Non-Profits: How to Get More Online Donations


Before I moved to New York, I volunteered for an animal shelter in the South Carolina city where I lived. Actually, I still do, managing their Web site. Before I got there, the site was a mess. Someone set it up for the shelter, and then abandoned them. Things were broken, out of date, and just plain not working. Being a non-profit organization, they couldn’t afford to hire someone to fix it.

So I volunteered.

I’ve been a member of the Internet marketing and search industry for three years now. My expertise lies in SEO copywriting, and I wouldn’t presume to call myself a search engine optimization expert by any means. Still, in addition to doing a lot of reading and experimentation on my own, I’ve been fortunate to work with very smart and talented people, and I’ve paid attention and learned a lot.

Starting last July, I applied that knowledge to the shelter’s site. Since then, pageviews have increased, time spent on the site is up, and the bounce rate is down. Most importantly, online donations increased. This is crucial because their operation relies solely on donations. Without them, the shelter wouldn’t be able to save the hundreds of animals they do each year.

Non-profit organizations raised $1.3 billion dollars online last year, with the average amount of online donations being around $91.94. Those numbers have gone up over the last three years, despite the recession, so it’s a pretty safe bet that they will continue to do so. It means having an online presence is becoming essential to non-profits and their fundraising efforts.

But a lot of the smaller non-profits can’t afford to have a Web site manager on staff, or hire someone to help them manage their online fundraising. If that’s the boat you’re in, here are some tips to help increase donations through your Web site.

Optimize Your Site

I’m going to assume you already own your domain, pay for your own hosting, and have a Web site set up with an easy-to-use content management system like WordPress. If this is not the case, stop reading now, and at least go buy your domain and get your own hosting. Not having control over your Web property is like renting a house where you’re at the mercy of a homeowner who can evict you at any moment. If you take nothing else away from this post, let it be that.

Optimizing your site means applying some SEO principles so search engines can not only find it, but will look upon it favorably and give it a good position on the results page when people perform searches. This can help bring more people to your site, and once they’re there, you can work on getting them to donate to your cause. But how in the heck do you optimize your site so people can find it in the first place?

One of the best resources out there is the SEOBook Non-profit’s Guide to SEM (Search Engine Marketing), which covers SEO, and many other aspects of online marketing for non-profits. Also take a look at the SEO Guide from

As great as those resources are, they require some do-it-yourself gumption. If you don’t have the time or personnel for that, check out the other services Grassroots has to offer. They help non-profits get hosting, site design and building, SEO consulting, and other helpful services, all for free, if your organization meets certain requirements.

Publicize Your Site

SEO only gets you halfway there. To bring potential donors in, you need to get the word out. One of the quickest and easiest ways to do that is through social media.

The relationship between non-profits and social media is almost a natural one, if for no other reason than most social networks offer the perfect price for non-profits—free. Social media accounts can be quite powerful if they’re used well, and can help you bring in more visitors, and increase your donations.

Just remember that no social media account should exist in a vacuum. Your goal should always be to direct fans, followers, connections, everyone to your own site. Use your social media accounts as little traffic cops, giving people just enough information to wave them through that intersection to arrive at your site. A few to start with:

  • Facebook: Before you jump in and create a page for your charity, download the service’s guide for non-profits.
  • Twitter: While there’s no real how-to guide for Twitter, someone has taken it upon themselves to create an account that only follows non-profit accounts. Look for opportunities like this to connect with others, and get your organization’s name out there.
  • YouTube: If you’ve seen the commercials Sarah McLachlan did for the Humane Society, you know how effective video can be in getting people to care about—and donate to—your cause. YouTube offers non-profits a few extras such as premium branding and increased upload capacity, as well as tips and advice on how to get the most out of your video channel.
  • LinkedIn: It’s more than just a resume and job site. Many of LinkedIn’s features can be used to great advantage for non-profits, and they provide a guide on how to get the most benefit.
  • Your Own Blog: All those social networks are great for keeping your organization in the public eye, but remember the goal is to bring them back to your site. Use your blog to provide more in-depth information about what you do, the events you host, and how people can get involved, including how they can donate.


