How do we build a large community of online donors from a small group of supporters? How can we get an online fundraising program off the ground? Emma Ruby-Sachs walks us through these efforts, providing tools to help power our campaigns and build community through online fundraising.
Emma Ruby-Sachs is a writer, lawyer and the Executive Director of SumOfUs, a global movement of over 18 million members worldwide. She previously was the Deputy Director at Avaaz, practiced constitutional appellate law and administrative law, and worked on issues of wrongful arrest and wrongful conviction in Canada.
Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves, presented by INTER- CONNECTED. I’m Mallika Dutt. In this episode, we’re talking about online fundraising, how to use the tools available to us, create campaigns and create large communities of online donors. Emma Ruby-Sachs is a writer, lawyer and the Executive Director of SumOfUs, a global movement of over 18 million members worldwide. Wherever we are, wherever you are welcome, feel the embrace of this community of what we do, the work that we do around the world for justice. Just take a moment to honour yourself and one another. Thank you so much for being here, for taking the time to join this conversation for all of the conversations that you join as part of this incredible community. Thank you so much.
So, I’m going to pivot now to our presentation for the day and I am delighted to introduce you to Emma Ruby-Sachs. Emma is many, many things. She’s a lawyer, she’s a writer. She has practiced law, been advancing justice through many, many means many, many tools, many, many strategies throughout her adult life and perhaps her younger life too, I don’t know. She was with Avaaz before she joined the organization that she runs now, which is called the SumOfUs. SumOfUs is a global movement of over 18 million members and Emma spent a lot of time thinking about both how we create and engage and mobilize online communities and also about how we raise the resources to do the work that we also deeply care about using digital tools and using these online communities. So, here we go. Emma, over to you.
Emma Ruby-Sachs: Good morning, afternoon, evening, everybody. Thank you for coming today. This is just — I love this opportunity to pull back the veil a little bit on the work that I do every day because it’s true I was a lawyer. It’s true I write on the side, but at the end of the day I’ve spent the last 12 years or so working in this digital people-powered space and learned it kind of from the ground up. I walked into this world with a law degree and no experience in any of this kind of change organizing and now here I am talking to all of you. I think I want to start with just a framing about why I get so excited about the idea of digital organizing and digital fundraising, and I’ve done both traditional fundraising and traditional organizing and digital organizing.
There’s something really wonderful about working for a movement of people who are also powering that movement. It creates this very clear line of accountability between the groups that you’re serving and the people paying for the work. So, there I feel amazing knowing that I wake up in the morning and the people I’m thinking about when I wake up in the morning are also the people paying my salary so that I can come into work and do this work every day. And that’s what I really love about the power of online tools because it allows you to operate in that way and that accountable way without having to go through the middlemen that you sometimes see in the funding world. Not that they’re not essential at key moments, but it’s nice to be able to have that direct line.
I’m going to go through a lot of different options for how to set this stuff up, but I want to just, I think if there’s a principle that I could open with, just something that I want you guys to take away if you take away nothing else from this session. It’s that you want to invest upfront in having a digital presence and in having an ability to take in money digitally in an on-going way. And there’s lots of ways to set that up, but you want to make sure that you have that as any kind of organization. And you want to make sure that as you’re making decisions about how you organize and how you fundraise, but you focus on keeping your own data. There’s lots of options that maybe don’t allow you to keep the contact information of the people you’re organizing or you’re fundraising from. For example, Facebook doesn’t let you do that and there’s a bunch of options for how to take in money that don’t allow you to keep maybe the phone numbers or the credit card information. If you can, try and organize it so that you control the data of the people who are interested in communicating with you, and it doesn’t get held by a service, and you have access to it, even if, for example, you decide not to organize on Facebook in the next campaign.
So, that’s the biggest thing is make sure that you’re investing upfront in the infrastructure to take in money online and make sure that you’re focused on keeping the email addresses, the phone numbers, the information about the people, because you’re the person they want to have that information. You’re the person they want to communicate with and support in an on-going way. We’re going to go through this with principles, tools and process. Okay, principles. Clear requests are best and this section is about no matter where you’re fundraising, no matter how you decide to raise money online, whether it’s just a Facebook post or a WhatsApp message or if it’s an email you’re sending out or maybe you’re even presenting with a short video. These are principles about how to best encourage people to give money online. So, people online are giving very small amounts of money usually that we have yet to enter into the world where most people trust transferring large amounts of money online through an online payment processor.
So, they’re giving small amounts of money and they want to give money often to concrete needs. They also are being — they’re able to see because the internet is something that is curating a lot of these apps and bringing them to us. They’re often in our inboxes. They’re often on our Facebook pages. They’re often in our WhatsApp groups. They want to know why your particular need is urgent and they want to know what’s going to be different once the money is given. So, anytime you’re crafting a request, you want to be able to frame it in those very specific terms. It’s the difference between my organization helps young mothers build small businesses in location X, please give money now or this is the story of a particular person or a particular group of people who are presenting their business plans and applying for a loan. And if you donate right now we can help make sure they secure that loan and their businesses thrive.
And that creates a specificity, it creates a deadline and it creates a vision for what will change as you move forward. And those tend to perform a lot better with all mediums at all scales than the general business information about my organization and here’s what needs to change. Scale matters most. So, one of the big mistakes I see a lot of small organizations make is you move towards online fundraising and you open up that part of your website and you put an alert on Facebook and you don’t get very much money. And then you abandon online fundraising because when you think about investment of time, the $30 you got from your Facebook appeal doesn’t make as much sense as investing in grant writing or maybe some in-person events that are at that moment generating more money. But because it’s such tiny amounts of money from each person, and because the number of contacts you give is — you have is it’s going to whittle down so severely when it gets interpreted into the number of donors you have.
Investing in scale upfront is one of the key things that any organization can do in order to power fundraising. So, it means you have to take fundraising and kind of put it aside, and you want to go to a process of acquiring contact information. So, you don’t worry about raising money in the beginning. If you want to run a successful fundraising program, maybe you don’t even ask for money online for a whole year or you ask for money online, but you’re not expecting it to generate any money for your organization right away. You’re investing in scale, and if you look at big organizations like Avaaz or like SumOfUs they started with only investing in growth. That’s all they thought about was how many email addresses can I acquire who are in of people who are interested in the causes that I’m talking about? And sometimes for years they weren’t funded at all by those members. They were funded by foundations and other traditional funding partners and they invested in growing that email list and I’m going to talk a little bit about how to do that.
