How to Embrace (and Own) Your Nonprofit's Digital Fundraising

Digital fundraising is more important than ever for nonprofits. Learn how to replace your in-person efforts with digital stand-ins that drive donations.

May 12th Articles 7 min read
Digital Fundraising website

By Eric Ressler

You’ve been thinking strategically about fundraising for as long as your social impact organization has been in existence. Over the years, your fundraising efforts have almost certainly included a mix of both in-person and digital initiatives. But you were likely discovering how best to leverage digital technologies and channels to spread your message and build support.

And then the world changed seemingly overnight. In the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, you — along with everyone else — must now pivot. Two months ago, “digital-first” may have been a future-state goal. Today, it’s your only option.

It’s a big adjustment. But the truth is that it’s really just an acceleration of a transition that was already in process. The COVID-19 crisis is deepening the world’s commitment to a digital-first way of life in a way that is unlikely to recede along with the virus.

If your organization hasn’t yet made the leap to a digital-first mentality, now is your opportunity. This shift will impact everything you do, from your program work to your marketing. And when it comes to raising the financial support you need to advance your programs, it’s time to start thinking of your organization as a digital fundraising machine.

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Embracing Digital Fundraising: How to Pivot for the Long Haul

Your fundraising strategy may traditionally include a wide variety of activities, from tabling and fundraising events, like galas and auctions, to membership drives and foundation funding. Now, many of the activities you relied upon are out of your reach for the foreseeable future. In order to shift to a digital-only fundraising model, you must act quickly — but with an eye toward building a sustainable model that meets your organization’s long-term needs.

This will almost certainly involve some major changes. For now, you should plan to reallocate all of the resources that went to boots-on-the ground program work into digital marketing and fundraising. Your digital investment is not a separate effort. It is your nonprofit now.

Ready to get started? Use the following process to pivot quickly yet strategically.

Conduct a fundraising audit

To begin, conduct an in-depth review of your current fundraising activities. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is your existing fundraising strategy, and how does it drive your tactical fundraising activities?
  • Which of your fundraising initiatives have been the most successful to date?
  • If some of your fundraising efforts are already taking place digitally, how have they performed? Look for ways to build on successes and learn from past hiccups.
  • Consider your in-person fundraising activities. Try to identify the core elements that made them work well. Can any of those elements be successfully translated into digital experiences or events?
  • What fundraising events, plans, and ideas did you have for the coming year (and beyond)?
  • Review your team’s skill sets and identify those among you who are especially good at writing, video, design, and digital technologies. Make sure you are fully leveraging those skills to advance your digital fundraising efforts.
  • Do you have any connections with social influencers with a wider platform who could help you spread your message? If not, begin identifying influencers (locally or beyond) who are sympathetic to your cause.
  • Where do your audiences “hang out” digitally? Can you find ways to engage with them in those spaces?

Develop a digital fundraising strategy

First things first: Don’t assume that you must translate each of your existing fundraising efforts into comparable digital events on a one-to-one basis. Instead, think strategically about what will work best for your organization now that you’re pivoting to digital. Which activities will most effectively engage your audiences online while at the same time meeting your fundraising needs? With these questions to guide you, you can expect to more holistically restructure your fundraising activities.

For example, let’s say your organization raised 75% of its funding through a single large event last year. In order to remain sustainable, you must now decide whether to replace your usual in-person event with a digital one — or focus your fundraising efforts elsewhere. You might instead spin up a membership or subscription model and invest in recapturing the lost funding that way.

When considering your digital fundraising strategy, think in terms of both short-term and long-term goals. You will almost certainly need to make some rapid-response, short-term changes. But don’t stop there. Look at the next 12-18 months and make a longer-range plan. Break your various initiatives and events out onto a calendar with clear goals. How many people do you hope to reach? How much money do you plan to raise? And how will you go about making it happen?

As you ideate digital fundraising initiatives, be creative and look to the latest technologies to help you think outside the box. For example, an animal sanctuary called Sweet Farm recently made national news for its “Goat-2-Meeting” fundraising initiative, in which individuals can pay to have an animal from the sanctuary make an appearance on a video conference call.

Remember, even if everything returns to some semblance of normalcy after the pandemic, many of the advances toward digital-first interactions will likely remain.

Ensure you have the right tech support in place

In order to build effective, branded digital experiences — including fundraising — you must have the right technologies in place. You must have the ability to publish and share content across multiple platforms and channels. You must be able to create and execute campaigns or host digital events.

Above all, you need to have the ability to capture the right data about how people are interacting with your digital content, campaigns, events, and channels. After all, if you can't measure it, you don't know if your efforts are truly effective — nor can you dig in deeper to diagnose and fix problems. Your digital marketing and fundraising efforts are all interconnected, and your technology is the glue that holds it together.

Your foundational technology system should include a action-focused website, a CRM/donor engagement platform, marketing/email automation tools, and paid media. To get a better idea of how your technology is working for you (and vice versa), consider the following questions:

  • Are you leveraging all of your CRM’s capabilities to the fullest extent, or are there features and functionalities you haven’t touched?
  • Have you segmented your contact lists?
  • What social channels are you active on, and which could/should you add to the mix?
  • How robust is your website? Does it frame the narrative around you, or your supporters? Does it drive action or simply convey information?
  • What is your server setup?

In the context of digital fundraising, your technology is pulling double duty. It’s responsible for the behind-the-scenes orchestration of your efforts — as well as the end-user’s experience. Your audience’s experience of your brand is therefore deeply connected with the quality of your technology. If your technology isn’t optimized for a seamless experience, from the speed with which your website loads to the ease with which users can make a donation, you will almost certainly lose all but your most committed supporters along the way.

Create Top-Notch, Emotion-Inspiring Content to Attract Donations

Regardless of what issue your organization supports, your digital marketing and fundraising efforts are fueled by one thing: excellent content. In fact, it might help to start thinking of your nonprofit as a media outlet. In order to spread the word about your cause, inspire support, and trigger action, you must create progressive, engaging content. And you must produce it in an ongoing fashion. That may feel intimidating at best and like a distraction from your program work at worst. But keep in mind that your content is the bridge that connects your mission to the right audiences — and ultimately, creates the impact you desire most.

Of course, the best content will rise to the top. Challenge yourself to invest in a strong brand and be bold and creative in your quest to produce engaging, relevant content. Take inspiration from the best brands in every industry, not just the social impact space.

Your content (and the digital interactions you have with your audience) must imprint a human touch into the digital interaction. Don’t forget that people donate from an emotional place, not a logical place. In order for your digital fundraising efforts to be successful, find a way to appeal to your audience’s emotions.

Your organization’s digital fundraising efforts are a holistic part of your broader digital marketing and communications strategies. With careful planning and an all-in commitment, you can make the transition to digital fundraising rapidly and seamlessly.

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