How to find donors online – 22 ideas that work


One of the top questions we get asked at Whole Whale is “how can we attract new online donors to our organization?” Online donor acquisition is essentially about creating new relationships with people by getting them to donate during a specific moment or campaign, or by acquiring emails (and the permission to keep the relationship going) from people that may go on to donate to your organization in the future. The most common mistake we see is trying to acquire a donor on the “first date” interaction only, instead of viewing donor acquisition like a longer relationship that must be nurtured over time.

There are many ways to build an email list, and not all of them are good. It is important that the people you are adding to your list aren’t being tricked into signing up, and are instead primed to take the next action that will deepen your relationship and their commitment to your organization. This is why buying an email list and just asking for donations doesn’t work — these people don’t know your organization and haven’t been primed to give. 

Here are some ideas to start your thinking about how to create a warm list of email leads that can lead to donors. 

22 Online Donor Acquisition Tactics

  1. Pop-ups with a relevant message to the page they show on. Clearly state the value of signing up for your email list right in front of website users. 
  2. Content lockers. These are email sign-up form boxes that block further content on a page until someone offers their email to unlock it. This locked content might be a download PDF ,or just the rest of the article. The key here is that you’re providing value to a potential donor who will be willing to exchange their email to access.
  3. Lead magnets. These are usually things like ebooks or larger downloadable reports/guides that allow users to access the content in exchange for an email. They have a landing page and can be promoted across many channels or used as a search engine marketing page.
  4. In-line CTAs. These call-to-action boxes break up written content with a clear and relevant email request. These should sell someone the idea of registering for your email list based on the content they have just read, and now value, on the page, enticing potential donors for more.
  5. Petitions. Scan sites like or for petition ideas related to your cause — use your native CRM features, or build your own petition module on your website, to convert visitors into subscribers to your email list through timely calls to action and campaigns.
  6. Pledges. Pledges to reduce use or avoid a purchase decision can be built with any basic form tool and offer a way to promote a campaign that builds an email list with an evergreen ask. The added benefit is that the pledge helps align the person’s identity with your cause, increasing the chance of a later donation. 
  7. Sending messages of support. The USO is a master at the strategy of sending a message to the troops that also helps them build a massive list of email subscribers. Listen to this podcast with their digital strategy team on how they make it work for them. 
  8. Giveaways. This can be anything, like a piece of company swag or something digital of value that people enter their information in order to get. We even know a great farming organization that sends people a little bags of seeds. Remember to calculate the total cost of product and shipping though when calculating customer acquisition cost! 
  9. Raffles. Similar to giveaways, but it is a random winner that is chosen to win a larger prize. Be sure to follow your state’s gambling laws, and keep the prize relevant to your impact. Be careful with these types of contests as the motivation behind joining the email list may not be as aligned with the organization, and can lead to lower donation conversions as well as higher unsubscribes.
  10. Forward to a friend. Email lists are more fun when you can talk about them with friends. Create email messages that are meant to be shared and make the call-to-action to ask a friend to join. 
  11. Add a subscribe to the staff’s email signature. The average person sends 40 emails a day — adding a clear “subscribe to our email list” CTA in the company signature box can help grow a list. 
  12. Online quizzes. Create a quiz that tests the knowledge of users who are aligned with your organization’s cause. Users must submit an email to get full score results. The quiz can also be a way to increase awareness of an issue with additional resources at the end.
  13. Personality match. This might seem like a joke but those “Which Harry Potter House Are You” personality quizzes really work to drive emails. Think about how you might match up personality traits with elements of your cause and create a fun matching quiz form that requests email at the end to get the results. 
  14. Add a CTA to the top of your site. Obvious but true, you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Adding an email call-to-action to the top of your site with a clear value proposition will make sure you are asking for emails on every page of the site. Don’t banish your email sign-up to your footer (where people might not look) and call it a day.
  15. Paid: Facebook lead ads. These are low-cost ways to acquire an email on Facebook from a targeted audience. Here is a quick Facebook ads for nonprofits guide.
  16. Paid: LinkedIn lead ads. LinkedIn will let you target a specific type of company, job titles, and many other professional attributes. Here is a video on using LinkedIn Ads for nonprofits
  17. Paid: Twitter ads. Twitter offers advertising to target demographics, topics, and geographic areas. Use it to build emails to your list and see how the cost-per-acquisition compares to other platforms.
  18. Paid: YouTube Ads. YouTube is a video search engine that will let you target any demographic or even popular video with ads. It can be an expensive platform to drive direct leads from, so be careful. We recommend using YouTube ads to prime potential prospecting audiences and then retarget them with donation or lead campaigns through the Google Display Network. Here is a video on advertising for nonprofits on YouTube
  19. In-kind: Google Ad Grant. This free $10k per month in in-kind search advertising on Google search results is a powerful way to drive traffic. The question is how you convert that traffic on your site to leads. The biggest mistake is not matching the campaign ad with the ask the landing page makes on your website. Here are some awesome campaign ideas for the Google Grant. If you have the grant already, we recommend taking a look at your top traffic landing page from Google and making sure there are clear sign-up CTAs on each of those pages! And if you don’t have the Ad Grant, learn more about how to apply.
  20. Paid sponsored petition campaign. offers paid campaigns that can help build a list of emails that care about a relevant cause. If you use these external platforms, make sure you will have access to the full list of signers at the end of your campaign. 
  21. Add the subscribe CTA to your social media. Put a clear “subscribe to our email list” CTA on your Facebook Page, Twitter Page, YouTube and any other social media descriptions.
  22. Send a survey. Ask your website audience to take a survey as an ‘expert’ on a topic and make one of the fields an email address so they can be sent the findings of the survey. 

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Thanks + Donate Now

Another important thing to keep in mind is the value of the Instant Donate Page. This is a special donation ask that appears immediately AFTER someone has signed up to your email list. While thanking your new supporter for their interest in your cause, use this opportunity to underscore the value of the work that you do, the impact that you can and have made, and how that impact is dependent on the support of people like them. You have a captive audience, that at this point has already invested some time and their email to your cause. Why not see if you can convert that new subscriber to a donor, right then and there?

No matter the tactic…

Tactics and ideas don’t guarantee results, execution does. No matter the tactic you try, remember it is the process that will determine success. Here are some execution guardrails to consider:

  • Follow-up. Get your new subscribers onto an email welcome series and make sure you actually message and nurture them over time with a healthy mix of impact communications, calls to action, and appeals.
  • A/B test the message being used for any website call-to-action or form.
  • Plan the full user journey, from the point of acquisition to the thank you confirmation and beyond.
  • Know the cost per acquisition when paying for leads and the cycle time it takes to turn an email into a donor. Hint: if it doesn’t happen after 45 days, the value can drop off steeply.
  • Know the annual and lifetime donor value based on the way donors were acquired.
  • Plan for segmentation. Save the relevant campaign information of the email acquired so you can message and analyze the effectiveness of the tactic later.
  • MEASURE! Set up Google Analytics with clear goal tracking for emails so you can measure the ROI of any campaign.
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