But the most important thing you can do as an organization starting a fundraising program is acquiring email addresses and phone numbers for WhatsApp. That is I can’t overemphasize that every email address, every WhatsApp contact, every individual person that you connect with online, they are eventually going to help power your fundraising program. It’s just may not be right away. So, give it time and make sure that you’re investing in scale, first and foremost, before you try and raise large amounts of money from the people who you’re connected to.
And then finally, the tools matter a lot as well. You want to make sure that the people who are being asked to participate in your movement are being asked to do so in the place where they are. So, if they are on Facebook, you want to make sure they can be asked to join on Facebook. If they’re on WhatsApp, you want to make sure you have ways for them to join through WhatsApp. You want to make sure that you’re able to talk to them on mobile. So, some of the more — some of the services or some of the websites can be — they can look great on your computer screen, but then when you’re on your cell phone, which is where most people are most of the time, it doesn’t actually look great and it’s hard to navigate. And we’ve all had that experience where you get sent to the desktop version of a website on your cell phone, and all of a sudden, you just click out because it’s too painful to try and figure it out. You want to make sure that the tools you’re using are storing the credit card information.
So, a huge part of commerce online is that one click donate that easy donate and there’s lots of tools now that facilitate that for groups like ours, but you want to know that you have that option when you invest in how you’re going to take in money on your website when you make that first decision of, “Okay. I have a website. How am I going to take in money?” And you want to eventually be able to ask people to donate $10 a month to support your work. And that could be something very easy like connecting to the PayPal account or a direct debit account of somebody. But you want that option because as you build up your number of subscribers and you build up your number of supporters, you’re eventually going to want to ask them to become these monthly donors that then power your work in a way that’s predictable going forward. And then the last thing is making sure that you support a multilingual website and that you have lots of different options because even though we’re all working in our local context, right now, any one of us has the ability to fundraise from anywhere in the world.
And I put a little asterisk there because some countries like India are trying to make it harder to do that. So, we could talk about specific contexts, but in general, we all have the ability to fundraise from multiple countries around the world and you can’t know when your work is going to be thrust into that global spotlight. And you want to make sure that your website is accessible to people from around the world. And we can talk a little bit more about why that is and also how currency exchanges can make a big difference there. You could have somebody in the Netherlands who learns about your work, maybe even through your work here in this network and then they give a certain amount of money and it can translate into a large amount of purchasing power on the ground where you’re doing your work now.
So, if I was going to talk about how you build a program, just in terms of principles not practical information. First, you try and scale up. You try and grow the number of subscribers that you have, the amount of contact information you have. Then you translate a subset of those people into donors who just give once for a very specific project that has a clear deadline and that tells the vision of what’s going to change in the world. And then eventually you try and turn some of those people into monthly supporters who now understand what your work is and can give $10 a month over the course of that usually lasts about 14 months until their debit card expires. And that creates online fundraising sustainability where you’re able to kind of predict how much money you might be able to raise online each month and then budget from that number.
Okay, tool. So, here’s how we get into the nitty gritty. A lot of people will, let’s say that — let’s say that you’re an organization, a small organization that’s gotten a grant to expand your online fundraising program to improve your sustainability. And you go and talk to a number of consultants and providers and they will tell you all sorts of new-fangled tools that are out there on the internet to fundraise. They’ll talk to you about Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and 1000 other things, and they’ll even talk to you about WhatsApp.
And I will offer that no one has figured out a better tool than email, even WhatsApp which is much more common as a place for people to communicate online or Facebook Messenger which is much more common as a place to communicate online. You can see how very quickly people can shift off of those platforms and also how those platforms make it difficult for you to directly control information because they actually want to control the data. That’s what they’re selling that’s their product.
Email still is, I think, the most effective way to grow at scale and to communicate with people and that’s great news because they’re lots of very cheap, very low tech options for communicating over email. It’s easy. It’s easy to experiment in it. It’s zero cost to email people. You can set up your own email address with almost no money. So, it’s incredibly accessible and it’s still the best. Nobody that I know of in our field has come up with a better system. There’s new-fangled systems, but they all have drawbacks and I think those drawbacks still lead us to email as the number one place to communicate.
So, when we’re talking about scale, we want to ask for people to share their email with you as the first thing. So, that starts with, let’s say, you have a website and you have a more information section that says if you want to learn more about the work we’re doing, sign up here. And that gives you a small number of emails that you then control and can email yourself and say, “Hey, this is our newsletter. This is, you know, some of the work we’re up to. We’d like to let you know. Here’s an opportunity to get involved.” You’re going to then email those people with clear asks for them to share with their networks so that new people in their networks are then sent to your website and input their email and this may be you guys may have already had sessions on this. So, I recognize that this may be one on one for some people, but what I — the most important thing for me to hit home with is that this process of sending out emails about clear concise actions where people can share their email with you if you haven’t contacted yet. This growth strategy is an online fundraising strategy. The two go hand in hand there is no difference.
And so every minute that you invest in collecting more email addresses that is going to fuel your fundraising program going forward. To give you a sense of scale, Avaaz when it was 50 million members around the world and sort of pretty evenly distributed around the world was raising roughly $25 million a year from 50 million members. And obviously, the vast majority of that money came from global north countries, like in Europe, for example or the United States. So, you need to grow very big to raise large amounts of money and so when you are starting out and you’re growing the list of let’s say, 100,000 people, that gives you the chance to start raising real money from the people who are interested in your work. So, the communication over email, sometimes, you can use spread the word, take action. You can even set up a petition site. I highly encourage you to just copy the model that Avaaz and some of us and move on and compact and all these groups around the world are using. It’s not a complicated model.
It’s literally just acquiring email addresses through petitions at the beginning. That’s how all these organizations start. So, it’s free to copy that as well. I’m a big believer in stealing in general from the — from other actors in the space, when we’re doing non-profit work. I find it’s not our job to be at the innovative front of the curve. It’s our job to scour the world and steal the best stuff. And you can use that even if you don’t have a petition site by asking people to spread the word or take action and the action can be something very simple like sharing an image of the work or sharing a problem that’s happening in the community that you want people to help raise awareness around. And the other really important thing about email is you don’t want to ask people for money right away. So far the testing that I’ve seen, the prime moment to ask somebody who signed up by email to be part of your community is when they’ve done three different things for you.
