Copyright © 2000 by Adam
Permission is given to forward or copy this article, so long as
the author's name, email address, URL, and copyright notice are included.
(They are given at the end of this article.)
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
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:
- Charitable Prospect receives mailing with URL for donation to Save
Everybody Tomorrow (SET)
- Prospect enters URL in her browser, hits return, and is taken directly
to donation form.
- Prospect fills out form, and clicks "make gift now" button. Transaction
- Prospect receives email news from SET. News contains a "donate now"
- Prospect clicks button, and is taken directly to donation form.
- Prospect fills out form, and clicks "make gift now" button. Transaction
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.)
- Prospect goes to Alta Vista, and enters "special olympics." She
- Happily, the correct URL is prominently featured at the top of the
list. She clicks on the URL.
- Prospect scrolls down Special Olympics homepage. She could explore
various story links, but she decides to make a gift.
- She clicks "Make a Donation" link.
- She clicks "continue" on the Netscape-generated "you have requested
a secure document" alert.
- She completes gift form online, including credit card info.
- 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:
- She clicks "Shop Our Stores Now" button.
- 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.
- She scrolls through the stores and picks Neiman Marcus.
- The Neiman Marcus homepage shows up. She chooses "Shop for Him."
- 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.
- 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."
- She clicks "continue" on the Netscape-generated security page.
- 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
- She clicks "continue" on the Netscape-generated security page.
- 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."
- 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."
- 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 neimanmarcus.com. Don't worry, your personal
information is private and secure." She corrects her zip code and
- 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."
- 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
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 greatergood.com
network. Greatergood is not responsible for Neiman Marcus's lousy shopping
system, and in fact everything at greatergood's end is beautifully and
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 (www.tnc.org). From their main page you select "support
us," fill out a simple one page form, click, and you are done. Look
also at amazon.com. 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
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
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. (http://www.cisco.com)
NetAid, by the way, returns the favor, though the location of the Cisco
logo is a bit more discrete. (http://www.netaid.org) A similar relationship
exists between the Olympics and IBM, though at the moment the Sydney
Olympics page is not advertised on the IBM homepage.
PATHWAYS IN PRACTICE
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
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;
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
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
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:
- Fan clicks on "support this program" button on the Marian Anderson
- 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.
- 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.
- Fan clicks "submit."
- 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
- 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.
- 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.*
- Visitor fills out the form and clicks "submit."
- Thank you page is automatically generated, similar to #5 above.
- 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
"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?
is copyright 2000 by Adam Corson-Finnerty. Comments are invited.
Please send them to Adam