The Nonprofit Guide to Online Fundraising

“If you build it, they will come.”

This only works for ghost baseball players — and only if James Earl Jones says it.

Building a website that looks like a brochure with a “Donate” button is not digital fundraising; it’s an empty field that’s waiting for the players. The problem is, the players are in an area without GPS service, so how are they going to find it?

Whole Whale has been in the game of leveraging data and tech towards impact for nearly a decade, and in that time we’ve learned what has proven to work to get the players to the field.

Spoiler alert: There are no secret shortcuts. Our strategies work over time and put your organization in a position to win. We don’t believe in investing in the equivalent of fundraising lottery tickets that only give you a 1/1,000,000 chance for ice buckets of money. Instead, we focus on doing the little digital things correctly in order to build a list of people that care about your organization over time — and then engaging them.

This guide also assumes that you don’t have the budget to hire a fundraising consultant though these strategies can work very well when working with a company. Here is a current list of helpful fundraising groups to consider.

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The Basics: Why people give

Before we get to the tactics of online giving, it’s ridiculously important to keep one thing in mind: If you’re in fundraising, that means you’re in sales. Any time someone gives you a dollar, they bought into the idea that X dollar equals Y impact. That means you made an emotional connection with that person. We have to start with this at the core: Why does somebody want to give, as opposed to what they give or how they give it.


Great. Just remember to keep that in mind as we dive into the tactics.

Online Fundraising Facts

  • In 2017, the US gave $410.2 billion to charities; 70% of this came from individuals
  • According to Blackbaud, 7.6% of 2017 charitable giving was done online (an increase of 12% from 2016). Their systems record roughly $30 billion in giving from top nonprofits.  
  • $25 was the average monthly online gift in the US (Blackbaud)
  • 51% of millennials gave to charity in 2017. 43% of those donors gave through social media
  • According to M+R Benchmarks, overall online revenue for nonprofits increased by 23% in 2017. 1.1% of website visitors completed a donation

Big picture: These data show that online giving is increasing and that most nonprofits are able to convert web traffic and emails into dollars at some rate. If you believe these data-backed assumptions, please keep reading. If not, here’s a cool video instead.

Step 1: Build your list

Whole Whale’s approach to digital fundraising is anchored on building a list of people that want to hear from you via email. This list is best built through honest acquisition tactics executed online and through live events. Other digital efforts via organic social media, paid social advertising, or free in-kind advertising via the Google Ad Grant can then be used to amplify giving opportunities.

This strategy starts with having a compelling website full of clear asks for emails and donations. If you don’t know how to answer the question, Why do you have a website, we have a three-part video playlist for you below.

Once your website is up to snuff, improve traffic to that site through content marketing and Google Ads traffic in order to build a larger email list.

Remember: Digital is quick. Digital fundraising is not.

You don’t ask someone to marry you on the first date (unless you’re Account Strategist Whaler Olivia‘s grandparents, who eloped on the first date). But for the sake of this argument, don’t be like Olivia’s grandparents.

In the same sense, if the day of giving is the first day in which you’re trying to get someone to donate, that might turn out to be a bit awkward. It takes anywhere from 8 to 18 months to convert donors from the first interaction. Take your time, tell your story, and segment your data as you tell it.

Online Giving in Action: Giving Tuesday

Use this as an example for a day of giving. Giving Tuesday creates urgency: You’ve got one day to do this! This timeframe will let you test out any of your campaign ideas, and engage your supporters – only if you do this correctly.

Step 2: Make online donations easy

Speaking of not just asking for a click… When you send out an email asking for $10 from someone who can give $10,000 – you’re being a cannibal. When you’re saying “Click here to vote for us” or “Just click here once for a $5 dollar donation” from somebody that’s willing to give a lot more, you’re being a cannibal. Don’t ask too little from people that care a lot.

Use a donation tool on your website like Donor Box, which allows people to stay on your site while it gathers data into your system. Program in thank-you emails and landing pages that go above and beyond.

Flag large donations for VIP treatment: An organization should assume that 1% of their donors have 99% of the giving potential, and those must be nurtured in a high net-worth giving strategy.

Reduce friction for giving on Facebook by setting up a donate button through their system. Use this call-to-action only on-platform, as it will be hard to get data from donors.

Build an email machine

In 2017, nonprofits saw $42-$71 of revenue per 1,000 emails sent on average according to M+R Benchmarks data. Though they operate at a massive scale, this can be done with lists of any size.

Listen to how the Environmental Defense Fund manages their email machine that predictably generates revenue from their email campaigns.

Segment your data

Hopefully, this doesn’t come as a surprise to you that many people don’t care about your organization.

Forget them. Pay attention and segment the people who care a lot about what you do. This is huge.

Segmentation tools we recommend:

In order to send content that responds to the interests of your individual donors, you have to segment your donors into strategic lists. Use Google Analytics and content marketing to keep track of your donor engagement trends. By segmenting donors into specific lists based on how they initially signed up and when they engage, you can gain a better understanding of what motivates them to contribute to your organization and continue to tailor your asks and your content accordingly.

A/B test your donation page

If we’re talking about donation pages we must be talking about A/B testing. The fact that you can have a page perform 20% better just by figuring out the right order of message, photo, and form? Wow. Don’t stop A/Believin’.

ABABT = Always Be A/B Testing. 

Step 2.5: Crowdfunding and Peer-to-Peer Fundraising

Don’t just ask for a click. That’s lazy. Ask for more from people that care! There are plenty of team fundraising tools our there, and different ways to leverage crowdfunding and peer-to-peer fundraising — which, by the way, are two different things.

Step 3: Thank your donors 4 or more times.

Say it. It’s not that hard. If somebody has given you money, that means that they’re likely willing to give again. Take advantage of this by saying, “Thank you.” Retaining a donor is far more valuable than acquiring a new one. According to AFP research, most nonprofits lose 4 out of 5 first time donors, which is incredibly costly. Learn the “Thank Four or More” Strategy to help improve donor retention.

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Step 4: The most important question: Did it work?

If you’ve done all of the above but skipped this step, you just wasted a lot of valuable time. You must measure how effective your digital fundraising activities are.

At the end of the year or quarter or campaign, you’ll have to do some real data analysis: What types of donors do you have? What is their giving pattern? Did you get 17% of your donations in December?

More Resources

More Email Fundraising Resources

More Social Media Fundraising Resources

More Digital Fundraising Ideas and Benchmarks

It’s easier to convert an email subscriber into a committed donor if you know that they’ve visited the Donate page of your website. But how can you tell what your email subscribers are doing on your site? Test out Lighthouse by Whole Whale, an integration between your email marketing tool and your Google Analytics, that gives you this info — and more. Sign up at