Now, before you balk and say you can’t afford advertising, remember we’re talking about the Internet, not costly traditional media advertising. The Internet offers tons of free opportunities, especially for non-profits, and that includes advertising.

Google has a program called Google Grants for AdWords, which offers in-kind advertising for non-profits. It’s actually part of a larger program—Google for Non-Profits—which provides many other services to assist non-profits.

The entire program is definitely worth checking out, but when it comes to bringing more people to your site and encouraging them to donate, AdWords is a great way to publicize not just your organization in general, but any special events you may be hosting, as well as requests for donations that link directly to your donate page. It doesn’t get much better than free advertising.

Make Donating Easy

If we were talking photography, this would be the money shot. The easier it is for someone to donate, the more likely they’ll be to do it. Make sure your charity’s address is also included on your donate page for those who don’t feel comfortable transacting over the Internet.

But for those who have read your mission, become interested in what you do, and want to donate right then and there, you need a PayPal donate button.

Yes, there are plenty of other online payment options out there, and some of them may even be better than PayPal. But what’s going to help you get donations is using a widely recognized brand that people can feel comfortable using. You’ve already jumped enough hurdles just to get someone to the point of wanting to donate. Don’t push it by asking them to trust an unknown, unfamiliar service too. You’ll only increase the chance they’ll click away and not come back.

PayPal’s donate button is fast, easy, secure, and offers a few extras, too. You can set up your donate button to either accept donations of a set amount (not really recommended—most people don’t like to be told how much they should donate), or of any amount the person wishes to send.

It’s also possible to create a button that lets people set up recurring donations, so if someone wants to send you $10 a month, you can give them the option to do that. Just be sure to include the Unsubscribe button on your page so those who do opt for recurring donations can stop them at any time. Don’t hold anyone hostage to their donations, or make things difficult for them. It’s a sure way to lose support.

Also remember to include information on your donate page about how your organization uses the money it receives. If any of it goes to administrative costs, divulge that. Be as transparent as possible. People want to feel they’re doing good when they donate to causes they believe in, and that their money is being used well and appropriately.

Above all, the best way to encourage people to donate to your non-profit organization is to talk to them and let them know what’s at stake with their donation. Engage them in conversation, whether it’s through your blog comments, on your Facebook page, or via your Twitter account. Answer their questions, and try to offer them something of value. People tire very quickly of being asked for things—especially money—and receiving nothing in return.

Make your site a resource of information related to your cause. Are you an animal shelter? Publish blog posts and pages about pet care. Does your non-profit support disease research? Offer information about staying healthy and managing the illness you focus on. The more involved you are with your community, both on and offline, the more success you’ll have in raising awareness, and increasing your online donations.

Your Comments

  • Tracey Swanson

    So what happened with the shelter? Did their online fundraising go up? Their overall fundraising? What impact did Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, and a blog have for them?

    This is a great post with fantastic information, but many nonprofits need to see some cold hard facts before they make investments online.

    • Michelle Lowery

      Hi Tracey! Thanks for your comment. As I said in the post, the shelter’s online donations did increase. Their overall donations (both monetary and otherwise) have also increased, which I didn’t mention since this post focuses on online donations.

      The shelter actively uses Facebook and Twitter, and we’re working on building up their blog and incorporating other social media marketing methods. It’s a process. But to have seen positive results after just four months is encouraging.

      I understand your point about non-profits needing supporting data before making investments online. But I think it’s important to remember that these methods come with little risk for a lot of gain because they are all free. The only investment is of time, which I also know can sometimes be hard to come by in a non-profit!

