Online Fundraising Resources Center


Cybergifts, Part 7:
Charitable Pathways

Copyright © 2000 by Adam Corson-Finnerty

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In this section of the Cybergifts Saga, I would like to explore the topic of "charitable pathways." I don't know if other people have used this term, but what I mean by it is the clickstream that goes into making a gift.

I find that very few people spend the time to think about these pathways, and yet they are crucial to whether a site "works" or not. More broadly, we need to incorporate "pathways" thinking into our strategy-making, or we may fail without even knowing why.

Let's take a simple pathway:

  1. Charitable Prospect receives mailing with URL for donation to Save Everybody Tomorrow (SET)
  2. Prospect enters URL in her browser, hits return, and is taken directly to donation form.
  3. Prospect fills out form, and clicks "make gift now" button. Transaction is completed.

Here's another:

  1. Prospect receives email news from SET. News contains a "donate now" hotlink.
  2. Prospect clicks button, and is taken directly to donation form.
  3. Prospect fills out form, and clicks "make gift now" button. Transaction is completed.

Wouldn't it be nice if donations poured in so easily? Who knows, for some organizations, such gifts may be plentiful-at least from their current donor list.

But for most if us, it won't be so easy. And, besides, we are not just attempting to get the same old gifts from the same old folks, we want more money and new money.

So let's look at another pathway scenario. Suppose our prospect has just read a heartwarming article about the Special Olympics program. The URL for Special Olympics was in the article, but she has already tossed the newspaper. (Oops, I mean recycled the newspaper.)

  1. Prospect goes to Alta Vista, and enters "special olympics." She clicks.
  2. Happily, the correct URL is prominently featured at the top of the list. She clicks on the URL.
  3. Prospect scrolls down Special Olympics homepage. She could explore various story links, but she decides to make a gift.
  4. She clicks "Make a Donation" link.
  5. She clicks "continue" on the Netscape-generated "you have requested a secure document" alert.
  6. She completes gift form online, including credit card info.
  7. She clicks "Submit Gift Now" button. Transaction is completed.

    The pathway to a gift is different if the prospect decides to click the "Shop Our Stores Now" button. VERY Different! The word "burdensome" comes to mind. Thus:

  8. She clicks "Shop Our Stores Now" button.
  9. She is taken to a page that lists scores of retailers to choose from. A Special Olympics banner rides across the top of her window throughout her shopping trip. It reminds her that she is shopping for Special Olympics, that her purchases may bring 5-15% commissions to Special Olympics and gives her a "home" button that gets her directly back to the Special Olympics homepage.
  10. She scrolls through the stores and picks Neiman Marcus.
  11. The Neiman Marcus homepage shows up. She chooses "Shop for Him."
  12. While she could spend a lot of time exploring gift options for her special someone, the "Alligator Pocket Secretary" at the top of the page looks handsome, so she chooses that.
  13. It is a mere $700. But, just think, the alligator is going to share some of his hide with charity. She decides to buy it, and clicks "add to your selections."
  14. She clicks "continue" on the Netscape-generated security page.
  15. Her selection is presented to her. One alligator pocket secretary at $700. She does not wish to add any other items, so she clicks "proceed to checkout."
  16. She clicks "continue" on the Netscape-generated security page.
  17. The NM site generates a page that tells her that she is not "registered" with them. "Once you've provided the proper details, we can process your order or you can maintain Your Online Account. Please click "Start" below." In other words, she can't get her pocket secretary unless she fills out some additional forms. Determined, she clicks "start."
  18. NM generates a "Personal Information" page with 29 boxed lines to fill out. A surprising 17 of the lines are "required." She fills them out, and even gives her evening phone number, which is not "required." She clicks "continue."
  19. NM generates a page that says "Home Address zip code must be five digits. Please retype the information and try again. In no time, you'll be shopping online at Don't worry, your personal information is private and secure." She corrects her zip code and clicks "continue."
  20. NM generates a "Shipping Preferences" page. She fills it out, but then it is not clear what to click. There is a "Save" button, but that doesn't advance her through the maze. She finally figures out that the word "select" is highlighted in the middle of the page. Will that do it? She clicks "select."
  21. Finally, the Credit Card info page comes up. She fills it out and clicks to finish her journey. I believe she is done, but honestly I don't know, since I did not want to purchase a $700 item to find out!

Assuming that our mythical Prospect cum Shopper has finished her harrowing journey, it looks like Special Olympics will get somewhere between $35 and $105 from this deal.

