Online Fundraising Resources Center



Copyright © 1999, Adam Corson-Finnerty. Permission is given to forward or copy this article, so long as the author's name, email address, URL, and copyright notice are included. This article was originally "published" as a series of three postings to the CYBERGIFTS mailing list. See also Parts 4-6

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[web links for Laura Blanchard's 2/15/01 talk]

Cybergifts, Part 1

Every so often I find myself driving on an out-of-the way suburban street, only to come across a scene straight out of Charlie Brown. Two children are sitting hopefully behind a makeshift lemonade stand, with paper cups and a change box at the ready. Their mother is usually perched in a lawn chair behind them, both protecting and encouraging her little ones in what has to be their first foray into retail commerce.

After Dad and a few neighbors have purchased their obligatory cup of lemonade, I wonder who else stops to make a purchase. Not me; I don't happen to like lemonade.

It is astonishing to me that non-profit organizations, making their first foray into online giving, often set up the equivalent of a lemonade stand in a suburban cul-de-sac. They create a plain vanilla online donation form, bury it four levels down on their site, and wonder why nobody makes a gift.

Thus there are sites which have been up for a year or more, and which have received less than 25 gifts. Is cyber-giving therefore a failure? Of course not. The only "failure" is a failure of imagination.

Innovation Diffusion:

It takes a while for new ideas, new tools, and new inventions to work their way through to maximum utilization by a society. In fact, those who study such sociological processes say the average time from introduction to widespread and mature adoption is 50 years!

Ah, but you say, with today's mass communications-and the Internet-this process must be telescoping in. Perhaps 50 years is becoming 50 weeks. Maybe 50 days!

After all, look at Look at ebay. These new ideas have taken off like a rocket, and been widely adopted.

Yes, says the Sociologist, but these two "innovations" are simply evidence of the maturation of two relatively old inventions: the telephone and the computer. Without the wiring of our society-courtesy of the telephone and electricity-and the widespread adoption of the personal computer, ebay and would be nothing but science fiction.

The main notion of this article is this: cybergiving is in its infancy, and we early practitioners are all helping it to grow up. The Internet provides a stunning, staggering, superlative-exceeding new tool for charitable fundraising; and our job is to experiment with this new tool in order to see what it can do.

This is a wonderful time to be involved with the Internet. It's the ground floor. It's lift-off. It's the California Gold Rush and we don't even have to tell Mom and Aunt Mary goodbye. We are at the yeasty, bubbly, formative time for this medium-and we get to be co-inventors of its future. What could be more fun?

Beyond Brochureware:

The first stage of any invention is to think of it in terms of one's current frame of reference. Thus the automobile was the "horseless carriage." Electronic message-delivery is "e-mail." And Websites have a "home page."

Not surprisingly, then, most early html pioneers thought in print-reference terms. Their first impulse was to put their various brochures, press releases, annual reports, and newsletters online.

When it came to gifts, memberships, and purchases, most non-profit organizations started with what might be found on any brochure: An address to mail to, an "800" number, and a "form" that readers were encouraged to "print out and mail." Or, if you were really progressive, "print out and fax"!

These early efforts were the equivalent of the suburban lemonade stand. You build it and nobody comes.

The next level of innovation began to capture the power of email. Websites peppered their pages with "mailtos," allowing readers to easily click and send comments in a freeform box. Next up were simple "cgi" scripts which allowed us to create online forms. Now, our visitors could fill in the blanks, click on "send" and a message would come to us.

That message could be a pledge in any amount. It could be a membership application with a "bill me" checkbox. It could even be a credit card number, expiration date, and gift designation. Voila! Cybergiving was born.

Currently, we have the capacity to accept credit card gifts online, with varying levels of security. If we are willing to pay the extra cost, we can also have real-time validation, direct transfer to our merchant account, full integration with our accounting and donor-tracking systems, and an automatically-generated and personalized thank-you.

This is a nice tool! With this we can begin panning the streambeds, and digging into the hillsides. In a moment, we shall turn to a few prospectors' tales to see what we can learn from each other.

But first, having generalized and philosophized, let's futurize.

As we invent the future together, here are three "science fiction" ideas to ponder, each of which has vast implications for fundraising.

The first is micropayments. One way or another, we will soon be able to spend small amounts of money online. Like 15 cents for a transaction. Whether we do this through digital cash or through micro-debit is not material. Think about how an institution might be able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through micropayments-even millions!