So, they’ve maybe signed up then they’ve shared information about the organization and maybe they’ve spread the word about a campaign that you’re doing, or they’ve emailed you about a specific request. Then that’s a good moment to say, “I would like to now see if you would donate a little bit of money.” So, even when you do have the scale to start asking for money, you want to make sure that you’re waiting a bit so that you’re not asking for money as the first thing, but you’re letting people join your community and get a sense of identity and understanding before they’re asked for money. Okay, moving on. These are just some examples of people who are using share actions. This is an organization called amplifier that creates art products mostly poster products that spread the word about social justice issues in the United States.
And here, one of their actions is very simple. They have produced artwork and they’re asking people to share it and spread the word and that alone can be a great way to grow your community. And notice that the subject line of the email is very to the point and it involves a bit of timeliness. It says it’s time to share the artwork so you feel like you have to open it now and then there’s some nice images in the email that’s always really helpful and it’s very short. Not that many words before the “ask to start participating”. Okay.
Raising money over email. So, we talked a little bit about how to do this effectively in terms of the principles. Here’s the practicalities. This is what an email will look like in somebody’s cell phone, and again, raising money over email is still the most effective and efficient way to raise money online. So, all the other stuff that you’ve seen about Facebook fundraisers and GoFundMe fundraisers, they’re useful and interesting, but they’re not as efficient as this process that we’re talking about right now. And what it involves is a short attention grabbing subject line. So, when you’re — the good thing about email is it’s cheap, it’s easy and it’s effective. The bad thing about emails it’s a very crowded marketplace. So, you know if you get a chat on WhatsApp you’re much more likely to open it than a subject line in an email. So, you want your subject lines to be short attention grabbing. You want them to be very relevant to what you’re about to ask a donation for. Then you want something very short and sharp, explaining the problem and the solution and the urgency.
So, this example that I have here from some of us is “The Canadian government is deciding right now whether to ban one of Bayer-Monsanto’s bee-killing neonics.” Now, this community is a little bit more aware of what’s happening with bees. So, you’ll notice there’s a bit of insider language. I just want to mention it’s not always awesome to use words like neonics in a fundraising email, but in this case they’re deeply into the world of bee conservation. And you’ll notice that right away, you’re saying there’s something that happens right now we need — this is urgent and urgency is another really important part of fundraising online. Bayer is running a sophisticated public relations war and we need your help to get the truth to politicians. So, that’s the problem. The problem is that there’s a company that is drowning out the voices of people and the money is going to help us get our voices out equal to that company and then here’s the solution.
“Can you chip in for a full page ad in Canada’s key newspaper to save the bees?” You’ve done all of that in a very small amount of words because on your phone, you know, people have very little attention span. I always imagine somebody in traffic who stopped at a stoplight and they look down at their phone and can they read it in that, you know, or at least read enough that they know they want to keep going in that three to five seconds that they take to look at their phone. I know it’s terrible to read in a car, but I also know that everybody does it so that’s my image in my head. And then you want a huge bright coloured donate link. So, Avaaz uses pink buttons, something around red is the best. So, if you’re going to decide what to use, you want pink or red or orange. Some of us uses orange because someone way back when decided that was one of our colours, but red and pink work better. There it is.
And all those sorts of decisions, including also the name of the person that you choose, which is a whole other thing about having a very long name you might want to shorten it a little bit so that people feel like it’s more accessible. In your subject line sometimes you can use that thing Re colon and then the subject line. People feel like that’s more personal and accessible, but most important is urgency, clarity and the short, sharp pitch for what it is that you want to fundraise for. This is over email, but this — again, if you think back to principles this was applicable when we were talking about any kind of fundraising pitch, but it works the best in emails. This is a good example of how that works.
And here’s another example with an image that I thought would be really useful for us to check out because another beautiful thing about email is that it can get images in front of people very easily. And again, a cheap way to get images in front of people as opposed to having a pay for a Facebook ad or do a video which can have production costs. And when you’re choosing an image, you want to have an image where ideally there’s some sort of face and eyes that’s what works best for fundraising. And so in this case, you can see there’s an orang-utan and we’re looking right into the orang-utan’s eyes. And again, I don’t have the subject line, but just looking at the three paragraphs that we’re talking about here. “25 orang-utans will die today.” So, that’s the urgency. You’ve taken something that actually is an on-going problem and you’ve created this compressed sense of urgency. “Palm oil deforestation is killing the last orang-utans on our planet and if we don’t act now, there won’t be any left by the end of the decade.” That’s the problem.
“We’ve got to stop this massacre before it’s too late.” Or, “We’ve got a plan to stop this massacre before it’s too late, but we need your help to double up now. Will you make a small monthly donation to save the orang-utans from palm oil destruction?” Notice how all they did was say plan. That’s the concrete solution. It was just a plan. It will be explained later on in the email, but just the idea that there’s a plan is concrete enough to get people to pay attention and then, I believe, although I can’t see right now. Yes, and then there’s that big button at the bottom. So, that helps us and then that big button with the bright colour allows us to just go quickly from urgency, problem, plan, my connection to this image, and then the button. Okay. And then this is another more sophisticated strategy for email fundraising. And I chose this one because it really does do a great job of illustrating a bunch of different strategies, although you’ll notice it’s not short.
So, I chose it because it’s good at illustrating a bunch of different strategies, but be careful of the length here. It’s not a great length. So, the first thing I want everyone to look at is when they put these buttons in here they linked the amount that somebody donated to a very specific solution. So, if anyone’s seen those campaigns to buy a section of the rain forest, there’s groups that do it well and work with indigenous groups on the ground and groups that do it terribly. But let’s assume for this purpose that this is a group that does it well and then does good transfer of title over to indigenous groups, but they are linking that directly to the amount of money that you donate. So, they’re saying to you, “If you donate $24,” and in dollars that’s this would be changed for the local currency, “I can protect four acres, but if I up it to $48, I can protect eight acres.” They’re using multiple buttons, which is another technique that people use and you can feel free to use where you have, you can give $2, you can give $6, or you can give $12 and people are very likely to choose that middle button.
