Most Activist Groups Actually Suck at Online Fundraising. Here's How To Change That

There's an old proverb that goes like this: Give a nonprofit a grant and you feed it for a year. Teach it how to crowdfund and you can wash your hands of the place. 

Okay, that's not how the proverb actually goes. But the idea of "teaching a man to fish" came to mind as I was reading a study on digital fundraising by social justice groups. The upshot of the study, put out by Public Interest Projects, is that most of these groups still don't know how to fish and reel in lots of small donors. 

That finding is counterintuitive, since we see those "donate" buttons on every website these days and appeals for money pour into our email inboxes faster than we can delete them. We also hear constantly about this or that digital fundraising success, like the Kony video that raised $32 million.

The right may have the Koch brothers, but the left knows how to vacuum in legions of small donors online. Right? 

Wrong. In truth, most activists actually suck at online fundraising according to the study, which surveyed both social justice nonprofits and grantmakers. Cynthia M. Gibson, principal of Cynthesis Consulting, designed and conducted the study for Public Interest Projects.

The study found that less than 1 percent of the groups said their primary funding came from digital avenues, while 80 percent said their top funding source was foundation grants. Even direct mail, a fundraising tool dating from the Neolithic Age, brought in more cash for the nonprofits surveyed than online appeals. 

"Suck" is not the right term, exactly, for how social justice nonprofits are doing at digital buckraking, since the study found that most groups never really get this ball rolling in the first place.

Why aren't more nonprofits mustering the mojo to morph into mini-MoveOns? For starters, many don't view digital fundraising as an urgent priority. Nearly all the groups surveyed said they were experimenting with new funding sources; 63 percent named online giving as among these, but only 30 percent said using digital technologies for fundraising was "very important." By contrast, a large majority saw such technologies as very important for raising pubic awareness and engaging people to take action. 

These nonprofits are on high alert when it comes to using Facebook and Twitter to mobilize the masses. Far less so when it comes to mobilizing the money.

The picture that emerges is of nonprofits that universally throw up the website "donate" button and fool around a bit with fundraising through social media, but that otherwise keep doing what they've always done: hit up foundations and send out direct mail. 

These groups seem to know in their heads that crowdfunding is a very big deal, but just won't or can't get with the program. And the groups that do try to frontburner this stuff are hard-pressed to find the money or staff to get very far. Indeed, the study found that the executive director often ended up taking point on crowdfunding efforts, which is clearly untenable. 

I must say that all this sounds very familiar to me, as someone who helped build a social justice nonprofit for over a decade. Top staff in these outfits are continually overwhelmed, with a "to do" list that could fill a roll of toilet paper. It's tough to focus on innovention when executing the basics is already hard enough, and things outside your comfort zone get pushed further down the list as you play to your strengths. You wake up at night fretting about ways you need to "get with it," only to spend the following day trying to not drown. 

As for the strengths of the social justice crowd, let's be frank here: Innovation is not among them. The nonprofit world is a comparatively languid sector where groups don't easily get put out of business because they failed to stay ahead of fast-moving disruptive forces. Everyone feels that gun to their head when it comes to raising money and making a difference, but not when it comes to innovating. Spend your whole career in this sector, as many people do, and you're probably not so quick to grab onto the next big thing. 

It's worth noting that MoveOn was founded by two software entrepreneurs, while some of the most successful nonprofit crowdfunding outfits are led by people with backgrounds in business and technology. 

And remember, I say all this as someone who spent years as a nonprofit fuddy-duddy. 

What can be done to push nonprofits to prioritize online giving? The Public Interest Projects study makes a number of useful recommendations and, in particular, delivers a clear message to funders: Invest more in helping small advocacy groups build their digital fundraising capacity

Just so you know, funders are not the villains in the study, which surveyed a number of grantmakers and found them quite attuned to the potential of online fundraising. Funders said they're open to proposals to build capacity and would be willing to collaborate with other funders in this area.

On the other hand, every nonprofit can testify to the difficulty of getting capacity building grants, particularly support for fundraising efforts. I can't think of a single grant my organization ever got to beef up our development operation. I can't even think of a foundation we might have pitched such a proposal to and, in my current job, where I read grant descriptions all the time, I can't recall seeing many grants for this type of thing.

That's got to change. But this report also argues that grants per se aren't the answer here. What's needed most is more learning and awareness on the part of nonprofits, and funders can help make that happen through steps like the following:



  • Support training sessions, webinars, and customized technology aid for grantees, especially efforts that bring together nonprofits working on similar issues to teach one another.
  • Sponsor “learning circles” that allow groups to share ideas and experiences in digital efforts—those that worked and those that didn’t. 



There are a bunch of other good recommendations here, too, and no matter what position you play in the nonprofit world, this report is important reading.

Maybe the bottom line is this: The future of fundraising is here, and everyone needs to get with it—funders, nonprofits, consultants. Everyone