There is a lot that could be said about this "pathway." Obviously, it is very difficult to navigate, and on a slow-speed modem would probably make the Prospect homicidal. If she is sophisticated, she won't blame Special Olympics. But this is hardly a "blissful" shopping experience, and it does not encourage the Prospect to use this method again.

In fact, the most likely outcome from the pathway above is that the Prospect will break off the transaction, and give up. No Alligator Pocket Secretary for the boyfriend, no sale for NM, no cut for charity. Furthermore, she has spent most of her time looking at luxury goods, and not reading about the wonderful work of the Special Olympics program.

This particular charitable pathway is part of the network. Greatergood is not responsible for Neiman Marcus's lousy shopping system, and in fact everything at greatergood's end is beautifully and efficiently designed.

The real issue is *the pathway itself*. It is simply too awkward to work well and easily, and it may not be fixable. That is one of the many reasons that I continue to have major misgivings about the "shop for charity" model. The model--so far--requires a self-defeating pathway, and therefore I don't see any real money in it for charities.


Here is a thesis: To have a successful fundraising site, you need a good charitable pathway plus motivation. You don't need animated gifs, dancing babies, smiling penguins, fireworks, or music. This is easily said, but not easily done. Yet once you have figured it out, your Internet Strategy will be in place.

One of the things that astonishes me about first-timers who create non-profit websites is that they fail to ask themselves one simple question: Why would anyone want to come to our site? If they are asked this question, and can't answer it, they need to go back into a planning huddle. While they are huddling, they should ask a second question: If someone *does* come to our site, why would they want to come back again?

In general, people travel to sites to achieve or acquire something of value: information, entertainment, involvement with other people, or a product. We can think of these as "self-interested" motivations.

Therefore, if your site does not offer value in the form of information, entertainment, involvement, or goods--you have a big problem. You are building something to which no one will come.

Granted, in some instances, people will travel to a site to make a donation or support a cause. As when people concerned about the Balkan refugee crisis flocked to the Red Cross site to make gifts (Fall 1999), and when people sprinted to the McCain site to volunteer time and money (Winter 2000). However, keep in mind that both of these sites benefited from millions and millions of dollars worth of news media attention--in one case to the crisis, in the other case to the candidate.

Motivation is a very substantial issue in online fundraising, just as it is in offline fundraising. Very few agencies just sit back and collect checks. For most, fundraising is an aggressive activity involving direct mail, advertisements, personal visits, special events, and so on. Creating a passive website won't add much to your mix, or to your bottom line. The site has to draw visitors ("pull") or you have to drive traffic to the site or drive the site to your prospects ("push").

The focus of this article is on pathways and not upon motivation. Even so, remember that the best design and the easiest pathways won't do much for your charity if there is no reason for someone to visit.


The best charitable pathway is always the shortest. Prospects who have to fill out page after page, and enter click after click, will abandon your site before they make a gift. This truism comes from the world of e-commerce. Again and again, studies find that shoppers begin the buying process, but then walk away somewhere in the middle. As a rule, only 10-20% of shoppers actually complete their purchase, and the same thing could happen to any charitable site that makes its would-be donors jump through hoops.

Here is a rule of design, taken from the aesthetics of engineering: the best design is accomplished not when you have added the last feature, but when you have taken away everything that you can possibly eliminate. An example: many online forms ask prospects for information that is not needed to complete the gift. Often it is the donor's phone number. *You don't need this information.* If you want it, ask for it some other time, like when you thank the donor by email or letter, or on your follow-up screen after the gift is made.

Asking for the phone number seems simple, and useful, but it can be a barrier. "Why do they want my phone number?" the visitor may ask. "Do they plan to call me and ask for more money? Will they sell it to someone else, who will sell it to other parties?" Even if you mark this as a non-required field, you are still raising a red flag. Skip it.

An excellent example of a direct pathway is offered by The Nature Conservancy ( From their main page you select "support us," fill out a simple one page form, click, and you are done. Look also at Their "one-click" purchasing system, enabled by a "cookie," is *so* efficient that they have added a note to their thank you page saying "yes, it was that easy."

Therefore, rule number one: A donation should only require two clicks; one to get to the form, and one to complete the transaction.

But that's the easy part. It assumes that the prospect is already at your homepage, and is motivated to make a gift.

The hard part is figuring out the pathways to your homepage. (And how to get the prospect to begin the journey.)