So, it’s a way to give people options, to make them feel like they have choice and to sometimes raise more money than you were raising before. And it links it to incredibly concrete change. So, if you, let’s say, that you’re involved in direct service on the ground. If there is a dollar amount that serves a certain number of people in your community, linking that in your donation, online donations even if it’s the button that just is on your website all the time is really important. Donating $50 will help X. This is — there was that organization that was just so ubiquitous many years ago, also very problematic, the Sponsoring a Child. I think they got caught in a huge scandal at some point, but Sponsoring a Child that was sort of the first example of this kind of fundraising, where you link the dollars you give to the number of people or the things that you’re helping.
The other thing that they use here that’s really useful for online fundraising are matches. So, you’ve probably seen this in your fundraising in general, it works in email as well, where you have a one to one match or here what they’re saying is, “One wealthy supporter has said they’ll match anything raised one to one, literally doubling our impact until we’ve raised enough.” And so that’s another really important way to raise more money online is it creates urgency because there’s the match right now. So, the work doesn’t have to create the urgency. The online match can create the urgency and that’s really useful as well. And then a big goal, a really exciting goal, they need to raise nearly a million dollars fast or it could all fall through. That’s incredibly important too.
Putting out there even if you don’t need it, you’ll notice this in Kickstarter uses this. They have this almost like a thermometer, and they have this goal out there and then people get excited the closer you get to the goal. That’s another really important thing.
So, this is a great example of a number of those other strategies that you can use to raise money in email and they also work if you’re just raising money on your website. Okay. Next tool thing is WhatsApp. Now, many of you have seen that there’s a huge hack going around WhatsApp and I don’t know if WhatsApp is going to survive this hack event. There’s been a lot of migration off of WhatsApp and so the extent to which it will continue to be the, you know, chat service of choice for the world, I don’t know. And just so you guys know in case you get hit, if someone asks you for a code on WhatsApp in the coming days, please don’t respond. It’s gone everywhere. It’s all over Costa Rica and the US right now in Canada, but I don’t know where else it’s spread. But WhatsApp is great because like email, it lets you keep the data right now. So, if you have a supporter who gives you their phone number on WhatsApp or connects to you on WhatsApp, you then have that phone number and you can contact that person.
So, all of the principles of email communication apply in WhatsApp, although it works a little bit differently because you can’t send those sort of big buttons, you can’t send big images, but the words you send you still want to create in a very similar way. And then WhatsApp does this, I took a screenshot of the way it usually works is that you text them back and then they text you a link. Another option is if you get a business account on WhatsApp, you can actually message all your supporters with a link and a short message and that is a super effective way of communicating with people. Think about if email is like somebody waving from across a crowded train station, WhatsApp is somebody tapping on your shoulder. So, you’re going to get a lot more people to pay attention. It also means it’s a bit higher stakes. You want maybe even to test your messaging other places first and then bring it into WhatsApp to talk to your WhatsApp supporters, and the principles of scale first, money second apply to WhatsApp.
So, you want a big group of supporters you’re going to message before you start messaging them for money because if all they’re getting is money messages right at the beginning, and they don’t feel like they’re part of a big community, then they might just assume you are spam and not want to participate in those conversations. So, you want to mix it up. You want to give them opportunities to participate in different ways. You want to test your messaging in advance and then you want to keep it really short and sharp and urgent just like we talked about when you’re going to WhatsApp.
Okay. Now, there’s lots of off the shelf providers for payment processing and you can do varying levels of designing it yourself or buying it from somebody. For some people, just having the most basic, like, let’s say you have MailChimp as the way that you communicate with your email supporters and then you have a PayPal integrated button on your website. That’s sufficient and okay. That might be all that you need and you don’t need to get more sophisticated, but for those who are looking to build out an actual program that can raise sustainable amounts of money, money that you might need to, you know, maybe hundreds of 1000s of dollars a year, maybe millions of dollars a year. You’re going to want to look for something more sophisticated so that you can grow and it can handle multiple transactions and it gives you that multi lingual option, you know, gives you information about who donates and how often they’re donating.
It allows you to sign up recurring donors and it can offer those multiple languages. So, that’s more, there are the simple options and I don’t want to downplay the simple options, especially when you’re starting to grow and let’s say you only have 1000 people who are your email subscribers now, and you want to get to 100,000. Don’t invest in anything sophisticated now. Just try and collect email addresses through your email program, whatever one you’ve chosen to use or your WhatsApp account. Don’t worry too much about buying a sophisticated off the shelf provider. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s building your own thing. And I just, I don’t think it’s worth it because the off the shelf providers now are so good and so cheap that having some tech person give you like a pitch for a very sophisticated website and back end that can do this, it doesn’t seem to make sense to me. At my level of scale, we’re not building our own thing mostly. We do build some stuff ourselves, but we still use a provider for a lot of these core functions.
So, one of the ones is Action Network and this is we use a group called Action Kit. Action Network is just a bit more sustainable ownership. Action Kit just got bought by a US company. Action Network is sustainable. The DNC uses it so it can operate at very, very big scale. DNC is the Democratic National Committee. So, that’s a big political organization in the US and it can offer multilingual options. It offers all of these amazing integrations where you can securely contribute monthly. It allows you to make all sorts of choices in terms of the design that you’re using, the button placement, how much money, what the word say, how your logo is presented and so it’s actually like, I think one of the best providers out there because there’s not anything yet that I think that we need, at the scale we’re operating at that they can’t offer. But they also work with lots of smaller non-profits and so it’s not something that needs to only operate at a massive scale.
Another option here is a group called Classy, which also has many of these options and you’ll notice here when I talked about the pink and how important it is, you’ll notice here that they use lots of pink in their examples. And again, you can see how they’ve created quite a sophisticated branding landing page for people kind of looks like a big NGO, even if you’re not, at this point, a large organization. And that also lends credibility so people who feel a little more comfortable sharing their donation information because they don’t feel like they’re landing on a page that doesn’t necessarily know how to protect their data. They’re landing on a page that will protect their data and that’s something that a lot of people are concerned about when they’re donating online. Although, fewer people than you would imagine, you think that the security of donations would matter a lot, but I have yet to see that being a huge concern for people who are donating online.
