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On-line Fundraising: Some Do's and Don'ts

February 2003

So you want to raise some money on-line. The Internet is the new fundraising frontier for nonprofits, a largely unmapped country full of untapped resources and legendary stories of success. There are some tall tales out there and a few lurking dangers, too, but with hard work and a little common sense the results can be quite gratifying.

There are many ways to raise funds on-line. E-mail can be used to enhance direct-mail campaigns or even replace them altogether. An e-newsletter can also be employed as an effective tool for keeping supporters engaged. Getting your message out to the public is essential for nonprofit survival, but you should also be prepared for those who come to you. An informative, well-constructed Web site is invaluable and can serve as the cornerstone for a strong Internet presence. "Donate Now" buttons are commonly used to give site visitors the ability to make direct contributions with just a credit card and a few mouse clicks.

Here are some do's and don'ts for the novice on-line fundraiser:

  • DO know the law.
    As with any type of charitable solicitation, on-line fundraising requires registration with the appropriate state officials. The laws covering on-line solicitation are still being developed and are subject to change. If you have legal counsel or access to a nonprofit attorney, you should consult them before undertaking any type of on-line fundraising campaign. To find out more about the requirements in your state, you can contact your state charity official (usually part of the state attorney general or secretary of state's office). GuideStar maintains an up-to-date list of State Charities Officials' Web sites.

  • DON'T sit back and wait for the money to roll in.
    Raising money on the Internet requires hard work and determination. The strategy of sticking a "Donate Now" button on your Web site and hoping donors stumble across it is a proven loser. If you want people to visit your site, you have to drive them to it. Make sure your Web site URL is included on all your materials, both on-line and printed, and that the donate option is clearly displayed on your site.

  • DO take advantage of free resources.
    The Internet can be a blessing for an organization on a budget. Quite a few sites provide technological help and advice to nonprofits at low or no cost. They include TechSoup, N-Power, Coyote Communications, Network for Good, and, of course, GuideStar.

  • DON'T be gullible.
    Increasing your organization's exposure on the Internet is a good thing. You may, however, also be increasing your exposure to bad people, con artists who use the Web as a convenient venue for their scams. Common sense is usually a more-than-adequate defense against this type of fraud, but there are some rules to remember when dealing with strangers on-line:

    • Never give out your bank account information to a questionable organization or individual
    • Be wary of e-mails from outside the country
    • Investigate any unusual offers or requests thoroughly
    • Report any suspicions of fraud to the appropriate authorities

  • DO update your Web site.
    Not everyone can afford to have a flashy Web site full of high-tech bells and whistles. No one, however, can afford to have a clunky, out-of-date Web site that leaves visitors confused, frustrated, and unsure of exactly who you are and what you do. Don't trust yourself to be an impartial judge of your own site—get an outside opinion. If putting together a focus group sounds too involved, call up some friends or relatives and give them your URL. Remember, not everyone is Web savvy. If your Uncle Irving can't navigate your Web site, then your Web site needs work.

    Don't have a Web site? GuideStar participants can post classified ads requesting free Web development assistance. GuideStar works with MSDN Online, a Microsoft-sponsored community of Web developers, to connect nonprofit organizations with Web development and design volunteers.

  • DON'T be a spammer (or act like one).
    Saving money is one reason many nonprofits choose e-mail marketing over direct mail. E-mailing is cost free, more or less, but don't get carried away. Overwhelming your supporters with solicitations and filling up their inboxes is not a good idea. This type of behavior is often perceived as spam, even in an opt-in situation. Sending unsolicited e-mails is almost always a bad idea, as is buying a list of e-mail addresses from an "e-mail broker."

  • DO embrace transparency and accountability.
    Donors are using the Internet to check up on the charities they support and to find out more about the ones they are thinking about supporting. Make it easy on them by ensuring that all relevant financial data is easily accessible. If you file a Form 990 or have an annual audited financial statement, consider making this information available on your Web site or providing a direct link to your GuideStar listing.

  • DON'T take search engines for granted.
    Google, DogPile, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo, Lycos. There are lots of search engines out there, although two or three of the bigger ones have begun to step forward as industry standards. Don't assume that your site will automatically be included; you should submit your URL for inclusion on all the major search engines. Also, make sure to you use the appropriate meta-tags (keywords and descriptions coded in the HTML of your Web pages).

  • DO give your donors options.
    Just because people find you on-line doesn't necessarily mean they want to give on-line. If you use a "Donate Now" button, make sure you also include your mailing address and instructions for making a contribution the old-fashioned way.
Of course, most of the basic rules for off-line fundraising still apply on-line: be open and honest, make sure your message is clear and consistent, and always say thank you.

Patrick Ferraro
© 2003, Philanthropic Research, Inc.