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15 Ways to Enhance the Online Giving Experience

University Business, May 2013
Columbia College's "temperature bar" gives donors a visual reminder of how their gift, of any size, would move the fund closer to its goal.

Bringing a shopping cart experience to online donors so they can give to multiple areas but only check out once is a big step for institutional advancement offices to make. Yet, as involved a project as that is, there are always enhancements that can be made to the shopping cart itself and to other areas of the giving website. Here are 15 ideas and actions worth modeling:

  1. Choose your words carefully. When describing specific funds to entice donors within a site with a shopping cart, using the right tone is key. "[The donor is] not really buying a product and you don’t want to cheapen the perception of that donation," says Rae Goldsmith, vice president of advancement resources at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. One site she has seen "talks about the investment—that’s the tone to take."
  2. Add a search function. Michigan State University’s shopping cart has a search box right at the top, allowing donors to begin plugging in a name of a specific fund of interest and have results come up as they type. Bob Thomas, assistant vice president of advancement marketing and communications, names the “Gamma Theta Upsilon Geography Fund” as one that’s close to his heart, because his father is a retired geography faculty member. “It’s never going to be a priority that anybody is going to put on an official listing somewhere,” he says. But it’s easy for him to find that microfund and contribute to it.
  3. Be visual. In creating, the giving site for Columbia College (Mo.), Brendon Steenbergen says he included a bar graph to show how much needs to be raised for a particular fund and progress toward that goal as a donation of any size comes in. It was a good way to get annual-fund types of donors seeing the immediate impact of making a gift toward a more specific purpose, says Steenbergen, Columbia’s former director of development for annual and planned giving. Nathan Fleischman, who now holds that position, calls this “temperature funding bar ... a great visual for potential donors because it provides this interactive element people are used to seeing in the e-commerce world.” He adds that the website, which has lots of photos, has brought in gifts from people who had no previous relationship with his office.
  4. Promote a handful of “marquee” items. As Sara Harvey, senior director of annual campaigns at Marquette University (Wis.), which has giving cart functionality, points out, “This is difficult because there are hundreds of fund designations that we could feature.” Besides broad initiatives such as scholarship support, the team will feature capital priorities. Donors can also select an unrestricted gift or a write-in “other” option.
  5. Be prepared to add. Harvey will get ongoing requests for specialty giving pages. “We do create pages for limited-run initiatives, such as a recent campaign to honor the retirement of one of our beloved members of the Marquette Jesuit community.”
  6. Give others the power to appeal. At Michigan State—where there are 26 fundraising units covering specific academic colleges, athletics, the performing arts center, and other areas—Director of Web Services Randy Brown created the “scenario” function. This allows a unit fundraiser to create a link customized to a specific allocation that can be embedded in an email to potential donors or on a web page, and then tracked as donations come in from that appeal, says Thomas. Brown adds, “It’s our way of handling targeted fundraising. Colleges always want to be at the top of the gift cart.” With scenarios, these units can promote special causes on their own.
  7. Create a peer-to-peer component. Justin Ware, director of interactive communication at Bentz Whaley Flessner, a fundraising consulting firm, points to the Middlebury College (Vt.) MiddSTART program as an example. Described as a “network of microphilanthropy that supports Middlebury students,” MiddSTART features student-initiated, student-managed projects need of funding. While donors can currently only donate to a single fund at at time, Ware says it’s a good example of an interactive online giving page that’s much more than just a credit card form.
  8. Make it social. Schools should strive to allow donors to use their Facebook or Twitter log-in on the giving website, Ware says. “Social log-in requires some development work, but it’s possible for any organization.” His firm is working on the concept of content profiles. A potential donor can log in using Facebook credentials, which would allow the organization to see what type of content the person shares and comments on, to develop a psychographic analysis of the individual and use it for targeted messaging. In addition, after the donation transaction is complete, schools should make it easy for donors to share their cause with friends via Facebook or other platforms. “Most custom-crafted, hand-built donation forms don’t even know what Facebook is,” quips Steven MacLaughlin, director of the Blackbaud Idea Lab.
  9. Craft a simple form. When MacLaughlin and his team interviewed various campus fundraisers about their giving website donation forms, he learned that a lot of these forms are designed by committee. “That did explain why there were extra steps and information being asked for that seemed odd,” he says. “For example, some were asking for information about spouses or partners as part of the online donation, which has zero to do with processing the transaction. The more things you require someone to fill out, the more [negatively] it impacts your conversion rate.”
  10. But also ... brand the form. “A lot of organizations like to use PayPal, but I think it’s very important to keep the person engaged and feeling as if they’re still giving to the organization and not to a separate vendor,” says Ware. Credit card forms need not be generic, but could instead include an image and a consistent color scheme with the school’s logo.
  11. Prevent form-filling fatigue. Returning donors to the Michigan State giving site can type in a few fields of identifying information, click on who they are (verifying it with a birthday), and then have some biographical information filled out for them, says Thomas. Voltaire Santos Miran, co-founder and CEO of mStoner, says personalization like this could be really meaningful to the smaller donor in particular. “I shouldn’t have to put in all my information and credit card info again.” Users also expect that their information be updated in the alumni system and the registrar’s office, he adds. “That sort of coordination of user information is something most universities don’t do very well.”
  12. Turn to the experts. If the internal web team doesn’t have the capacity to develop a quality shopping cart, an external web developer can make it a job well done. Just don’t bank on finding a higher ed web development firm with experience building these carts, since so few institutions have them. Ware says it’s more important to find a firm that has had success with this type of project in the non-profit world than it is to use one known in higher ed.
  13. Ask: Would you like fries with that? It’s a concept Michigan State is exploring, Thomas says. As the donor begins to check out, there will be a simple question, such as “Would you be able to add an additional $10 for scholarships?” Ware says this is a great idea to consider—as long as it’s an unintrusive checkbox that doesn’t hinder the transaction process.
  14. Test out the experience. When navigating the giving website and the transaction form, how donor-friendly is it? “It has to be intuitive,” says Goldsmith. “People have to be able to get where they want to be without becoming very frustrated.” McLaughlin adds that he has seen forms where donors had to do the math themselves, or where the donor would enter something and some “unexpected behavior” would result.
  15. Just do it. McLaughlin’s advice on creating a shopping cart for a giving website is this: “Try it, learn from it, and change.” That is, get some ROI sooner rather than after executing a thoroughly planned, 12-month implementation. “That’s where you’ll find what works, over time.”