Online giving: More donors want

Originally published in Current, July 23, 2008
By Katy June-Friesen

Northwest Public Radio’s first e-newsletter to its members, sent in June, featured a link to a video interview with local Morning Edition host Gillian Coldsnow. Raised in Singapore, Coldsnow often confounds listeners with her accent. Members must have been eager to learn more about her, including what she looks like, because the video snagged 600 views — a much higher response than expected, says Sarah McDaniel, membership director.

It was high time for the statewide network, located in Pullman, Wash., to create an e-newsletter, McDaniel says. It gives listeners an insider’s view of station operations — basically, where member contributions go — and a “donate” button that takes them to a web page where they can give again.

Public radio listeners use the Internet heavily, and the number who pursue more online relationships with their stations has grown steadily for five years, according to a review of Target Analytics data by Lewis Kennedy Associates presented at the Public Radio Development & Marketing Conference in Orlando this month.

“Stations are attracting more people via the Web, and more of them are renewing via the Web,” says Lewis Kennedy partner Jim Lewis. Beginning in 2005, using on-air appeals to prompt online donations has garnered more gifts than direct mail, once the dominant way to bring in donations. In 2007, stations in the study raised an average of 10,612 gifts by mail and 12,383 with the on-air/web punch.

Over four years, the 54 stations in the study more than doubled their average share of donor revenue obtained online — from 8 percent in 2003 to 17 percent in 2007.

The number of online gifts has also doubled, according to another Target Analytics study of 12 sizeable stations in cities including Houston, New York, Boston and Minneapolis. Overall, the average number of online gifts to those stations increased 93 percent from 2004 to 2008.

But these donors aren’t necessarily new to public radio. Many are simply shifting their giving to the Web, said Carol Rhine, senior analyst at Target, at PRDMC. New donors are still more likely to give on the air, she says, while web gifts are more often renewals.

Alongside the reliable workhorse of direct mail, online fundraising may play an increasingly important role in retaining donors, particularly as people migrate beyond the reach of broadcast appeals to on-demand listening on computers and mobile devices.

Yet stations have been slow to migrate toward web communication and fundraising, particularly in comparison with other nonprofits, says Melanie Coulson, an online fundraising consultant with DEI. In general, stations still aren’t taking full advantage of the Web, and they aren’t collecting enough e-mail addresses from donors.

“It’s an opportunity to build deeper relationships with public radio members who are web-responsive,” says Lewis. “Increasingly, we can super-serve them with information on topics that are important to them.”

Cashing in online

At KUT-FM in Austin, which has been raising money online for more than six years, about 30 percent of pledge gifts come in via the Web, says Sylvia Carson, director of marketing and development. That’s less than she expected the station would be making online by now. Carson is still shocked when people give $5,000 online.

NWPR, like many other stations, pushes its web address as hard as its phone number during pledge drives, says McDaniel. The station also promotes “web days” during fundraising drives, asking donors to pledge online instead of on-air and tantalizing them with the prospect of a shorter drive.

Web pledging has allowed NWPR to shorten its pledge drives overall, says McDaniel. In March, the station held a one-day drive and — with the help of online donations — surpassed its goal of 2,200 members.

“It’s certainly easier than answering all those phone calls,” McDaniel says. The station now gets about one-fourth of its pledge donations online.

Only about two-thirds of pubradio stations are doing more than putting up a basic donation page online, says Coulson. They’re sending out e-newsletters, e-appeals at pledge time, and other more targeted efforts. Pubcasters need to get more sophisticated with their messaging and test different methods, she says.

When stations ask donors for money for a specific cause, for example, the website should automatically send them an acknowledgement for the specialized gift instead of a generic thank-you. Other nonprofits have found that people are more likely to complete the transaction if the two messages are similar, says Coulson.  

Stations are also missing a huge opportunity when they don’t follow up quickly with online donors after pledge drives, she says. Pubcasters should immediately acknowledge gifts, keep donors engaged, and follow up with more web solicitations.

Some big national nonprofits solicit via e-mail several times a week, and Coulson wonders whether pubcasters should try asking more often. Target’s Rhine thinks public radio could learn from other organizations about online practices such as asking people to help with a mission-promoting activity, which requires participants to fill out a contact form.

Courting the “wired wealthy”

KUT has been trying to communicate more with major donors online, Carson says. If the station gets last-minute extra tickets to a concert, it shoots out a quick offer to donors. So many big donors prefer to interact online that when KUT recently offered them free Patty Griffin tickets, 70 got e-mail and 30 snail mail.

But stations could do more to reach major and mid-level donors online, according to a study of 23 major nonprofits and their donors by Convio, Sea Change Strategies and Edge Research. On average, only 1 percent of an organization’s donors give more than $1,000 a year, said Sea Change’s Mark Rovner at PRDMC, yet they account for 32 percent of total fundraising dollars. Even so, many of these mid-level donors fall through the cracks as fundraisers go after even larger mega-gifts, he said.

The “wired wealthy” — $1,000-plus donors who use the Internet regularly — give through multiple channels, including direct mail, but prefer to operate online when they can. Many told interviewers, “We do everything we can online,” according to Colleen Learch, senior research analyst at Edge. (For more on the “wired wealthy,” see below.)

Because of this, mediocre websites and poorly written e-mails can significantly hurt a nonprofit’s chances of attracting givers. Donors examine nonprofits’ websites as they decide whether to give, according to Rovner, but most said the sites fail to inspire them.

Ditto for e-mail. Only 9 percent of donors in the 2008 study said nonprofits’ e-mail communications succeeded at making them feel connected to or inspired about the organization. Donors were also wary of e-mail deluges and wanted to limit the number and subjects of messages they receive.

When a nonprofit let donors tailor e-mail traffic to their tastes, they were more likely to open its messages. They usually welcome annual renewal notices and progress reports from nonprofits, said Trent Ricker, v.p. of account management at Convio. Some donors like getting action alerts and stories about how their organization made a difference, while others want to make their yearly gift and skip any further interaction.

Tending to the specific needs of their donors can be challenging for stations, but offering a tailored “user experience” is essential, says Learch.

For example, KUT is trying to determine how to include online donors in the “fun on the air” during pledge, Carson says. The station often meets a show’s goal on the air but also makes several thousand dollars online.

The flow of gifts now arriving  online isn’t huge, says Coulson, but testing and sharpening stations’ online fundraising methods is a long-term investment.    

The ‘wired wealthy’:
Who are they?

Researchers for Convio, Sea Change Strategies and Edge Research sketched this picture in their report “The Wired Wealthy: Using the Internet to Connect with Your Middle and Major Donors," March 2008.

What do they want from nonprofits?

“Wired wealthy” donors, like many less-affluent donors, look for different kinds of relationships with nonprofits. They tend to fall into three categories,

Web page posted July 31, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC

Do you get new or renewing donors through online fundraising?
Does it offer a net increase in donors or just better, easier communication with present members? Comment on your experience at

Donors examine
nonprofits’ websites
as they decide
whether to give,

according to Rovner,
but most said
the sites fail
to inspire them.


Online auctions: Allure lingers despite the Kruse debacle, 2005.

Online pledging is just one tool in the toolbox for making pledge drives short and sweet, according to sweetness-oriented development directors, 2005.

DEI’s 3 Million Giver project aims to increase the donor base for public radio.


Download the study of “wired and wealthy” nonprofit donors here.



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