Your first fundraiser: making donations easy

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

You need a donation website

Before you launch an online fundraiser, you need a tested, reliable, way to accept donations online by credit card, or by your location’s primary online payment mechanism. You might accept donations through an existing product such as a crowdfunding platform, or through a more customised donation website that you developed yourself.

This article goes through the considerations that go into whether to use a turn-key solution, and if not, how to design a custom donation website.

Get the basics set up

Before you get into the nitty gritty of a specific donation website, make sure you have the following:

  • a name for your organisation
  • a registered domain name
  • a website at that domain name that prominently answer the questions “Who we are”, “What we do”, and “How you can help”
  • all the social media accounts you plan to use registered and at least ready to go, ideally already active and beginning to attract followers
  • a way to send announcement emails, and a way for people to sign up for the emails
  • a way to contact the organisation’s leaders or spokespeople directly (usually an email address)

Remember that your drive is a major publicity event for you, and will attract not only donors, but potential staff, volunteers, members, allies, and journalists, not to mention donors to future drives. Be ready for these people, both to help them find what they need, and to keep them up to date as you grow.

“How you can help” can list your donation website, any membership signup you have, and any job or volunteer opportunities. “How you can help” took a few revisions for the Ada Initiative, which was a non-membership service organisation relying mostly on the labour of salaried staff rather than volunteers. But if you have, as we did, programs that individuals can reuse in their own communities, or actions that people can take to advance your cause without formally joining, this is where you can describe those too. Think of it as “how you can help our cause” as well as “how you can help our organisation”.

Paypal button?

One of the simplest donation options is the Paypal donate button. The Ada Initiative ran our first successful campaign and raised over $80,000 with a Paypal button supported by blog posts and social media. These are worth considering because they’re so easy; here’s some tradeoffs.

You’ll need to work with Paypal.

Aside from the ease of setting up the donate button, in the US it also tends to be the case that you can set up a Paypal account fairly easily, at some risk of them holding funds if they later find you aren’t a customer they’re willing to work with. (In other countries, this varies. Setting up a Paypal account may be no less difficult than any other payments processor.)

But there are potential disadvantages:

  • While it’s possible to whitelabel Paypal to various extents if you do more development, the simple donate button option will send your donors through Paypal’s branded payment flow, which will encourage donors to do things that benefit Paypal (signing up for or logging into a Paypal account) rather than you (finishing their donation as quickly as possible).
  • Some donors resist using Paypal for user interface, ethical, or business practices reasons. The Ada Initiative, which targeted tech industry workers, had a lot of complaints when we only accepted Paypal from people who could use Paypal technically, but refused to.
  • Paypal accounts aren’t as widespread as other payment mechanisms in some markets. (I’ve found it difficult to find country-by-country statistics, but in Australia industry reports guesstimate that about 25% of Australians have an active Paypal account, and about 70% have a credit card.)
  • For your international donors, their exchange rates are pretty awful compared to card networks.

You’ll need to suggest donation amounts elsewhere. There’s advantages in suggesting donation amounts to your donors; you can influence their donation amount considerably. But Paypal will have them enter it themselves. You’ll want to give them some guide to donation amounts before sending them on the Paypal workflow.

You’ll need to keep your donors informed of your success elsewhere. The Paypal donate button won’t track your donation amounts or provide any guide to donors that they’re donating to a new campaign, or one that’s finishing up, or one that needs more support or one where they’re joining an already successful campaign. You’ll need to give them this information elsewhere.

Custom development or a fundraising website?

It’s not 2011 any more and there are a growing number of ways to build a donation website beyond a Paypal donate button. There’s several factors that will go into the decision about whether to use an existing fundraising platform or whether you develop your own donation website.

Fees. Payment processors and payment infrastructure often charge a fee that is a percentage of funds that flow through their systems. Small changes in this fee can result in large changes in the amount of money you receive at the end of the drive.

Let’s say, for example, that your payment processor charges 3% for their services, and your donation website host another 4%. (Neither are unrealistic figures.) If your campaign raises $100,000, you will pay $3,000 to the payments processor and $4,000 to the donation website host, and $93,000 will be deposited in your bank account from which you must fund your activities as well as any fundraiser rewards and followup.

If those numbers were 2% and 3%, you’d get $2,000 more right there. Payment processing fees are an inevitable part of taking online donations, although you should certainly see how much you can reduce them. Fees paid to donation software companies aren’t inevitable, and can be reduced or avoided with a custom donation website.

On the flipside, the fees to maintain a highly available donation website may also be non-trivial. The Ada Initiative used $100 a month managed VPS hosting during our last fundraising drive, so there’s $1,200 for a yearly fundraiser right there.

Time and labour. This is where custom websites fall down. If you need to pay a programming consultant $200 an hour to develop and maintain your donation website, and they take 10 hours in total to do so, you’ve just spent $2,000. Spending your own time on this (as the Ada Initiative did in spades) will cost in both staff salaries if you pay them, and even if you don’t, will cost in opportunity (the things you didn’t do with that time).

Custom donation websites will also have an ongoing maintenance burden that needs to be budgeted for.

Downtime. Availability of your donation website is very important, particularly in the closing week of the campaign where downtime for a couple of hours could have cost the Ada Initiative tens of thousands at times.

Every link in your chain is a little vulnerable to downtime: payment processors have downtime, fundraising platforms have downtime, your paid host will have downtime, your social media will have downtime.