      • Tracey Swanson

        Michelle, thank you for your response. Do you have a sense of how much their donations have increased. That is what responsible nonprofit boards really care about – the marginal benefit that will be derived from any new course of action.

        I know from experience that your claim that social media marketing is “free” doesn’t fly with most nonprofit boards, because they know that time is money, and any time they spend on social media is time they are not spending on other, potentially well-proven, methods of fundraising for them.

        Another concern that I’ve heard from nonprofit boards is that, rather than creating a new fund stream, online fundraising is actually merely shifting donors from one method to another, and actually not increasing the overall donations by much, therefore making the additional effort not worthwhile (again, relative to using those resources for other fundraising purposes).

        I think this post is a fantastic primer for nonprofits wanting to get started in social media marketing and I’m very glad to see that this nonprofit in particular has been so adventurous and committed to social media marketing.

        • Michelle Lowery

          Hi Tracey. Thanks for following up.

          Online donations for the shelter have doubled from what they were prior to July, when I started working on the site, to now. But I think it’s important to remember that this post wasn’t meant to be a case study of one shelter–four months isn’t enough time to fully gauge ROI. It’s simply an example. The fact that there was an increase after implementing some of these ideas is, in my opinion, encouraging enough to suggest that small non-profits that can’t afford a full-time site manager can see some benefit by trying one or more of these methods.

          Social media is free, meaning it does not require payment to set up an account. Anything anyone does, whether a business, a non-profit, or an individual, requires an investment of time. One of the resources I mentioned,, offers a program for non-profits that provides social media management, among other things–all for free–so that’s an option for those organizations that can’t spare the money, manpower, or time.

          In looking at the organization’s site to which you’ve linked in your comment, I see you encourage connection via Facebook and Twitter in your blog posts, so you’re already implementing three suggestions in this post. It’s my hope that more non-profits see the value of social media as it relates to non-profits and fundraising, the same way you have.

          On your organization’s contribute page, there’s a PayPal donation button, an address for people to send checks–two more things I suggested here–as well as online donation buttons for networks other than PayPal. There’s even the ability to donate through a grocery store loyalty program, which is a brilliant idea. It looks like we’re on pretty much the same page as far as how to encourage people to donate online and interact through social media.

          My point was not that non-profits need to do all of these things. They don’t even have to do any of them if they really feel it will require too much time, although I think it would be a shame to not even try. But for those non-profits that are willing to try something new, there are easy–and free–ways to go about it.

          Thanks for being so diligent about helping non-profits get the most benefit out of their efforts. Have a great day!

  • John

    Great suggestions – In my experience if the organizationcan afford a professional fundraising package like convio or donordrive they are way better off than a PayPal button.

    • Michelle Lowery

      Thanks, John! And I agree. As I said, there are better options out there than PayPal. The advantage is, it’s a recognized brand, which can make people feel more comfortable about using it to donate. And it’s free, which is good for small non-profits with limited budgets.

  • pc

    Dear Michelle,

    I’m a crafter. I wish to run a ‘craft for cause’ fund…I was thinking of using ‘donate’ button from paypal…but what if the sum of donate I received could be smaller than the fee charged by Paypal? Is there any package I can use that allow me to accept donation as long as $1 or even less? Sorry, I’m a humble person…don’t expect big donation at the mean time! Thank you in advance!

  • Caroline Jambo

    Hi Michelle

    Thank you for your blog, it really is beneficiary. l am the president of a not for organisation. we opened less than a year now and the challenges we are facing is most companies and individuals who want to donate are asking for tax receipts as a new organisation we do not have the tax receipts and we are not getting more donations for our centre. We help newcomers, abused women, children, men and also victims of human trafficking. our clientele is reaching up to a 1000 including the youth we help. we are now afraid that if we don’t do anything to increasing our fundraising and make more cash flow we might have to cancel other programs or close the centre. we do not want to do this, please can you help us find more effective ways of fundraising. Your help is greatly appreciated.

    Thank you