Experts explain how they use it, and provide safety tips for donors
Generosity is part of the fabric of the holiday season. Thanksgiving is about showing gratitude and Christmas is now celebrated with gifts worldwide.
Given the convenience of satisfying that altruistic urge at the click of a mouse, it’s natural that more of our giving is moving online. Nonprofits have taken notice, and are enlisting their supporters as digital evangelists.
It was in this capacity that Jennifer Archie sat down at her computer a few months ago and wrote about her husband, Tim, and his 21-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
Archie revealed that Tim, who uses a wheelchair and has difficulty speaking, nonetheless “rides out this disease with humor and charm and grit day in day out, parenting his boys and backing me every day.”
She also wrote about the other parts of her “crappy year,” including the deaths of her sister, Tim’s mother and a friend.
The point wasn’t to elicit pity. Archie wrote that she would be participating in Bike MS: Bike to the Bay, an October ride from Dover to the beach that raises money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and she asked her friends and colleagues to donate.
They did. Within three weeks, she had raised more than $30,000 from 112 donors.
Though it utilized a modern medium, Archie’s fundraising effort reveals something eternal about giving. Its power was drawn from the personal relationships she and her husband had cultivated over the decades. In other words, the people who gave were the ones who already cared about her family, not strangers drawn in by a generic online pitch.
“I do think there was an accumulated pool of empathy that I tapped into,” Archie says. She believes the effect was magnified by the request’s novelty, since she and her husband had never asked for money—or rarely sought sympathy—in the past.
Archie’s example is instructive for nonprofits seeking to harness the potential of online giving.
Nationwide, online fundraising grew at a clip of 8 percent in 2016 at a time when overall giving was virtually flat, according to the Blackbaud Institute for Philanthropic Impact.
Still, this is not a digital gold rush. There are downsides for both nonprofits (Face-to-face solicitation is more effective) and donors (Is the organization effective and is my identity secure?).
The medium: The message
There’s a guiding principle in fundraising: People give to people.
“The No. 1 reason people give is because someone they know asks them to,” says Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation.
Central to that relationship is trust, which is difficult to establish online but can still be leveraged by social media, he says. It is rare, nowadays, to donate online without a suggestion that you share news of your gift on social media.
“You’re still looking for people who can endorse your message and reach out to their friends,” says Comstock-Gay.
There is another option: Craft a compelling Facebook campaign with a ready-made tug on the heartstring to pull in new donors. Certain nonprofits, such as pet shelters, have messages more suited to this tactic.
That can work, Comstock-Gay says, but social media does not typically create the bonds with strangers necessary for them to donate. The key, again, is to foster authentic relationships based on trust.
The gold standard, he says, remains the same: “Can I get people who know us to stand up?”
Targeting is key
The YMCA of Delaware chiefly relies on about 500 volunteers to directly ask members to donate, says Matt Clements, the Y’s director of philanthropy.
“There’s a higher response rate and you tend to get a larger gift when you ask face-to-face,” he says.
That’s not to say online fundraising doesn’t have a role, though it is most effective when the pitch is tailored to a specific group. For example, to raise money for “Giving Tuesday” —a movement to dedicate the Tuesday after Thanksgiving to charitable giving — the Y will email members who haven’t given yet this year.
The email pitch includes specific beneficiaries: low-income families who can join the Y thanks to these donations.
“The biggest thing is just segmenting your message,” Clements says, meaning the request is as tailored to an audience as possible.
One disadvantage to online giving is the cost of processing online donations; a small portion of each donation typically goes to the company that handles the transaction. For a nonprofit, losing, say, 3 cents off each dollar might be a loss worth taking, compared to getting nothing, to acquire a new donor. But if an existing donor is moving from paper checks to a website, a nonprofit is effectively losing money.
“At the Y, we use it, but even for us it’s a financial barrier,” Clements says of online transactions. “I can imagine for smaller nonprofits it’s a larger barrier.”
While online donations account for less than 5 percent of the Y’s donations now, that is set to grow. That’s because, in general, older people give more to charity.
“As current millennials grow older, the use of digital technology will increase,” Clements says.
Giving safely online
With thousands of charities at your fingertips, how do you know what’s safe and what’s not?
Furthermore, how can you separate the legitimate charities from the (relatively few) frauds?
Kelly Sheridan, who administers college scholarships for the Delaware Community Foundation, does all her personal giving online and has some advice.
First, to limit her exposure to identity theft, she never uses a card connected to a bank account. That way, if her data falls into the wrong hands, the thief can’t simply empty her account.
Sheridan vets a charity by exploring its website and finding the group’s mission statement and sources of funding.
“I don’t usually look hard at their financials as much as their mission statement and a listing of who else has supported them,” she says.
If you’re the type of person who does want hard data, check out Guidestar.org to find free financial information, including the compensation of top employees.
Technical reminders on giving safely online come from Jamila Patton Anderson, the Y’s director of public relations: Look in your browser’s address bar and you’ll see most website addresses begin with “http.” Secure websites, ones that are protecting your data, have an “s” at the end: “https.” Also, the address should have a small picture of a lock next to it.
Building real connections
Though Archie lives in Alexandria, Va., the Delaware beaches hold
a special place in her memory. In the ‘80s, she and her friends would share beach house getaways. And that’s where she met Tim, who consistently made her laugh.
“It was definitely a ride for the memories of Dewey Beach,” she says of her October bike ride.
Aside from the huge financial success, perhaps the most unexpected part of her fundraising campaign was the emotional lift it gave her and Tim. Her first foray into online giving re-connected them to old friends, all thanks to her decision to share an authentic story.
“Every day, I would come home from work and read Tim the names and the thank-you notes,” Archie says. “This really lifted him up…It really is sustaining, I have to say.”