Fund Times

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Engaging Donors Online February 7, 2012

If you asked me to describe my experience with social media, I would bore you to death with random stories of my Facebook and Twitter timelines.  Perhaps, I would tell you how I inadvertently use these tools to stay abreast of local and national news (what’s a Sunday paper?) or to boost the marketing profile of an organization.  Or more importantly, I would tell you what my friend had for breakfast.  At any rate, I am not the best person to ask if your organization is considering how to effectively use social media for online fundraising.

Thankfully, I know Zach Ragbourn.  Who, you may ask, is Zach?  Not only does his humor rival mine (we should go on a traveling road show, I swear), but Zach is the resident guru of both traditional and online communications.  So, when I asked him to share his experiences with online fundraising, he was more than happy to spread the wealth (pun intended) with the faithful readers of Fund Times.  Here’s what he had to say.


Q:  Online fundraising has gained a lot of media attention in recent years as nonprofits look to expose their brands to a greater number of people. What do you think is interesting or unique about engaging donors online as opposed to face-to-face?

A:  When people talk about social media, they tend to focus on the interaction: sharing, replying, re-tweeting, liking, and commenting on each other’s items. All of that is absolutely vital in building a relationship with a potential donor, but it’s not fundamentally different from the old way of doing things. We’ve always built relationships and worked to engage donors, and social media has given us new tools to do that.

What’s new, however, are the speed-of-light sharing options, and the branding expansion opportunities they bring. Every time you work to build a relationship with a potential donor on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+, you’re also taking a first step toward exposing your brand to a whole new audience.


Q:  There has been a lot of debate about the effectiveness of social media in fundraising. What has been your experience in using online tools such as Facebook and Twitter to help nonprofits raise money?

A:  If your social media efforts have an effect on fundraising, it might be tough to tell at first. Maybe you’ve built up a relationship with a donor on Facebook, convinced her of the value of your work, and she’s become invested in your success. When she receives a fundraising email, she may make her first donation through that email. In a perfect world, she’d include a note with her donation, saying, “I wouldn’t have made this donation if not for your social media efforts!”.

That probably won’t happen, so the best we can do is take steps to be sure that if a member of your social network is in the mood to give, she has the opportunity… and has a unique, trackable link to follow. Collect data at every turn, and decide for yourself whether social media is having an effect on your fundraising.

In my experience, direct asks are rarely successful.  However, social media has been invaluable in building a sense of urgency and importance around a campaign, and those are two factors that dramatically increase the odds of a prospective donor making his or her first contribution. Nonprofits that use social media to roll out campaigns – either action campaigns or fundraising campaigns – can help create that urgency and sense of value in their members and communities, and nonprofits can see improved fundraising when they use social media to demonstrate the value of their work and their members’ support.


Q:  I’m a true believer that a nonprofit should use a variety of tools to raise money, both online and off. Which online programs and/or product(s) would you suggest to a nonprofit looking to venture into virtual fundraising?

A:  Nonprofits wanting to venture into online fundraising should start with email. It’s still the most cost-effective, and still provides you with the best data on what’s working and what isn’t. Chances are that you already have some sort of online program, and have developed a list of people who are used to hearing from you. Build on that, keep them energized, and offer them new ways to stay engaged.

One of those new ways to stay engaged should be an active and useful presence on the major social media networks: Facebook and Twitter. Spend the staff time to keep up with your list, weigh in, reply, and share your organization’s perspective on things.

A great tool to start with in social media is a link-shortening account with a free service like Google ( or Those services let you see how often your links are clicked, which is invaluable data during the early and experimental days of building a social program.


Zach Ragbourn is the media relations and online communications manager for Alliance for Justice in Washington, D.C.  To learn more about Zach, connect with him on Linkedin


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