The second is convergence. Sure, it is already a stale buzzword, but however it is finally tagged, think about the possibilities when voice, text, and image all flow smoothly through your computer-I mean, your information appliance! Prospects will be able to scan your site, and if desired, "click-up" a real-time conversation online. Virtual donor-initiated visits become possible. And, just to add an interesting twist, imagine that you can not only speak to each other in real-time, and see each other in real-time, but that your speech can be translated into any of forty languages and dialects in real-time, and vice versa. Your English becomes Parisian-accented French; their French becomes Peter Jennings-style Canadian. Oh, and the computer smoothly renders their mouth so that it appears they are actually speaking the translated language.

The third is identity. Imagine this: A surgeon receives an email saying "Doctor, I understand that my son's survival depends upon a lung transplant. You have my permission to operate." What surgeon in his right mind would proceed? Yet one day identification mechanisms will be so rock-solid, and the law will have caught up with the technology, and legally-binding decisions-online-will be commonplace. Enter a binding pledge through email? No problem! Buy a house online? You bet! Transfer ten million dollars? Just say where you want it to go!


Back to earth. Believe it: we are not even at the "toddler" stage in cybergiving. We are just learning to crawl. Yet there are already some very exciting examples of innovation out there, and some of them are beginning to produce gold.

This posting is not quite an article, but rather a work in progress. I will make observations and raise questions as I go along. I invite readers to share comments, criticisms, and additional examples of cybergiving with me. My email address is

--Donate Now-

The simplest method for cybergiving is to place a "donate now" or "click here to give" button on your site. The visitor clicks, receives a long or short form to fill out with the amount of the gift and credit card data, and clicks "send" or "complete gift." That's it. Ignoring a lot of behind-the-scenes processing, the gift is done. And the money (less processing fees) has gone to your cause.

For most people who think of cybergiving, the above example practically defines the concept: create a credit card form, place links to it on your site, and wait for the money to arrive. In some cases, this works.

Those of us who follow cybergiving were electrified by the news that the Red Cross had taken in over $1.2 million in online gifts for Balkan Relief, from more than 9,000 donors, in the first half of 1999. Other relief organizations, like CARE and World Vision also reported very significant giving during this same period. Clearly, people were touched by stories of suffering in the Balkans and wanted to do something about it. As I write, the terrible earthquake in Turkey is in the news, and I would guess that the Red Cross will experience another upsurge in giving. (See

It would be a huge mistake to think that the Red Cross "breakthrough" heralds great things for the rest of us. About four years ago I predicted that disaster relief organizations would be the first agencies to experience a flood of small online gifts. This came from my experience of working for the American Friends Service Committee when the news of the holocaust in Cambodia first hit the world press. The AFSC was one of the few agencies that could channel aid to Cambodia, and tens of thousands of spontaneous donations came our way. Office workers passed the hat in Texas; schoolchildren took up collections in New England; little old ladies and college students wrote out checks and then found our address through the phone book or at their library. Such outpourings of public sentiment occur when publicity is widespread and the need is clear.

While the Red Cross does many things, it is best known for its work with natural and human-made disasters. Therefore a critical strategy for its site is to offer timely and accurate information about such disasters. The Red Cross decided that their site must enable visitors to quickly:

  • Find out what happened;
  • Find out what the Red Cross is doing about it;
  • Find out what "you can do" about it, including volunteering;
  • Donate on the spot.

All of this was in place when the refugee crisis in Kosovo began flooding the news. Gifts followed. Not just online gifts, but 800-number gifts, mailed gifts, and major gifts from foundations and individuals such as Bill and Melinda Gates.

And, I have been saying for four years, that's it. Disaster relief will have early take-off, but every other form of fundraising will have to slog through the trenches for several more years. But I was wrong.

Next up was Politics. Politics has more than one thing in common with disasters, but the link I have in mind is that politics can generate high emotions. And, apparently, high levels of gift motivation. As of July 31st, Presidential candidate Bill Bradley has raised $312,000 from 2,000 donors. The Republican National Committee says it has raised $200,000 online since 1996, and soon expects that 25% of its under $100 gifts will be made online. (Business Week, 8/30/99)

But this is peanuts compared to the experience of According to a front-page story in USA Today (8/31/99) this "grass-roots movement" has generated over $13 million in online pledges. If even half of that is paid, this will be by far the most successful example of Internet fundraising in the medium's young history.