And then the other one I want to just highlight is GoFundMe. So, GoFundMe is it’s a bit of a tricky one because the amount of information that they offer you of the people who donated the amount that you can kind of control the information that you can control the page is less, but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s very easy and accessible for small non-profits to access. So, if you’re running your first fundraiser and you’ve got a bunch of email addresses already, and you want to test the waters of how it might go. GoFundMe might be the right place to start because you can do it pretty easily and they’re very used to working with very small organizations. And they just, you know, take a proportion of the amount that is raised, I believe. I don’t know what the proportion is and they do let you keep a bunch of the data. So, you’re not handing over your data completely to another provider. So, GoFundMe sort of like the training wheels version of if you have to use it as a program beyond just the donate button that already exists on your website and the email program that you’re using or your WhatsApp chat.
Okay. Those are some of the tools. So, I’m going to talk a little bit about process here and staffing. So less slide changing and a little bit more of just me being a talking head. So, when you’re donating and creating a donation program, a lot of what we’ve talked about up until now, is let’s say that we are just trying to start. We’re getting ourselves off the ground. We’re going to grow to scale first. We’re going to come up with a bunch of different ways to communicate with our members then we’re going to dip our toe into asking them for money. And then we’re going to start building up a real fundraising program where we’re asking people for money on a regular basis. That process has its own rhythm, its own timing and it needs its own staff eventually. So, if you think about a person’s journey through an online donation, they get an email request or a WhatsApp request. They then are sent to a payment website then they hopefully are getting a “thank you” and a share request.
And I just want to pause on that. You want to make sure that you’re thanking everyone who donates you and that you’re asking them to share something. I don’t think it’s a very good idea to ask people to share the fundraiser because I have yet to see many fundraisers go viral or get a lot of new subscribers or donors. Sometimes they do if it’s like a really cool thing to fundraise for on Kickstarter or a really heartfelt urgent humanitarian issue. So, if you’re in one of those two categories, you can ask people to share the fundraiser itself. But if you’re not in one of those two categories, have them share something that lets people subscribe and become part of your email program and then move their own way through into your donation program, as opposed to what I often see, which is like, “I just donated to X. Join me,” which is the thing that most organizations do. And even some of us does this, although I don’t think that it’s actually borne out in the data that it’s helping in any way.
So, you ask them to share, the fact that they’re now involved with your organization to help this be a growing moment. And then this last part is really important, you want to make sure that you’re reporting back on the results of the donation. So, one of the key elements to create trust and investment in your organization is something called a report back. And it’s just an email that says something like, “You guys all donated. You helped us raise 10s of 1000s of dollars and you made this newspaper ad possible. You made this loan support program possible. Here’s the lives that it touched and changed. Thank you. Here’s the thing that we achieved.” And that report back comes in, you can even include at the bottom of it, please help support our work further. And then that same person who’s gotten the email request, gone to the payment website, received the thank you, shared information and received the report back, then will get another email request from you that allows them to participate in your program again.
In that email request, you don’t want to just email them the next day for another donation. There’s lots of different rules about how often you can ask for money. Some people ask for money every three days and some people only ask for money once a month. I think every two weeks is kind of the sweet spot of the most often that you should ask the same person for money again. And if you can wait longer than that you might raise a little bit more money per ask, but overall probably won’t raise more money. But you can do it once a month if you’re — if that is sustainable for you and if you’re doing it every few days, just know that you’re going to have a bunch of people who get annoyed and drop off. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to raise less money because if you raise less per request, but you’re sending more fundraising emails every month, you’re going to end up with probably a larger amount raised. I just don’t like annoying people so much because part of my job is to build this sustainable, constantly growing community. So, I want to make sure people don’t feel like they’re being tapped on the shoulder too often.
This program could be run by just one person working really hard, but everything in this program takes time like trying to figure out what you’re fundraising for, trying to write it in a way and test different ways of writing it. Maybe by first putting something up on Facebook a few times and seeing what gets the most likes or engagement or putting something out on another channel that you’re using like a little video and seeing which gets the most engagement or sending out an email just to a small number of people and seeing which kind of writing or fundraising request is getting the most engagement. So, you’re doing that testing first. You don’t just go into a backroom, come up with something and send it out. You want to always test when you’re asking for money so that when you ask for money, it’s your best possible product.
But coming up with that idea for what to ask for, coming up with the right wording and coming up with the right image. Sometimes you can test, you know, 10 different subject lines and that can change how much money people give or how many people engage with the email. And then making sure that you’re monitoring that the payment website is working so once you’ve sent out the email, you’re keeping an eye on the payments and making sure they’re coming through in a normal manner. You’re making sure that people who write you emails and say, “I didn’t mean to give as much money,” or “I need a refund that somebody is responding to those emails.” And then you want to make sure there’s somebody writing the “thank you” and devising the share request that goes into the “thank you”. And then somebody writing a report back, you end up needing either a separate team, which can happen when you get big or you need to incorporate online fundraising as core to all the work you’re doing.
So, the same people who are writing your newsletter, the same people who are writing your grants, those people are also going to be trained up and invested in writing the email request for fundraising. The same people who are managing your website now are going to be the ones who start to learn how to also manage your payment website. The same people who are on the ground delivering the work are the people that are going to think about what do I want to report back to the people who paid for this work. Even if in the beginning they’re only contributing a small amount, you want to make sure that they’re doing that. And if you think about traditional fundraising, it’s not that different. If you go and ask for money from a foundation, for example, you write a grant, you create relationships, that’s the growing scale. You write a grant proposal that’s the email request. You then have to go through all the rigmarole of figuring out how to transfer the money, getting maybe a sponsor to help you do that.
Then you write your mid report, follow up with your explanation of what good work you’re doing and gratitude and then you write your end of year report on how you spent that money. So, you’re almost treating each individual who’s giving a tiny amount of money in the same way that you would an institutional donor, but you’re creating that person to person accountability. And eventually, when you get to scale that sustainability so that you maybe don’t ever have to go talk to an institutional funder again, and you become entirely independent. A little bit about data. I don’t want to get too much into data because either you’re working on your own with your own tools, sort of very basic tools, and I’m going to explain a little bit about what you pay attention to. But there’s just — you don’t need to know a lot of sophisticated stuff and you won’t be able to access it or you’re working with an off the shelf provider that can help you understand what you’re looking at. You don’t need to become a data expert.
