential donors to resonate and identify with your cause before you ever ask them to donate to it. You can do this by engaging on social media, of course. You can also tell stories of the good work that your organization does and the positive change that it is making in lives of those it serves via your website and email campaigns.


When you talk to non-profits, charities, and churches that actually track their giving data, one thing becomes very clear – the multi-channel giver is the best giver. That is, a donor who is engaged with an organization on more than one level is not only more likely to give to that organization, they are more likely to give repeatedly. What this looks like practically is that you need to engage with your donor base on Facebook and Twitter, via the website, with email and mail campaigns, by texting and conversing with them, and building a story together – all before you ask them for a dime. But, when you do start talking about money, your multichannel donor is the one that’s going to say “yes” first. In fact, one datapoint that we keep hearing is that, even when they have said “no” on one channel – say over email or even over the phone – the multichannel giver is still far more likely to say “yes” via another channel. Often within a week of saying “no.”


So, how do we approach our giving campaigns so that we can speak to this new and powerful giving demographic effectively and with a multi-channel approach?

EMAIL: Despite the cries of “email is dead!” that we’ve been hearing from certain corners of the marketing world, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, statistics show that email is still one of the most effective channels for communicating with your donor base – especially when used in combination with other channels. A targeted and timed email campaign cadence that is synched up with social media and traditional direct-mail marketing is often your best tool for getting the campaign brand and messaging in front of your audience and it should form the central core of your whole donation campaign plan.

DIRECT-MAIL: Surveys show that millennials have a love/hate relationship with paper mail. They love receiving postcards, birthday cards, handwritten letters, and heartfelt thank you notes. They hate going to the mailbox and finding promotional fliers, paper bills, financial statements, and junk mail. Can you guess which bucket most donation material falls into? There are some ways to make your print materials far more effective with younger donors, though. Postcard-style mailers with large, attractive images, minimal text, and a single, clear call to action play surprisingly well with this audience. This format can actually be used digitally to great effect as well – and your digital and print communications should be closely coordinated anyway.

POP-UPS: Believe it or not, the dreaded pop-up window is actually very effective for donation drives. It’s almost a way to say, “This is really important to us, so we’re going to interrupt your browsing really quickly. But we’re not going to splatter it all over our website content that you actually came here to engage with.” There are some rules to follow, though. First, make sure to always have a clearly marked and easy to find way for users to dismiss the pop-up. Secondly, pop-ups are more effective when they include a form to be filled out and those forms are more effective if they have between two and four fields, not just one.

This seems counterintuitive. We spend so much time optimizing our sites to require fewer clicks and less activity on the part of our site users. When you’re serving a pop-up, however, a form is a visual signal that this isn’t promotional “fluff” but something to be engaged with and users are more likely to stop and actually take in the content. Statistics show that forms with two to four fields are filled out more often than single-field forms. There are a lot of theories as to why this is – everything from users feeling as though you care enough to ask more to users simply paying more attention to more fields – but the bottom line is that it works.

DEADLINES: Campaigns without deadlines fizzle and die. It’s as simple as that. When you give a deadline to a giving campaign, you’re doing two things:

  1. You’re creating a sense of urgency. If we don’t get it done by this date, then it doesn’t get done.
    You’re letting people know that it won’t drag on forever. Remember people are engaged with your mission, values, and focus. Giving campaigns can often feel like they get in the way of those things. Providing a date when it will all be over signals that it’s not the whole point of your communication.
  2. Short deadlines are surprisingly effective. Of projects funded on Kickstarter, campaigns with a timeline of 30 days or less have a significantly higher success rate than projects with a 60-day deadline. It’s worth noting that 2 months is the longest that you should drag out a campaign. Longer than that and you begin to fatigue your donor base which can have the opposite of the desired effect – people will disengage with the organization and find somewhere else to spend their time, affection, and money on.

HAVE GOALS: One of the best ways to achieve goals is to have stated goals in the first place. Millennials, in particular, have a strong team and goal-oriented streak and having a goal to meet gives them an incentive to participate. This is yet another place where Kickstarter has paved the way by allowing people to set campaign goals as well as stretch goals that are matched with additional incentives for giving. And the model works. Many Kickstarters that reach their goals, exceed them – some by as much as 10x their original goal amounts.