Generally speaking a larger and more established platform will be the most on top of this; see if you can find their status page and some information about their most recent downtime. With a custom donation solution, you could cut-over to at least a barebones page that still allows donations. Can you, say, switch over from WordPress to a static HTML page on a different host quickly? Can you swap in a different payments processor promptly? (The Ada Initiative had a Paypal button standing by even when our default donation page was much more customised.)

Flexibility. A custom developed website will have much more flexibility. If you have thank you gift structures that don’t match the platform you want to use, or you want to lay out your text just so, or you want to display photos of donors only on even numbered dates, you will tend to lean towards a custom website.

If you’re leaning towards an existing platform, accept that you may have to design your drive around their features rather than the other way around. Build time for comparing platform features into your fundraising timeline.

Recurring donations. If your activities are ongoing and you’re going to be donor-funded indefinitely, taking recurring donations is nearly essential. Many donors will not be able to give as a lump sum what they could give over the course of a year. In addition, recurring donations provide a predictable cashflow which over time reduces your reliance on running constant fundraising drives, improves your ability to budget accurately, and allows you to spend energy elsewhere.

Many crowdfunding websites are designed entirely for one-shot donations for a particular purpose, not for signing up recurring donors. Think very carefully before choosing a platform that locks you out of accepting recurring donations.

Continued availability. If you are going to continue to be donor-funded, don’t ever take your donation form down and thus don’t choose a donation platform that will shut off donations when you reach a given total or a given date. At the end of your drive, you will turn the publicity pointing people to the donation form way down, but it should still be there for people who donate out of season, or who saw the drive but weren’t ready to donate at the time.

Direct donor relationships. You should consider the portability of data from the donation website or system that you use. Can you extract payment information for your bookkeeping and receipts? Can you transfer credit card numbers to a new processor? Can you extract donor emails or other contact details so that you can keep in touch with your donors even if you switch donation systems?

Being unable to migrate payment information or donor contact details is very expensive. You can end up losing half your recurring donation income if you need to ask your donors to manually reenter their payment details into a new system. If you cannot contact previous donors you could lose most of the one-off donations for your next fundraising drive.

Payment processing gotchas

Sign up for your fundraising platform well in advance of your drive’s launch. Most Ada Initiative fundraisers were delayed by discovering that we couldn’t accept payments in the way we wanted to, or couldn’t accept them in a way that was safe and convenient for our donors.

Some examples of issues you may run into:

  • many platforms and processors require that you are incorporated as a not-for-profit in some form before using them to raise funds and quite a lot of platforms are only available for recognised charities (and it’s likely that you can’t afford to apply for charity status without the funds from your first fundraiser!)
  • some platforms require that you apply to use their platform (eg, Kickstarter, which isn’t a charity fundraising platform in any case) and your campaign may not be a fit

What we chose

The Ada Initiative usually found the fee and flexibility arguments persuasive in rejecting turnkey donation websites. During our final, most successful, fundraisers, we were using Gravity Forms on self-hosted WordPress software, with payments processed by the donor’s choice of Stripe (white-labelled, ie, we termed it “credit card”) or Paypal to process payments. (We consistently found that, while our form defaulted to recommending credit card payment, about a third of our donors actively preferred to donate from their Paypal accounts.)

Stripe and similar products that have come onto the payments market in recent years make taking credit card payments through your own website fairly unburdensome and there are lots of cheap and free software such as WordPress plugins with increasingly good support for payments processing.

Designing a donation website

If you have some degree of control over your donation website design, whether because it’s a custom solution or because your host gives you design tools, you should spend a great deal of time and attention making it clear and easy to understand, with as few decisions as possible.

Your audience is people who have already decided to donate. You don’t want someone who has made that decision to have to scroll down to even find the payment form, or to feel they need to review your ten paragraph mission statement one last time. So: have a short statement of your mission, less than 50 words, which has one link (eg to your About or What We Do page) to follow for further information, a supporting image, and a donation form to fill out. End the page with a very short statement about tax deductibility if any and in which countries it applies (since this will be a truly frequently asked question otherwise). Otherwise remove all sidebars, links, headers, banners, menus, and other prominent navigation elements from the page.

Your donors will be strongly influenced both by your suggested donation amounts, ie, if you ask them to choose between $10, $20, and $50, they will donate less than if you ask them to choose between $100, $200, and $500. However, the number of donors at the latter levels will be lower. Tailor the suggested amounts to your expected donors. In addition, consider the “default” donation amount (the one that is pre-selected when people arrive at the page) carefully. Many people will leave it at the default, so if you have $10 visibly selected when they reach the page, $10 you will get.

Throughout the donation form, limit decisions your donors need to make. Collect the minimum information necessary, which unfortunately may still be a lot (between email, credit card fields and shipping addresses).

Streamline your thank you gift structure: filling out web forms is boring, it’s tiring to make decisions, and sometimes when people are deciding whether they want to be listed as a C class supporter of the website or a Q class supporter of the cake sale, they close the tab and go and have some food instead of donating and never come back.

Where possible, have several people make test donations through the website and ask all of them “what should we remove from it?”

Key takeaway: Make your donation page easy to find and easy to fill out. Doing so can easily increase income from your fundraising drive by three or more times.

Disclosure: I had an employment relationship in the past with a payments processor discussed in this article: I was employed at Stripe in 2016. The Ada Initiative used Stripe’s payments product prior to my employment at Stripe, but not concurrently with it.

At the time of writing, I have no financial interest in and receive no compensation from Stripe. I’m currently employed by Google; but not in relation to their payments products.

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Your first fundraiser: making donations easy by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.