Why it's so hard to convert online donors to lifelong supporters

May 1, 2023

Because the traditional fundraising process doesn't work online.

Most of the funds nowadays come from offline fundraising channels like mailings & face-to-face fundraising with the typical fundraising process looking like this:

  1. Address people directly (Either in person or in their mailbox)
  2. Ask them to give regularly
  3. Send regular updates via mail or email to keep them in the loop

And it works. 88% of all private funds are collected offline and people donated this way for decades. So why not just copy-paste it into the digital world to address new audiences under the age of 50? Doing that, the process looks like this:

  1. Address donors through social media or paid advertisements
  2. Direct them to a donation form with the option to give monthly
  3. Send regular newsletters to keep them in the loop

Looking at your amount of online recurring givers, you might have already guessed that this doesn't work as well as offline fundraising.
But why?

Your offline fundraising process converted into the online world doesn't work because the two main components are different: The environment in which you communicate and the audience that lives within.
Let's take a look at the main differences. At the end of this article, you can find what an online fundraising process should look like and how pros are doing it.

The environment 

The main difference in the environment between offline fundraising and online fundraising is how you build trust and the frequency of how you interact with potential donors.
Offline: You build trust with friendly, trustworthy, and convincing fundraisers on the field or with personal, "handwritten" mailings from the organisation's managing director.

Most of the people who donated considered the organisation and me trustworthy, the project itself was secondary.

Raphael Marton, founder of Felloz and fundraiser for 4 years

Concerning frequency, those interactions between you and your potential supporters happen very rarely, so people are more open to taking some time to listen to what organisations have to say.

Online: Usually trust is built by other people. There is so much noise and fake news on social media, so a good way to build trust is by the validation of others. If 200 other people donated to this project, it must be trustworthy, right?

With donations it's different because external validation still doesn't solve one of the main concerns of today's donors:

I don't know if my donation arrives at the project.

If you can handle this concern, you will win online fundraising.
The best & easiest way to handle this is by showing impact. Show your donors that their donation has an impact and they will do it again. You can do this by
- showing images/videos of your current work at a project
- explaining what amount XY made possible for your organisation
- letting the donor know that this project is finished

The key to delivering convincing impact updates is personalisation. In the digital world, you have the opportunity to provide information about what I personally contributed. Telling me that you did an amazing job in different countries doesn't convince me that my money arrived where I wanted it to arrive. Show your donors their personal impact and win them over online.

62% of millenials would consider giving more if the experience is personalised.

Source: Accenture

Another factor is the frequency of potential interactions. With hundreds of ads and posts you see on social media every day it becomes really hard to pierce through the noise and stand out, even for big organisations with a good amount of online budget. Online donation platforms are also not great for the same reason: Too much competition and little chance to stand out.
The same principle applies to newsletters. On paper, a good way to keep donors updated, but in an email, you have trouble piercing through the noise. If newsletters are your only way of converting one-off donors online to recurring givers, you have your reason why it's not working as well as you thought.

The audience

Another big difference between offline- and online fundraising is the audience, not only by age but by culture.
People browsing online are more cautious, have less attention span, and want to be more involved.
Sending them to a donation form on your website doesn't address any of those issues. You didn't build trust, filling out the form takes too much time and a weekly newsletter does not make you feel more involved at all.

A beacon of hope

What works well for NGOs online are one-off donations. Topics already pushed by the media, tied to a funding goal, and with hundreds of people supporting the same cause. Like a Facebook Fundraiser.
But this is only one part of the process, as you can fund parts of the project like this, but still don't have a reliable source of funds for the whole organisation to spend. And with Facebook not giving you access to any user data, you are in the same position as before: You don't know how to convert online donors to lifelong supporters.

How the process should be:

Create awareness.
This step of the process already works great. Put your projects more into focus, because it gets you way more attention online. This can be done with a social media post, paid advertisement, or any other kind of outreach.

Build trust.
This is where it's different. Instead of asking for a recurring donation, or any kind of donation at all, you have to build trust. 80% of what your landing page should do is build trust. 20% is the actual process of giving.
Why? Because people are more cautious online.

You can build trust on your landing page with the following methods:

  • Show how many people already donated
  • Give enough information about the project
  • Show the potential impact of a donation before the payment
  • Use quotes from your current supporters to make it more relatable
  • Display donation seals

The last and most important step is:

Involve them by showing their impact.
After their first donation, supporters want to be involved. According to the Nonprofittimes, 94% of donors & volunteers think it's important to see the impact of their donation. So show them. Inform them about their impact. The more personal, the better.

"Your donation of 50€ made it possible to deliver 20 more meals to children in need."

An example of how to show the impact of one's donation.

This is where I feel more involved in the whole process. I feel like a part of the organisation, because my doing is connected with a good outcome. At this point, you ask for a recurring donation. When people can see and feel their impact, giving monthly is the only way to do even more.

As people on the internet are more cautious, I would like to prove the things I'm saying with 3 organisations that excel at this:

  • Charity: Water
    Create an account on Charity: Water's website and see how they keep you in the loop after a donation. It makes you feel part of it. You can see that this is working in their financial report too.
  • WFP (Share the Meal)
    The world food program created an app called ShareTheMeal to connect to younger audiences and keep them in the loop, right on their phone.
  • Red Noses International
    Red Noses had difficulties transforming its fundraising process into the digital world. The website wasn't converting and there was a missing link between the organisation and the wants of its supporters. With our app solution, we provided them with a personal fundraising tool every person can use on their phone to learn more about projects and give in a few clicks, while making sure the donation arrives with personalised impact updates, so Red Noses International can have a steady online revenue through recurring donations.

To sum up, the biggest difference between online and offline fundraising is the environment and the audience. The new process for fundraising online is to create awareness, build trust and involve users. With that, you can easily convert online donors to lifelong supporters.

About the Author
Nik Zechner

Niklas loves simplicity and design. As a founder of Felloz he takes on design and marketing challenges and shares them with the community.

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