Generating income via online donations is a key feature of most charity websites, and is often a basis for making the decision to invest funds in creating a new site. Inspiring supporters to open their wallets is tough. It requires you to create some really compelling content, and once that has done its job you want their donation ‘journey’ to be as smooth and simple as possible.
As a rule, charities tend not to treat their e-commerce systems with as much care and thought as online retailers do – and there’s certainly plenty to learn from sites like Amazon that make parting with your money feel so effortless. There’s some good research into the donations journeys of some of the bigger charities here – which is all interesting stuff. It’s all out of the reach of most small charities though as they don’t have the resources to build the infrastructure platforms that these blue chip cancer charities use.
My toolkit article on online donations systems examines the pros and cons of some of the options available for small charities. Here we’ll take it to the next step and see what an ideal online donations system looks like, and how we can go about creating it. See mine in action and read the tutorial on how to build it in WordPress.
So here’s my checklist for the perfect online donations system. Let’s have a look at each of them in turn and see how my WordPress system ticks as many of those boxes as possible…
1 It should look appealing to donors, and feel reassuringly secure
Making an online donation should be as quick and slick a process as possible. The initial look of your donations page will have a big impact in persuading your would-be donor to give, or to leave. So filling in your form needs to look like it won’t be one of the labours of Hercules, and it isn’t going to ask them for any unnecessary personal information. Whilst people are generally more comfortable with making online transactions these days, most of us retain a healthy scepticism about inputting our card details into a website that looks like it was made by someone for their GCSE homework!
Solution: I’ve had a look around at the donations pages of all the big charities that will have spent time and money optimising and testing theirs – and I think Oxfam’s one is really nice. So I’m borrowing some of the layout and questions to make my own (‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ and all that). My form looks nice and clean and simple, and it uses conditional logic to only ask for extra information if it is required (e.g. the Gift Aid section is hidden until you tell it that you’re donating your own money). This means that it looks quite a short form when you land on the page. I’ve also added some visual reassurance – like using the word secure donation, and adding in the Paypal logo that most people will be familiar and comfortable with.
2 It should be easy for you to create new donation forms and control the fields in them
The problem with using a third party donation system like Justgiving or Charity Checkout is that you have very little control of the branding of those pages, and worse still, you have no control over the fields within the form. It’s a ‘take it or leave it’ affair. By being in full control of the form yourself, you can tweak it whenever you like, and also add in another donations form to another page – that’s raising money for a particular appeal for example. You get this flexibility with products like Engaging Networks – but they’re out of the price range that most small charities can afford.
Solution: By using the Gravity Forms plugin on our WordPress site, we can very easily create a really nice looking form in minutes. We’re in complete control of the information we collect, and can set hidden fields as well – so you could have a hidden field called ‘Funding’ for example, and in your main donations form it would be set to ‘unrestricted’ but in a campaign or appeal page it could be set to ‘Dogs in Denmark Appeal’ or whatever – so in your backend system you can easily see where to allocate your donations to.
3 It should be hassle free in terms of complying with card data regulations
Unless you’re generating a lot of donations every day, I don’t think it is worth the hassle to have your own SSL certificate and collect people’s credit card numbers within your site. It is a smoother transaction process, but there are lots of Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance regulations you need to abide by in terms of the way you are transmitting and storing that data. That’s a stress you could really do without.
Solution: In my system I’m using a simple redirect to Paypal to process the donations. Paypal is the most popular payment processor at the moment and it is widely recognised and trusted. Whilst you don’t need a Paypal account to make a payment through it, most people have one anyway – in which case the transaction process only takes seconds. Lots of big websites use this ‘redirect to Paypal’ method – including ebay for example, so we’re in pretty good company with this solution. There’s a new payment gateway called Stripe that people are quite excited about, but for the time being I think Paypal is the best option. Your charity will need to get a Paypal merchant account, but they do charity discounts on their commission charges, and signing up for Paypal is much less painful than signing up for something like Worldpay.
