Secrets of Successful Online Fundraising: Tips for Increasing Donations

Emilienne Ireland

One aspect of online campaigning that has yet to hit full stride is online fundraising. Online donations can provide significant advantages over traditional offline donations. For example, online donations eliminate the paperwork and make the funds available to you more quickly.

AFTER CAMPAIGN 2000, when it turned out that the Internet was not a magic lamp that could turn any fool into a sultan, some pundits bemoaned the failure of the Internet to live up to its promise. Forgotten was the generally uninspiring quality of most campaign Web sites, and the fact that few used the Internet up to its full interactive capacity. As Campaign 2001 and 2002 get underway, thoughtful candidates and consultants will take lessons from the online failures as well as the successes of Campaign 2000.

One aspect of Internet campaigning that has yet to hit full stride is fundraising. Online donations can provide significant advantages over traditional offline donations. For example, online donations eliminate the paperwork and make the funds available to you more quickly.

When a donation is made online, you don’t have to wonder whether the check is in the mail, send pledge reminders to the donor, type the donation information from a piece of paper into your database, and send the paperwork to the bank. Most important, online fundraising is cheap, and provides an extraordinary rate of return (on average, it costs only about 10 cents to raise $1 online, as opposed to 40-50 cents for direct mail, 60-70 cents for telemarketing and 90 cents for prospecting lists).

Here are a few simple tips for increasing your online fundraising totals in your next campaign:

* Start with a strong Web site

* You must constantly publicize the site

* Integrate online and offline efforts

* Don’t hide your “Donate” button!

* Make sure donating is simple and easy

* Provide a choice of payment options

* Adopt a privacy policy

* Send regular e-mails to supporters

* Keep your Web site updated

Start With a Strong Web Site

Your Web site should be as effective and polished as your direct mail, your television spots, and every other aspect of your campaign.

If you sent out a badly produced direct mail piece with bad photos, weak writing and no focused political message, you’d be a fool to expect it to raise money for your campaign. In this respect, the Internet is no different from traditional campaign communication tools, such as direct mail, radio and television.

When people come to your Web site, they should see that your campaign is well-organized and effective. Potential supporters should be impressed at your work and your stands on the issues, and have reason to trust that the money they donate will be well spent.

A strong Web site, however, is just the beginning of your successful online fundraising strategy.

Constantly Publicize the Site

When candidates do not raise money online, the main reason is that they did not do enough to push visitors to the site. Start by creating a professional site that is registered on the major search engines. Next, create a publicity strategy that focuses on getting visitors to the Web site. There, they will spend more time reading about your campaign than in any other medium, and will have the tools for making a donation readily available.

Promote the site via radio, TV, direct mail, and print media, such as newspapers and magazines. Incidentally, your TV ads should do more than merely flash the URL (Web site address) in a small, hard-to-read font during the last few frames of the ad. Instead, feature the URL in a large font, display it onscreen for at least five seconds, and have it read aloud by the announcer. Also, be sure to mention it in every speech, post it on every podium, and place it on a banner behind the candidate at public functions. If you don’t actively promote your URL, you will not raise any money online.

Integrate with Offline Efforts

The Online Campaigning Primer produced by the nonprofit Democracy Online Project opens with this sound advice: “The key is to recognize the Net’s distinctive strengths and weaknesses, and integrate what you do offline with what you do online.” Achieving such integration, however, will test the mettle of campaign managers in coming years, because it requires consultants in different fields to work together and put aside any tendency to compete with one another.

Tom Hockaday, whose firm helped raise $6.4 million online for John McCain’s presidential campaign, is also an expert in direct mail and telemarketing strategies. “Whether online or offline, you must make your pitch, you must provide a sense of urgency, and you must make it easy to donate. Sometimes we provide a different URL on our offline mailers, such as, because we want to distinguish money raised from offline and online sources. Nevertheless, we always encourage clients to maximize their returns by integrating their online and offline strategies.”

Likewise, Democratic direct mail veteran Tony Fazio emphasizes the importance of having Web and direct mail consultants work together as a team: “We have found opportunities for mail and the Internet to work together to deliver a campaign’s message by using mail to drive targeted voters to visit a campaign’s Web site.

It is important that both Web and direct mail experts begin early to build a strategic team. Cooperation is the key in utilizing these two unique but complementary media.”

Synergy between Web and television is even more important. While we noticed substantial boosts from offline fundraising events, direct mail and targeted e-mail, the really big surges came from exposure on nationally broadcast radio and television. After a while, when we ran our database reports and found a certain candidate suddenly had $4,000 fall into his bank account that day, we knew without calling the campaign that the candidate had received broadcast media exposure just before the spike in donations.

Don’t Hide Your Donation Button!

