Sept/Oct 2006

Lessons in Online Fundraising from Disaster Relief Organizations

by Vinay Bhagat, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Convio

The growth in recent years of online contributions to disaster relief organizations clearly illustrates that Web fundraising has come of age. Consider the online giving that American Red Cross has generated following major disasters: $64 million related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks; $140 million in the wake of the Southeast Asian tsunami; and $479 million after Hurricane Katrina. Also telling is that the percentage of individual donor funds raised online (excluding corporate contributions) grew from 29 percent for 9/11 to 55 percent for the tsunami, illustrating that donors have become increasingly comfortable giving over the Internet. Leading disaster relief organizations such as the American Red Cross have been extremely instrumental in catalyzing this growth.

With each disaster, relief groups have had huge surges in their Web site traffic and learned important lessons. As a result, they have developed a number of best practices to optimize the value of new online constituents. They have found that success requires a proactive, investment-oriented approach: deploying the right software tools, technology infrastructure, and human resources; and developing robust online marketing plans.

Online marketing best practices from disaster relief groups

Nonprofits of all sizes and with varying missions — disaster relief-oriented or not — can learn important lessons from the American Red Cross and other disaster relief groups. To maximize success, organizations must: optimize their Web sites to convert inbound visitors to donors; leverage search engines and other traffic aggregators to drive traffic; have an email file ready for sending e-communications and promoting appeals; and implement formalized conversion programs with first-time or "disaster only" donors. (Keep in mind that many non-disaster relief groups pitched in to collect funds online for relief efforts following 9/11, the Southeast Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.)

Maximizing conversion of site visitors to donors

Following a disaster, prominent fundraising organizations are inundated with Web traffic. The key goal is to maximize the conversion rate of site visitors to donors as well as to yield the highest possible value for each transaction. Techniques that any organization can deploy to impact conversion rates and transaction value for inbound prospective donors include:

  • Launching a themed donation form versus using a generic donation form to set more context and "sell the appeal";

  • Testing different donation form variants and comparing conversion rates;

  • Making the gift ask as tangible as possible (e.g., explain what a given level of contribution can support);

  • Modifying Web site content, such as home pages and landing pages, to highlight the fundraising campaign and direct visitors to the donation form, and/or setting up a campaign specific micro-site (mini Web site) with campaign-specific messaging and content;

  • Encouraging monthly giving, since monthly donors have considerably higher annual donor value and renew at much higher rates; and

  • Ensuring that the organization has the capacity to handle a surge in Web traffic.

Maximizing campaign promotion

In addition to converting site visitors to donors, successful disaster fundraising organizations also implement active outbound promotional strategies. These tactics include:

  • Executing effective email campaigns. For example, testing different email message variants (such as subject line, appeal copy, images, etc.) to help optimize response rates, as well as sending follow-up emails based on actions or inactions resulting from the initial email sends;

  • Optimizing the organization's Web site for keyword phrases used in search engines (e.g., "Katrina donations");

  • Selectively purchasing key words on prominent search engines like Google;

  • Requesting links and/or banners on prominent media sites like Yahoo!;

  • Encouraging bloggers to include promotional banners or links on their sites;

  • Selectively buying ads on targeted high traffic Web sites;

  • Leveraging third-party email lists from nonprofit affinity groups like CARE2; and

  • Creating corporate partner micro-sites and fundraising efforts to drive workplace philanthropy.

Implementing a formalized conversion program

Disaster fundraising efforts typically yield large numbers of new donors. It is critical to continue to cultivate those constituents to ensure that they support future disaster appeals or, even better, become regular donors. Successful groups use strategies that include:

  • Sending segmented communications specific to new donors. Such communications should recognize an individual's specific contributions, provide updates specific to the effort he or she supported, and evangelize the need for ongoing support beyond the disaster. These individuals should initially be suppressed from receiving standard updates and appeals; and

  • Promoting monthly giving.

While the overall evolution of Web-based fundraising is still in its early stages, the American Red Cross and many other disaster relief organizations strongly indicate the direction in which online fundraising is heading. These groups have generated strong results and achieved new levels of success by utilizing a number of online best practices. Organizations eager to harness the power of the Internet for marketing and fundraising should closely watch the online strategies that disaster relief nonprofits use and, where appropriate, adopt similar approaches.

This article first appeared in the September 2006 issue of FundRaising Success magazine, http://www.fundraisingsuccessmag.com/.


Lessons in Online Fundraising from Disaster Relief Organizations | Convio