Here's what happened. Silicon Valley husband-and-wife team Joan Blades and Wes Boyd got fed up with the long, drawn out campaign to punish Bill Clinton for his peccadilloes. They launched an online petition campaign, asking others who felt the same way to urge Congress to "censure and move on." And to pass the petition along. The petition spread through the net community and soon over 500,000 petitions were clogging the computers at Capitol Hill.

Some time later, they launched a "We will Remember" drive to raise funds to defeat legislators who were anti-Clinton activists. They placed an online pledge and donation form on their site, and thus far have garnered $13 million in gifts and pledges. Mostly pledges, due by November, 2000 at the latest.

They also launched a "We will Act" drive to collect pledges that people would work for candidates in this election. As of September 1, 1999 they have collected pledges of 776,485 hours of volunteer work. (See their website:

Is this for real? Well, they have already distributed $336,000 to political candidates, and more donations and pledge-payment checks are coming in every day, so-yes, it's for real.

So real that some political professionals are predicting vast changes in a very short period of time. USA Today found one pundit, John Phillips, who predicts that more than $25 million in political donations will be raised online by November 2000. By Election Day 2004, Phillips predicts, "as much as 80% of all money raised--$600 million or more-could flow through electronic channels." (But note, dear reader, that Phillips sells political fund-raising software, so a few grains of salt may be in order.)

One would hope that Bill Clinton is not the only "political cause" which will open people's cyberwallets. How about gun control? I have not seen any figures, but one might suspect that the gun control movement would have received considerable support online, following the series of terrible shooting episodes this year. does have a gun control petition drive in motion, and has collected 60,000 signatures thus far.

So a second area of online fundraising is "taking off." Even so, high levels of gift-motivation are unusual for most charities, most of the time. Clearly however, when such periods occur, a charity should be prepared to handle them.

What might be examples of such times? Well, how about:

  • Your organization was just given a glowing segment on "60 minutes."
  • You have just announced a breakthrough treatment discovery for a major disease.
  • Your come-from-behind football team just won the Rose Bowl, and your alumni are delirious with joy.
  • Your Library just burned down.
  • It's December 31st.

The year-end phenomenon is common to most of us. Some donors wait until the last minute to make their gift and still be able to take advantage of a this-year tax deduction. When Brown University set up a donation site, they received a spurt of gifts in late December. They also noted that donors made gifts at unusual hours, like 3 a.m. Will someone come up with a "night owl" gift strategy? I am sure of it.

The trick, of course, is to work with the opportunity that is presented by a high-profile event. Do a quick mailing. Make phone calls. Run Ads. But the most immediate way to get the word out, and to suggest a related gift, is by email.

There is much to be said about email as a major fundraising tool, and it will be said in due course. For the moment, however, note this advice: Use every opportunity to collect email addresses from your constituents and would-be constituents. Even if you don't yet have a web site! You will, and those email addresses will be institutional "gold." If your current printed information forms don't have a line for email addresses, throw them out. Print new ones. It will be worth the expense.

Cybergifts, Part 2

A Reason to Visit:

Having a good website with a "donate now" button is just the beginning of online fundraising, not the culmination.

You can create the most attractive, most easy-to-donate website in the world--but that doesn't mean that anyone will visit, or that visitors will make gifts or pledges in support of your mission.

Ask yourself this question: Why would anyone want to visit my site? If you don't have a good answer to that question, you've got a big problem.

Some charities assume that if they create a website describing their mission, large numbers of people will surf over to see what they are about. And that a percentage of those visitors will donate. Wrong and double-wrong. Cyberspace is awash with tens of millions of webpages. People will need a reason to visit your lemonade stand, or you will end up with a lot of melting ice and watery lemonade.

Push and Pull

There are a few simple concepts that are worth keeping in mind as we review Internet-based fundraising. One is "Push." The other is "Pull."

Push and Pull are the two ways to get attention in cyberspace. A Pull strategy draws your prospect to your site. A Push strategy takes your site, or your message, and sticks it in your prospect's face.


From a fundraising perspective, you want your site to have Pull. The more visitors, the more opportunities to present gift options.