4 It should automate as much of the backend as possible
Keeping up with the administration side of your donations process can become quite an onerous task. If you’re doing a lot of exporting/importing, editing spreadsheets and copying & pasting information from one place to another – then that’s time that could and should be better spent elsewhere.
Solution: The Paypal plugin for Gravity Forms is great, and it gives you a lot of control over what to do with the information you’ve just collected. It will store it all within your WordPress dashboard – which is handy, but let’s take that a step further by also sending it to a custom web application that acts as a mini CRM system for all your donors if you don’t have something similar already. Here’s how the process works:
- Someone makes a donation through your website
- WHEN and IF the transaction goes through OK, they will be sent back a customised and personalised Thank You email from an email address you specify
- IF they ticked the email newsletter box, their email address is automatically added into a list inside Mailchimp. That can then trigger an autoresponder/welcome series of emails if you like.
- You can opt to receive an email notification that a donation has been made
- The donation details are sent to the Zoho web app. A new record is created in there. It has a really user friendly dashboard so you can run reports or see graphs of how many donations you’ve had every month, the average donation, the percentage who are Gift Aid eligible – and pretty much anything else you might want to know. Plus, if you want to use it to collate all your donations information together, then it’s really easy to manually add records if you get a donation by cheque, or over the phone for example.
Note that all of this happens automatically so you can go away for a week on holiday and the whole thing will run on autopilot. This becomes a huge timesaver when your number of online donations increases and managing them becomes a part time job in itself.
5 It should capture – and give you – all the information you require, and in a way you can easily use it
Being in control of capturing all of the data (except people’s credit card numbers) means you can gather exactly, and only, the information you require. More importantly – it’s yours to do what you want with it. Here’s where the most basic option of redirecting people to a Justgiving donations page falls flat on it s face. Justgiving’s 5% admin fee isn’t too bad for the very slick service they provide, but withholding the names of most of your own donors is too high a price to pay I think. They’re your donors, and you should have all of their names and information, even if they’ve ticked a box asking you not to contact them. Plus Justgiving’s reports are all amalgamated together into one big weekly .csv file that combines all your donors, fundraisers and their sponsors. Stripping out just the online donors from that is a pain, and you’re still left with a spreadsheet that you need to do something with.
Solution: As we’ve already seen, the Gravity Forms/Paypal combo collects all the info we want, and has a lot of notification options in terms of what it can do with that data. By sending it to this custom web app that is built using Zoho Creator, we have a powerful and easy to use reporting tool at our fingertips. It can act as a donations CRM system and is perfect for tasks like generating Annual Gift Aid reports and mail-merging names and addresses if you want to send out a mail out once a year to all your donors. You can easily spot trends and anyone in your organisation can log in and see some simple graphs showing your recent donations information. Plus, as mentioned above, it has a really simple and customisable input form so you can easily add donations that have come in by cheque/phone, and even set up regular monthly payments in there if you’ve got people signed for Direct Debits. standing order or payroll giving.
If you already have a CRM system then this can run alongside it, or you can get the Gravity Forms data inserted straight into your CRM if it’s an online one like Salesforce or Zoho. You’ll just need to find the best solution for de-duplicating records if the same person makes more than one donation.
6 It should be cheap to set up and have a low ongoing cost.
I’ve worked with fully fledged CRM systems like Salesforce and Raiser’s Edge – and this system looks nicer, is more automated and much more easily customisable than any of them. They cost tens of thousands of pounds…
Solution: …mine costs virtually nothing. If you’ve got a WordPress site then the Gravity Forms with Paypal plugin costs about £60 as a one-off cost, but having said that, most WordPress developers already have a license to use Gravity Forms on as many sites as they want. The web app using Zoho Creator is completely customisable and pretty easy to set up. If you want to use some of the more advanced functionality then it costs about £17 a month, but you can use a free version of it too.
Like to find out more?
Check out the tutorial to see the form and how to set it up using Gravity Forms.