The most important thing to pay attention to when you’re sending an email that’s asking for money or when you’re putting out a request that’s actually asking for money is what they call action rate. So, it’s the number of people you sent the thing to who viewed the thing, how many of those took action. And that’s the thing you want to compare, some people compare money raised and that’s useful eventually when you’re doing little tweaks to like the colour of your button or the amount or if you’re doing something cool and exciting. Like that thing I told you, I showed you about $24 can buy four acres or we have a match, then maybe you’re thinking about how much money people are donating and comparing the actual amounts raised. But in the beginning, all you’re looking for a number of donors. That’s the most important indicator. It’s not how much money people are giving because once people give once they’ll give more, and they’ll give again.
It’s about just reaching the largest number of people who are willing to click that button and give any amount at all. So, your only thing that you care about is of the people who see this donation request, how many people are taking action? And when you’re thinking about whether one appeal works better than another, one email works better than another, one image works better than another, one video works better than another that’s the only metric that you really should be paying attention to, because you’re in a growth posture most of the time when you’re fundraising. You’re trying to get more donors and have them have a positive experience with your organization. So, a lot of that fancy data that you may be encouraged to look at, I would encourage you to ignore. And all you care about is who is seeing this email and who is seeing this video, and then how many of those people are taking action.
One last thing on just a little thing on data, sometimes people will look at what’s called open rate on an email and if you’ve been using MailChimp you’ll see somebody’s report open rate. I don’t use that number because it’s mostly fake. A lot of our cell phones now and our email programs signal that they’ve opened an email when actually they haven’t. All that’s happening is there’s like a little pixel in the email that’s invisible, and somebody is registering if it’s been read, if it’s been looked at, but the phone will look at it, or the email program will look at it, and then it will tell you that you’ve had your email opened and that’s just untrue. So, when I’m looking at email requests, I’m looking at the number of emails I sent and the number of people who donated. Those are the only two numbers I know for sure are real. For those of you who’ve ever paid for a Facebook ad, you’ll notice this. There’s like a ton of numbers on Facebook ads that are fake, like how many views your Facebook ad got. That’s just fake.
That’s just how many people scrolled through it in their feed and you can’t tell if they actually saw it. So, there’s all of these numbers that are — that seem like they’re giving you a very rich data set to make great decisions, but actually aren’t helping you make decisions at all. They’re just confusing you. So, always think about, when you’re thinking about anything online, think about owning as much of the data as possible and paying attention only to the numbers that you can concretely control and understand. Not any of the fancy flashy stuff that happens outside of that. And then examples of success outside of US and Europe, I mean, what I’ll say is this. I’ve fundraised all over the world, sometimes on a global scale and sometimes on a national scale. And sometimes on an international scale where you’re specifically raising money — we just did this thing, a COVID support network where we were specifically raising money in Europe for members to then transfer money to members in countries that were hardest hit by COVID at the time, which were a lot in Latin America.
And we did specific, you know, fundraising in countries for that program and it works everywhere. And in fact, outside of Europe and North America, there are traditions of tithing and other sort of donation as part of lifestyle that make it easier to encourage people to donate, because it’s part of the culture in a way that it’s not really as much part of the culture and like, for example, Canada, where I’m from donations to non-profits. I wouldn’t say they’re part of the Canadian culture, people do donate, but they mostly expect governments to pay for this stuff and they pay their taxes and they encourage governments to sponsor non-profits. So, you may have a benefit, if in the country you’re operating in, it has that culture already and then what I would say is just make sure that your fundraising appeal fits into that existing cultural norm. So, if tithing is part of your culture, for example, then using that framing for your email appeal can really help people understand why it is important for them to support you and make it a little easier for them to support you instead of whatever they usually give money to.
And then just local economy is relevant. So, if you’re going to raise money in a country where the purchasing power of that dollar or euro and compared to the purchasing in the country of origin compared to the country where you’re operating in, you’re going to raise a larger amount of operating funds just by virtue of currency exchange. So, if you’re raising money in India, for work in India, you lose out on that currency exchange and you have to keep that in mind. You probably have to go for a larger scale in order to get more money. So, it’s not like certain countries people don’t donate. I find that income and donation rate are not related in any way. People who don’t have very much money often contribute to their communities and at very high rates, often higher rates than what we would think of as high income countries. But you just — you’d lose out on that currency exchange where you get a few euros and they actually translate into a lot of purchasing power.
And if you do operate locally, I would just encourage you to experiment with global appeals because there’s nothing stopping you from taking in money from all over the world. And then you do get to capitalize on that currency exchange, which can be really useful, especially if you’re purchasing anything on the ground or paying salaries in local currency. And I think that is everything that I had prepared. Is there anything else you want me to cover Mallika before we do questions and chat?
Mallika Dutt: So, I’m going to just ask the participants if they have questions for you and you can either put them in chat or you can unmute yourself and ask the question. And you made, while we’re waiting for folks to do that, you had made a reference to countries like India that might be complicating things a little bit and I’m sure there are other parts of the world where there are increasing government restrictions around being able to raise resources from global sources. So, I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit and I’ll just invite you to do that and then ask folks if they have questions to either put them in the chat or get ready to ask online.
Emma Ruby-Sachs: Yeah, of course. So, operating in India you’ll know more if you’re on the ground there, but my general sense from groups that I’ve worked with and my own experience there is that you have to kind of get to scale before anyone pays attention to you. So, I’ll just put that Asterisk in, but there is the — I’m forgetting the acronym for the law that was passed. God, it must have been seven years now that basically is trying to stop foreign funding of political activity in India, you know, that you may know the thing at the top of your head, the FCRA. But what it does is that if any dollars, technically, if any dollars are coming in from out of country and are being used to purchase anything that could be possibly seen as political, and, you know, they shut down all sorts of groups including foundations in the country based on this.
But let’s say you try and purchase political ad or pay a salary for somebody who then does some sort of thing that the government interprets as political IE not conducive to its own operations, they can then freeze your bank account. And so that law has been problematic and you’ve probably seen tons of news stories about Greenpeace, and I think Ford Foundation as well then had trouble, getting taken out by that interpretation of that very problematic law. And there are other countries, I’m sure, that have — where governments have done similar things. In my opinion, it’s just a tool to quash dissent and incredibly problematic, but we don’t have to go into Indian national politics today.
Mallika Dutt: And Emma do you know organizations that are based in the global south that are not based in, you know, Europe or North America that have used that have been able to scale and raise money through digital fundraising effectively? Do any examples come to mind? Are there groups that are on this webinar today that have been doing this effectively? We’d love to hear your experiences as to how this has been going as well.