BRAND IT: Naming your campaign allows you to create a whole new branding package for your fundraising efforts. This visually sets the campaign apart from your main brand which had two strong advantages:

  1. You will catch eyes that may have become used to seeing your main branding. Science tells us that, as a species, we are visually attuned to notice the thing that is different. Use that biology to your advantage by being the thing that is visually different.
  2. By setting the campaign up with its own brand, you’re sending a subconscious visual cue that this money-raising effort is important but separate from your core mission. This subtly reinforces the idea that you’re not “all about the money.”

GO MOBILE: Think that mobile giving isn’t a big deal? Think again. Mobile giving is way up from three years ago and is only growing. This is due in part to better mobile giving technology, higher mobile adoption rates, lower average donation amounts (less risk), and greater comfort with digital giving in general. This isn’t even a millennial trend – we’re seeing mobile engagement up dramatically across the board for all age ranges from teenagers to 80-year-olds. Your campaign HAS To be mobile-aware. This means that your fundraising website has to be mobile-responsive, your email template needs to be mobile-optimized, your social media advertising and all of your graphic design pieces have to take mobile use into account. In fact, we strongly suggest that our clients take a “mobile first” perspective when creating their campaigns. That is, make sure that everything works and looks great on mobile devices first and then worry about desktop use secondarily.

E.O.Y. IS FOR GIVING: This is old news for fundraising veterans but it’s worth repeating – the end of the year is the best time to ask for donations. This is true for non-profits, charities, churches, and ministries. The reasons why this remains true are very simple. People are in the Christmas spirit and are more willing to give freely during the holidays and there are some pretty practical and compelling tax incentives to ending the year with some significant charitable donations. It’s really that simple.

MATCHING GIFTS: One way to encourage more of the smaller donations that are becoming the norm is to find a few of those “handshakes and letters” donors who are willing to participate in a matching gift program. A lot of folks will look at a large dollar goal and think, “What good is my $50 going to do against that? It’s just a drop in the bucket.” But if you tell potential donors that their $50 will turn into $100, suddenly they’re not only making twice the impact, they’re ensuring that their money goes as far as it can. World Vision does this extremely well with their “Gifts That Multiply” giving category. Donors can easily see how far their gifts will go. For example, a $35 dollar gift can multiple twelve times and provide $420 worth of medical supplies because it is matched with grants and corporate gifts. That’s a powerful incentive to choose World Vision for your charitable giving.

ASK FOR LESS: “Microgiving” is one of the hot new words in the fundraising space. Basically, it means asking for small amounts – $5-50 – instead of large donations. Microgiving campaigns can be extremely effective because there is very little resistance to giving $5 when compared to $100 or more. There are a few tricks to getting the most out of your microgiving campaigns:

  1. Provide comparisons to give perspective on the amounts you’re asking for. Here are a few effective comparisons that I’ve seen recently: “For the cost of a large specialty coffee, you can change a life.” “Give up your daily soda for a week and provide clean water for a year.” “If every member of the church gave the equivalent of one tank of gas, we could provide much-needed school supplies for an entire inner-city kindergarten for a year.”
  2. Specify your microgiving amounts. This is another page taken from the Kickstarter handbook – if you take the guesswork out of the giving process, people are much more likely to engage with your campaign. Kickstarter reports that $25 is their most popular giving amount. It’s high enough to feel like it’s going to help but low enough that just about anyone can afford to give.
  3. Short time frames work especially well with microgiving campaigns. The urgency of a close deadline combined with the low resistance to giving small amounts can be very effective.

ASK FOR MORE: Once someone has given to your campaign, don’t write them off. Coming back to these folks as your campaign deadline approaches and asking for additional gifts often yields surprising results. Remember, they have already proven that they care enough to give their hard-earned money to your cause. They are the most likely to respond to an appeal for a last-minute fundraising push.


However you run your next giving campaign, one thing is crucial to continued success – you absolutely must gather, record, and analyze every piece of data that you can get your hands on. There are a lot of overarching trends and statistics that can inform our strategies and tactics but every audience is different and every campaign is unique. Gathering and understanding your data will help you understand and reach your specific audience more effectively next time. The flipside of that coin is that, if you don’t track, analyze, and use the data from this campaign, you have wasted a great deal of time and energy. You will have to start from square one again the next time you need to raise funds again. That’s not only inefficient from a time perspective. It’s a poor use of the money that your members and donors gave you to run your organization. To be a good steward of your time and money, you need to be tracking and using your data.

So keep this in mind the next time someone starts to mourn the “death of giving.” Giving isn’t dying, but the old paradigm of giving campaigns is certainly on its way out. If we, as campaign architects, can grow, change, and adapt to meet donors where they are, we will see increased engagement, long-term relationships, and far more robust giving than ever before.