Every campaign Web site should have a link or button labeled “Donate,” “Contribute,” “Get Involved” or “How You Can Help” prominently displayed near the top of the Home page. Some candidates initially resist naming the button that way, objecting that it’s “too obvious.” However, being obvious is good when it comes to donation buttons. That way, when potential donors are looking for that button, they can actually find it!

Note, however, that unless you are a wildly popular candidate, you might find that hardball fundraising techniques such as pop-up donation windows, tend to irritate your potential donors. A more conventional approach — simple, direct and low-pressure — will get better results.

Make Donating Simple

Steve Forbes, Republican presidential candidate, had a Web site that was reputed to have cost the campaign over half a million dollars. Despite spending far more than most candidates, he had a contribution solicitation process that forced potential donors to wade through three screens of text before completing the contribution. He raised very little online.

By contrast, Bradley, Bush, Gore, and McCain had contribution pages that clearly differentiated the optional text (FEC regulations) from the required fields (name, address, and so forth). Their contribution forms were designed to make it easy for the donor to complete the transaction.

Good site design encourages the donor to complete the transaction by getting them working right away. A donor who has spent a few minutes filling in a form is more inclined to take a minute to read and check off the required FEC affirmations. A form that requires the donor to start with the affirmations often leads to donor boredom and lost donations.

Provide Payment Options

Your Web site should provide two options for potential donors: contributing directly online via a secure server connection, as well as printing out a form and later mailing or faxing it to your campaign.

It’s important to give your donors the option of using whatever method they prefer. Some donors still are more comfortable sending a check in the mail, so if your only options are either a mailed check or no donation, the choice is obvious. By the same reasoning, you should give potential donors the choice of donating online by either checks or credit cards.

Some donors prefer to donate online via credit cards, while others are more comfortable using online checks. If your donation system is easy-to-use, convenient, and allows donors to choose their own preferred payment method, you will raise more money.

Send your donors e-mails after positive polls, successful debates, and healthy fundraising reports. Keep them personally involved, and they will be more responsive when you return to ask for more support. Your e-mail strategy is key to the success of your overall online operations.

In 1999 and 2000, some candidates wasted the opportunity to send their campaign message to many voters at almost no cost via e-mail. Such candidates said they were afraid that the Opposition would get the information and use it against them. This makes no sense. Nothing should go on the Web site or into campaign e-mails that is not also being publicized in other venues, and that has not been fully cleared by campaign strategists. The rule of thumb is simple: if you have released information in any other public communication medium, you also should include it on your Web site.

The e-mail below from former presidential candidate John McCain shows how you can provide an informative and inspiring message to supporters without giving any advantages to potential opponents.

As in every other aspect of your online campaign, the key to success is to inspire support by showing your campaign at its best. Treat online supporters respectfully by communicating in a personal way, by providing information about your campaign, and by encouraging them to participate.

Keep Your Site Updated

Because roughly one in every hundred visitors to your site makes a donation, it’s essential to keep visitors coming back. That is why it is so important to update your site as often as possible (see sidebar opposite).

Newspaper Web sites offer the latest news about the world at large. What you have to offer is news about the campaign, as well as anything else that would be of interest to potential donors, voters, and volunteers. For instance, pages that compare your views to those of your opponents can be very effective, if they are perceived as fair and backed up by independent information sources. Don’t forget to post audio and video clips, downloadable versions of direct mail pieces, and full versions of your television ads.

Several presidential campaigns in 2000 featured volunteers on their Web sites, including photos and personal statements about why they supported the candidate.

Team Bradley was especially effective at doing this, and Bradley’s site allowed visitors to browse through volunteer pages by state and city. This made it easy to find snapshots of neighbors in your own or nearby communities, alongside their personal comments about Bill Bradley and why they supported him on a particular issue.

Likewise, former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell (R-CA), running against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) for her Senate seat last fall, included a “Town Hall” feature that showed he was confident, open to dialog, and responsive to constituents. Every day, he personally answered five e-mails from constituents on his Web site, and even archived each dialog by topic so voters could read his responses to previous questions.

Note that Campbell’s Town Hall was not an unmoderated free-for-all “chat room” that allowed visitors to post irrelevant and potentially damaging messages on his site. Far from it. Campbell stayed in control and onmessage by posting questions and answers he specifically chose as relevant to his campaign.

Show Leadership

When it comes to online fundraising, most candidates today are still very ambivalent, and it shows. This ambivalence results in either paralyzing micromanagement or exclusion of the Webmaster from the campaign’s inner circle. Both problems result in a boring, static brochure in the sky.

If you want to raise money online, you must show leadership, accountability and willingness to use the Web as a powerful, interactive medium. Provide good information on your site and update it often. Send regular email newsletters. Invite visitors to send their views, volunteer, bring friends to the site, and vote.