Emma Ruby-Sachs: I mean, what I’ll say in just in terms of that experiences, like when I was at Avaaz there were national programs that ran pretty independently, like one in Brazil, for example, that grew to millions of members and was fundraising from Brazil. And so, it’s definitely possible to run those programs and they can grow quite quickly, especially if you’re using the tactic of petition or online action that is easy to do, that encourages growth and then asking for money after you’ve grown to quite a large scale.
Mallika Dutt: Yeah, and actually, Diego, who is […] that program in Brazil is going to be one of our speakers later on so that he can really speak specifically to how they built that out in Brazil. So, stay posted for that conversation. So yeah, questions from participants?
Juanita Rosales: I’m sorry about my English. I speak native Spanish. So, I’m just going to go. The thing is I was thinking the difference between, like, fundraising and maybe a plan of benefits. And the question is, does like the donator need to have like benefits whenever he’s giving money or this is different because it’s only a donation, and the person just doesn’t think that it going to have like a refund of that donation. So, what do you think about that, it is like two different things or is the same or you should always give something back for the donation? I’m sorry, if it’s not clear.
Emma Ruby-Sachs: No, makes perfect sense. No, totally, first of all, your English is amazing, but also, I totally understood what you’re asking. The — so, I’ve tested a bunch of this stuff, like should you be giving them something as small as a chance to connect and ask questions. Should you be giving them a T-shirt? Should you, you know, there’s people who experiment with actual benefits, like you almost kind of join a community and then get something in return for it. And it is true that being asked, being offered something like a sticker or something small in return for giving your email can increase the number of people who give over their email address. But at this level of online donation where you’re asking for, you know, somewhere between zero and $25, I haven’t found that the offer of some sort of benefit back increases significantly, participation.
It’s also really expensive, like a lot of this stuff, email — online transactions through email or WhatsApp is the dirt cheapest thing you can do in terms of raising money and there’s almost no transaction cost whatsoever. But the minute you start trying to send people something or offer them a service, it just becomes wildly expensive very quickly. There are people who are succeeding on this, like Kickstarter that’s their whole principle, right. Give money and then you get something in return at the end of the day or, you know, there’s payment for access to content that a lot of groups like newspapers are trying out and seeing how they work. And even newspapers as a person who’s sort of part of creating the Guardian’s fundraising program, one of the geniuses of The Guardian they were like, “We’re not going to offer you anything. We’d just would like you to donate because you value us.” And it worked wonderfully. So, in a way, I encourage you to think away from the benefit model as being necessary because it increases cost and at the level we’re talking about, I don’t see that it increases the amount raised significantly. I haven’t seen any testing that shows that.
Mallika Dutt: So, Emma there’s a question from […] that asks if the same principles and techniques apply to building a dues-paying membership model online.
Emma Ruby-Sachs: So, I don’t have a ton of experience with that concept of dues. Although, I do have a friend who runs a group called the National Domestic Workers Alliance and I believe some of their services sort of operate that way, but I don’t know for sure. And I would say that’s what you’re doing there is a fee for service model then you’re almost into the business model mode. So, what you’re doing there is offering something of value that people then want to participate in. So, the only advice I have for that I think the same techniques definitely apply in terms of what’s good communication, what’s lowest transaction cost for communication, and the maintaining your own data thing. But you also want to make sure that with that contact information you can deliver the service. So, sometimes dues I always think of unions, for example, like that’s a very thick service. You’re offering a lot to somebody in return for their dues. So, you need to know a lot about them in order to have them participate properly and online doesn’t facilitate that super well.
Mallika Dutt: Thanks, Emma. Edward asks are there specific digital platforms for specific fundraising needs? If that is true, can you elaborate?
Emma Ruby-Sachs: Truth I don’t know the answer depending on the fundraising needs. So, I know that if you’re involved in humanitarian fundraising I’m sure there are platforms that are specific for certain kinds of humanitarian fundraising that waive fees or make it easier for people to maybe see a lot of different options for that kind of fundraising. So, for example, I could imagine that there are platforms for access to water. If that’s what you’re involved in, you can kind of be on the same platform as a lot of different organizations that do that. And if you’re purely non-profit, sometimes you can get approved for like the Facebook donation option button where they suggest you to people as a way to kind of raise money. I think all of that is useful. I don’t — it’s a very competitive field and again, you don’t get to keep all the data. So, it’s not the direction I would send you in if you’re just starting. And I don’t know about specific other than that unless you have a specific fundraising world that you’re working in. I might tweak my memory.
Mallika Dutt: Emma, the next question from Wendy asks are the forms of collection with individual persons the same as they were before COVID-19 or has something changed in mentality and social sentiment that implies a change in strategy. So, how has the pandemic affected —
Emma Ruby-Sachs: Yeah, affected this. So, the most important thing to say is that the pandemic did not affect our fundraising numbers at all. And so online fundraising, when you get to scale is pretty resilient to changes in global economy. And I think that’s important because if you’ve been involved in the traditional funding world, you’ve seen those portfolios contract quite heavily in a lot of cases, and that can be really difficult. But our fundraising and the fundraising of equivalent organizations didn’t change in backgrounds with Avaas and the 2008 crash didn’t change at all, either. I do believe in a lot of parts of the world, WhatsApp has been used as a way to channel COVID relief and access COVID relief. And so there’s more, my understanding is that in certain places there’s even more transactions happening on WhatsApp, financial transactions than there were before, which might make it more attractive as a fundraising venue than it was before.
So, that’s one thing that we haven’t experimented with yet, but I’ve been hearing and so I think that might be something to work on or look into. And then I think, I don’t know, when I think about why our fundraising hasn’t necessarily changed I think part of it is you’re always asking for small amounts of money, but anything that reinforces this notion of being interconnected around the world, at least for a group like ours, that fundraisers globally, often for things that are happening not on your doorstep. That can really help with the branding of what you’re asking for and the feeling that people are getting about participating in that camp.
Jim India: Thank you. So, my question is a lot of people often find it easy to, you know, give money to causes like education, healthcare, you know, provision of water, but organizations like ours, for instance, where we work in what we might call the intangible, where we work in leadership development. So, we are working with communities to position young people to take over leadership and that sometimes take time, you know, five years, six years. Do you have any specific hacks that you would, you know, give to organizations like ours and how do you then communicate this change that often takes a long time? How are you able to talk to your community and convince them that yes, invest in us and, you know, the change is going to come eventually? Thank you.