It is difficult to write about this without slipping into issues of motivation. Even so, keep in mind that what I am trying to undertake is more like a mapping exercise than a sales seminar.

One of the most popular imagined pathways is through the search engines. Website creators take pains to register their masterpiece at every possible location, and supply scores of keywords and indexing terms to aid the searcher. This is important, and should be part of any pathway-building program. But, as we know, sites that have keywords like "cancer," "literacy," "education," "poor children," and "refugee" are a dime a thousand. Try it yourself, and see what you get. (For example, on Alta Vista, "cancer" brings 2,069,330 pages found.)

On the other hand, non-profit organizations with a known identity should make every effort to get their name registered with the major sites, even if that costs money. Alta Vista has a feature called the "Real Names" product. Basically, it means that the Red Cross or Save the Children or McDonalds can purchase a listing for its real name, and that this listing will come up first. This is extremely valuable, and almost undoubtedly is worth the price. Conversely, if your agency does not have a "brand name," then it may not be worth the price.

(It is probably also worth it to guard against any other agency using your name, or a variation on your name. Recently, Yale and Harvard both took action against similarly-named entities--and were successful. Princeton, located in the town of Princeton, won't be so lucky. How could it mount a challenge to Princeton Potted Plants, for example, if the company is located in town?)

A second pathway strategy could be termed the "roadside attraction" ploy. This is how I got started in Internet fundraising. I work for a large academic library. Its webpage receives millions of hits each year. For a non-profit, this is a huge amount of traffic, and much of it is repeat visits. My task is to create buttons, clickable text, and other markers which call attention to the opportunity to support the Library. Think of it as having a great "storefront" location. Then think about what kinds of displays and signs you might put in the window. My latest inspiration is to create a button on the library homepage which says "Library Alumni Portal." Alumni visitors click and will be taken to a wealth of Information resources that are completely free.

Related to this is what could be called a multi-point design. My library has created and maintains well over 10,000 webpages, and many of them attract thousands of visitors: special exhibits, online magazines, reference pages, "what's new" features, and so on. My current task is to place doorways at many of these locations, and induce people to enter. At the end of this article, I will describe some of what my staff is cooking up.

Most charitable websites do not have the advantage of lying alongside a huge traffic stream, nor do they have brand names. What to do?

The best approach may be the "traditional" model for charitable outreach. Use direct mail, print advertisements, radio and TV spots, news releases, events, and personal visits. Make sure that your URL is always front and center. Collect email addresses along with other information you collect. Email is simply the most fabulous outreach device you can have. With one stroke you can send a message to 10,000 people. One hundred thousand! At practically zero cost. And you can imbed clickable URLs throughout your message. (Note that I am not talking about "spam." I am talking about emailing your constituents.)

Another approach is the "goodies" lure. Offer something for free will attract visitors to your site. This could be a screen saver, music, information, software, or even something that you will mail to them, like a mousepad or bookmark. This could generate a fair amount of people-to-people promotion. Meaning that visitors email their friends to let them know that "you can get this cool screensaver if you go to XXX." Some people call this "viral" marketing. The old-fashioned term for it is "word of mouth".

Yet another approach is "piggybacking." Find yourself a corporate sponsor who will promote your site. The most significant example of this is NetAid, which has received over $10 million in cash and equipment from Cisco Systems. Currently (2/2000), if you go to the Cisco site, you will find a clickable spot for NetAid featured prominently. ( NetAid, by the way, returns the favor, though the location of the Cisco logo is a bit more discrete. ( A similar relationship exists between the Olympics and IBM, though at the moment the Sydney Olympics page is not advertised on the IBM homepage.


It will be useful to say a bit about how my shop, the Development Department of the University of Pennsylvania Library, is putting pathway-thinking into practice. Don't bother to visit the site right now. It is not a model of anything, except what happens when you grow like topsy. But, return in six months, and you will find elegance and perfection.

A little background: the Penn Digital Library is one of the best academic digital libraries in the world. An early convert to the Web, we now deliver something like 25 million pages of information a year-and even that is understating the usage. Our primary base of patrons is, naturally, the 40,000 students, faculty, and staff of the University. However, we also have very significant traffic from alumni, scholars, and the general public.

We started playing with the fundraising possibilities of the Web in 1995. Our initial aim was to experiment with projects that would draw attention to the Library (PR), gather funds *for* the digital library (Several millions thus far for hardware, software, and electronic publishing), and assist in major gift fundraising through donor recognition (Cyberplaquing; see for a teaser on this subject. Eventually I will do a "Cybergifts" article on this topic.)