Unless you do all these things, you may have a Web site, but you are not campaigning online.

Emilienne Ireland is president and Phil Tajitsu Nash is CEO of Campaign Advantage, a Bethesda, Md.-based Internet consulting firm. This article is adapted from Winning Campaigns Online, Second Edition, 320 pages, Science Writers Press, 2001. For more information, see

Case Study: Don’t Send E-mail that Is Boring, Impersonal or Rude

One of our staffers recently signed lip online to receive e-mail updates from a well-financed candidate in a major statewide race. A few minutes later, she received a confirmation e-mail from the campaign. The message in its entirety appears below (names have been changed):

Subject: Your registration was processed JoeSmith2002 Registration

You are now registered to receive updates on the Joe Smith 2002 campaign, If you received this message in error, or would like to remove yourself from our records, click below…


This form was completed 22:39 Tuesday, April 24, 2001 This email was processed and sent to you by: http://www.joesmith2oo2com

Note that the message above consists mainly of awkward instructions advising the recipient to “remove yourself.” While every campaign e-mail message should include a footer line with instructions about unsubscribing, a potential supporter might hope for more. Doesn’t the candidate have anything more inspiring to say? If the canadidate has no political vision, even a campaign slogan would do.

Alas, this e-mail contains no message at all about the “Joe Smith” campaign or what it stands for. Note also that the simple words “thank you” are never used — not even once.

Case Study: Send E-mail that Inspires Support

Compare the previous e-mail example to the confirmation e-mail below, which our staffer received after signing up as a “member” on John McCain’s post-election PAC Web site (

Subject: Thank you for joining Straight Talk America!

Thank you for joining Straight Talk America. With your help, John McCain will be able to continue his fight to reform the way our government does business.

Straight Talk America will keep you updated, via e-mail, on the latest news and ways you can help John McCain.

You can start today by e-mailing a quick message to 5 friends about John McCain and his reform message. Simply visit now to send your message.

Again, thank you for joining John McCain’s Straight Talk America!

Note that the recipient is warmly thanked, given a clear message about what the campaign hopes to accomplish, and even invited to take immediate and specific action to support the campaign. To make it easy for the recipient to help out, the campaign provides a hotlink (the Web equivalent of a stamped, addressed envelope). Note also that the recipient is urged to e-mail “a quick message to 5 friends.” This is an example of viral campaigning, a proven technique for boosting online effectiveness.

Case Study: Web Site Neglects Supporters – and Loses Online Donations

A large, high-profile campaign launched a promising Web site, but quickly squandered its Internet capital. Against the advice of its Web consultants, the campaign did not list any phone numbers on the site, did not update the site, and did not respond to e-mail inquiries from Web site visitors for weeks at a stretch.

Reporters on deadline were unable to contact the campaign, and cut back coverage they had planned. Volunteers eagerly asking how they could help received no reply. Online contributors who asked for more information were ignored. Nothing could be done without the campaign manager’s approval, and he was too busy to think about the Web site.

As the weeks dragged on, the site remained unchanged, as if frozen in time. Photographs of the candidate announcing his candidacy were available, but they were not posted on the site. No news about the campaign was posted to the News page.

Not surprisingly, although this site was raising over $5,000 a day online during its first week, donations quickly dwindled to an average of less than $200 a day. This unfortunate outcome was completely avoidable.

Case Study: Web Site Maintenance on a Tight Budget

This candidate had a very tight budget early in the campaign and simply couldn’t cover tile cost of weekly professional maintenance. The candidate was committed to having a good Web site, however, and came up with a creative solution.

A talented volunteer was brought in. This person was a serious Web hobbyist who maintained a respectable public service site in his spare time. Throughout the campaign, he added all the press releases, and even a search engine and other improvements.

The volunteer and the professional consultants worked out an arrangement whereby the volunteer did most of the work on each update at no cost to the campaign, and the professional developers did only the remaining hour or two of final touches and adjustments to the code. This candidate received excellent site maintenance at an 80 percent discount.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

You May Also Like

The winners and losers of 2004

The winners and losers of 2004 Morgan E. Felchner After each election cycle, Campaigns & Elections presents the win-loss records of…

Public Affairs: Advertising & Media Production – Directory

Public Affairs: Advertising & Media Production – Directory – Brief Article ATLANTIC VIDEO; INC/N 650 Massachusetts Ave., NW…

Planning Your TV Ads: The Pre-Production Process

Planning Your TV Ads: The Pre-Production Process Susan Hendrix Puffing in the needed time on pre-production not only saves time and…

Campaign consultant/client sign-ups

Campaign consultant/client sign-ups Baker & Associates/R-general and Internet communications Ellen Feld, FL, Broward County Court Judge ‘…