Emma Ruby-Sachs: Yeah, I actually just was working on a fundraising appeal about a group that takes youth leaders in climate from around the world and gives them leadership training. And it was grappling with exactly this, like, how do you create that same structure of urgency and tangibility when you’re really talking about investing in people. And we came up with a bunch of different frames, but the urgency became expanding access and we used a single person as inspiration. So, one of the things that you have as a resource is you have individuals, and to the extent that they’re comfortable sharing their story that can be incredibly powerful. And then you can say, we’re running a training right now, we need — we have, you know, 100 young people waiting to participate. And you can actually link it quite, you know, how they did that fundraising appeal where it was like $24 to three acres, you can do a very similar thing where it’s a certain amount of money to sponsor one person to have that experience and linking it to a very inspiring description of what that experience was like for one of your existing participants.
So, you can do a fundraising appeal for expansion that way. You can imagine a very short alert that showcases an incredibly compelling participant and where they’re at in their journey. So, that’s one thing that I think would be really wonderful, and again, all those tricks of the trade, the images, the face looking at you. All that stuff will be really helpful as you’re communicating who you’re serving and how you’re serving them. And then I think pointing to don’t feel like you only can point to the people who come through your program, you know, you can point to leaders who’ve had similar investments or who just are playing in similar role in their communities as the young people you’re working with. So, I think one of the subject lines we played with was 1000 Gretas thinking about Greta Thunberg, obviously, we can’t take any — this training program can’t take any credit for creating Greta Thunberg, but they’re using that model as a way to grow the movement.
And so you can always take those inspiring stories that other people might understand and use them in your alerts, and then talk about how your program is promoting that. So, you don’t have to have a bunch of people who’ve already completed the program and change the world. You can just look to people who change the world and then refer to them as the model that you’re pursuing. That’d be my best guess at how to start.
Jim India: Thank you.
Tigist Shewarega Hussen: I just want to ask about ethics. I’m having a side conversation with a friend and then the conversation is like, why is it very difficult for people in movements and activists just find it very difficult to talk about money and fundraising, as I said, such an awkward feeling around that conversation. And then we talk about it has a lot to do with ethics, around fundraising and also the fact that it is becoming one of the most popular kind of industry. And so, in your work, personally, also in the ways in which you do, how do you reinforce this kind of accountability and then also making the merit of the movement building aspect of the work? I wanted to ask that. Thank you.
Emma Ruby-Sachs: I’m so glad you brought that up because when you have a program it’s up and running this is a huge amount of what you think about So, the first thing is that if you’re a membership based organization, like SumOfUs or Avaas is trust is all you have, you know, you could be completely torpedoed by somebody hacking in and sending something fake to your members, and then all your assets are gone. You don’t have anything else.
You are a movement and that’s it. It’s not like you have a building and a bunch of experts who are helping create services. So, creating trust is incredibly important and then making sure that those dollars are then used for exactly what you say they’re going to be used for is also incredibly important. And that transparency is, I think, the first way you get through the ethics problem where you are telling people exactly what you’re doing. So, there’s no — some people in order to raise money get nervous and they try and kind of put in some tricky business to make it seem like it’s a more compelling ask.
And actually, what you want to do is be really honest about your needs. And sometimes I find that individual donors are a lot braver and more understanding about things like the kinds of services you have to offer or how much you really need to spend to pay for staff salaries or what it takes to pay for a technical program than institutional funders. Sometimes you actually get a better reception by being just more honest about what it is that you’re raising money for than you will if you pretend that every dollar they’re giving you is actually going to go feed the hungry, because it doesn’t. We all know that there’s a certain amount that goes somewhere else. And if you say it’s all going to feed the hungry, you need to make sure that every dollar actually moves in that direction. And there’s lots of ways to do that including like on your website just having a little note that says, you know, 5% of this is going to go to transaction fees, and 15% is going to go to overhead and then 80% of this is going to go to the programmatic work, which is, which are amazing numbers for the non-profit sector, and I think are a great standard to hit for.
I think there’s a whole bunch of other ethical things around how money that’s collected online is accounted for and the truth of the matter is that it’s not people who run GoFundMes could take that money and go wherever and when GoFundMe finds out, they try and return and get the money returned. But at the end of the day, it’s a very — it’s a bit of a wild west, which is why we want groups like all of you to be harnessing those tools, because the more responsible actors in that space, the better we are. If we let this space be taken over by irresponsible actors, then online fundraising, which I think still is an incredible way to create accountability to human beings for the work that you’re doing, it starts to become a deeply undermined space. So, we want groups that we know are doing great work to be harnessing this, using these online tools and then transferring that money.
And I think that the unrestricted nature of online fundraising, especially if you’re a C4 instead of a C3, if you’re registered in the US or you’re, I guess, in other countries that charity laws are not distinguished in the same way, but it allows you to make decisions that are right for your people and to communicate out why you made those decisions directly as opposed to having to fit into some pre-determined. This is not the money for institution building. This is money for programmatic work or when we talk about institution building, we only talk about this. It creates freedom for those on the ground who are actually doing the work to do the work. So, there have been times where I’ve run fundraisers that are humanitarian and the only way we’ve used that money is for things that the big humanitarian groups won’t pay for because their internal restrictions or documents or orientation won’t allow them to. And so you can fill in those cracks because you’re not a big institution and because you’re raising money directly from people in a way that I think is incredibly radical and transforming for this space.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you so much, Emma. I think that, you know, one of the things that I’ve certainly come to in all of the, in the three plus decades of being in the non-profit space and the movement space is that conversations around money, resources, mobilization are so complex, right, like there’s so many layers to how we go about making sure that we can do the work that we also deeply care about in the best possible way and in the best resourced way. So, this has been a really helpful, very practical hands-on explanation of how we can tap into digital fundraising and really expand the possible revenue streams that we might have access to. And I really appreciate Tigist’s questions about the ethics of it because, you know, we’re certainly always asking about how we align our fundraising strategies with our values and the change that we’re actually trying to bring about in the world. So, it was a great note to end this conversation on.
This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at mallikadutt.com. That’s M-A-L-L-I-K-A D- U-T-T dot com.
This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.
“Inter-Connected Theme” composed by Devadas, (c) Mallika Dutt, LLC 2021.
Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.