Note that we did *not* focus on mechanisms for online giving. It was our feeling that this would not be a significant source of revenue, and that our public was not ready to use credit cards online. That was five years ago, and in the last two years e-commerce has proven itself. Our prospect base (primarily 140,000 alumni) is more than ready to make gifts online.

We are presently doing a major makeover of our Development site. Our aims are to build constituency (gathering and using email addresses), raise funds, and promote the Library's image.

Since the library's main page is a service page, we have never advocated putting a "donate" button there. Currently, we have a front page button that says "Friends of the Library" and which takes you to our lead Development page. Our plan is to change this button to say "Library Alumni Portal."

We think that the Alumni Portal button will be intriguing for our alumni visitors, and will be investing significant time and money to develop it. After all, they are the most likely donor prospects. I can say this with assurance because in the past five years, alumni reunion classes and individual alums have donated over $10 million to the Library.

Click on the Portal button and you are taken to a page that contains buttons for valuable information resources (books online, e-journals, reference, selected web pages by subject). We will also include a button for "support the library" and that will take you to a donation page. In addition, we will probably have at least one "special" item on the page. "Take our survey" might be one; "Download your free Penn Screensaver," could be another. "New Ormandy site, with musical highlights" could be yet another.

In addition, we have recently received a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We have four years to raise $2 million to meet the challenge. Therefore, we will create a special "NEH Challenge" logo which we will sprinkle all over the library's web pages. Click on the logo and you will be taken to a page that describes the challenge in five sentences (with a hotlink to "click here for more information"), and includes both a pledge option and a credit card gift option.

Furthermore, we have special sites that attract visitors and create "fans." These are exhibition and research sites that are organized around a subject or a prominent figure. Examples include

When I say fans, I mean *fans.* The Freedman site hears from klezmer aficionados in Italy, France, and Argentina. The Marian Anderson site gets email thank yous from school teachers, college students, and people who cherish her memory. We have received spontaneous donations through the mail, and in person, because of these sites. So, why not put a "support this program" button on their main page?

Here is how we will construct the pathway:

  1. Fan clicks on "support this program" button on the Marian Anderson site.
  2. Donation page comes up with brief message about the importance of your gift in continuing this good work, and short forms for a pledge or a credit card gift.
  3. Fan fills out form, which includes a checkoff for "I would like to be kept informed of additions to the Marian Anderson site," followed by a line for their email address.
  4. Fan clicks "submit."
  5. Thank you web page is automatically generated. It says "Thank you Sally Smith for your gift to the Marian Anderson Program. You will receive an email acknowledging your gift, as well as a printed receipt for your records. Thank you also for subscribing to the Anderson update list."
  6. At the bottom of the thank you page are two buttons: "Become an e-friend of the Library" and "continue." Clicking continue takes the visitor back to the main Anderson page.
  7. If the visitor clicks "e-friend" she is taken to a page that says "You can become an e-friend of the Penn Library and receive news about all of our programs and exhibits, as well as our new websites. There is no charge. Please fill out the form below and you will be automatically enrolled. You can unsubscribe at any time." This is followed by a simple form that asks for name and email address, and *nothing else.*
  8. Visitor fills out the form and clicks "submit."
  9. Thank you page is automatically generated, similar to #5 above.
  10. Visitor clicks "continue" and goes to Anderson main page.

In addition, there is an email that is automatically generated by submitting the form. It is sent to the visitor's email address. If they have made a gift, and signed up for Anderson updates, the email might say:

"Thank you, Sally Smith, for your gift of $50 to support the Marian Anderson program at the University of Pennsylvania Library. Thank you also for subscribing to our email updating service on Marian Anderson. You will be alerted whenever we add significant new material to the site, or when we have programs related to the life and music of Miss Anderson. If you would like to be alerted to other exciting programs sponsored by the Penn Library, please click *here* to become an e-friend. We also are very interested in knowing more about our visitors and friends. Would you be willing to fill out a short online survey form? As a way of expressing our thanks for this additional effort, we would like to send you a colorful mousepad of Ben Franklin surfing the Internet. Click here to participate."

So, enough already. We have plenty of other ideas, but the purpose of this article is for the readers to get the idea.

Charitable Pathways: what could yours be?

[This article is copyright 2000 by Adam Corson-Finnerty.  Comments are invited.  Please send them to Adam Corson-Finnerty

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