Some sites "pull" visitors because they are Information-Rich. If you are concerned about human rights, Amnesty International can tell you exactly what is going on in practically every country in the world-and if there are abuses, then what exactly you can do about it ( If you are concerned about cancer, and want to know about survival-rates and treatment options, then Oncolink is a good site for you (

Some sites can pull visitors because they are Product-Rich. The Metropolitan Museum, with its upscale online shop, is an example. I happen to like ties based upon designs by M.C. Escher and William Morris. So I will go out of my way to find them, and happily, the Met currently has a Morris' thistle tie that looks just right. (

Some sites pull visitors because they are Service-Rich. That is, they enable the visitor to accomplish a task online. A good example would be a digital library site, or any college website that allows prospective students the opportunity to apply online. Last summer, our family was delighted to discover that we could reserve a tent site at a tiny state campground in New Hampshire, at the last minute, and get an instant confirmation. Wow!

Another visitor attraction is Entertainment. Some non-profit sites include games, unique movie footage, contests, music, and online exhibitions. An example of an "entertainment" draw would be the Metropolitan Museum's site on its re-opened Greek Galleries. This site offers a "preview" of 18 objects, views of the galleries, a timeline "illustrated with signal works of art," a map of the Mediterranean and more. It is so alluring and so well done that I found it hard not to pause for an hour and dally there. (See

The Metropolitan site almost "says it all" in terms of good design and clever strategy. Consider their bottom menu bar, which constantly offers the following options:

Membership | Calendar | Collections | Exhibitions | Information | News | Education | Store | Home

In fact, skip this article. Go spend five hours on the Metropolitan site. Then come back.

Now that you are back, let's talk about the most important "pull" strategy. It's called Involvement. If you can involve your visitors, if you can engage them, and have them coming back again and again--then you are operating at a completely different level in terms of fundraising. Simply put, you will have moved from visitor, to participant, to member of your community. A loyal member of your community is the highest kind of gift prospect. And not just for fifty bucks!

One example of Involvement is online education. People who take an online course will be coming to your site repeatedly. They will be asking questions, viewing resources, downloading class material, consulting with the teacher one-to-one, and engaging with their fellow classmates in meaningful chat. Well-organized and well-staffed online courses are perhaps the most powerful devices for "engaging" your members and friends.

Recently I was "taken" with an Op-Ed page advertisement in the New York Times. It told me all about the "Virtual Jewish University," a new online offering from Israel's Bar-Ilan University. The ad offered:

"Thanks to VJU� [you] �can take on-line, for-credit courses in English on the Judean Desert Scrolls, the history of Jerusalem, war and peace in the bible, Jewish holidays, the Jewish musical tradition and more. VJU students benefit from some of the world's most advanced long-distance learning technology: a virtual helicopter ride over Jerusalem, a chance to see and hear a Moroccan prayer service, video clips of archeological digs, private conferences with professors and "chats" with fellow students."

I don't know about others, but I think this is pretty compelling stuff. Anyone with the slightest interest in Jewish subjects, and/or with an interest in Internet technology--or the hope of a free helicopter ride--would be very likely to cruise over and see what VJU is all about. ( This is an example of Push and Pull. As an inveterate New York Times reader, the ad was "pushed" in my face. And the content descriptions started to "pull" me to the site.

(But, two pieces of advice. Bar-Ilan, if you want to go big with this, purchase, -net, or -org from whoever is squatting on it. And ditch the line at the bottom of your ad: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem�now you're just a mouse-click away." Oy!)

Online education will not be the sole province of colleges and universities. Any non-profit can offer a class online, of any duration, and on any subject. This can be a perfect strategy for attracting visitors to your site, and for making them long-term members of your community. Are you an animal shelter in Wisconsin? Offer a course in "Training the Mature Dog," or "Introducing a New Cat Into the Household," or "Ask the Vet."

Other examples of Involvement include offering periodic chat sessions with "stars" or experts, online book clubs, online chat groups, online threaded discussion groups, and online "members-only" interactive groups. Princeton University offers interactive areas for their alumni in each class. Want to catch up with the other guys from '85? Go to Tigernet and register. Princeton also hosts online exchanges on broad topics, in which any alumni can participate. Recent examples include discussions on real estate and biomedical issues. (See If you would like to see an example of an "open" alumni exchange, see the one at Colby College

A very different example of Involvement can be found at the Amnesty International site. There, the visitor can become involved in a Campaign, or take action to help free a prisoner of conscience. (See Similarly, The Nature Conservancy has a section called "Get Involved" and the World Wildlife Fund, USA, starts right off with a banner saying "Take Action: Protect Sharks"

( and

(By the way, the World Wildlife Fund, International, has wisely claimed Too bad they didn't get, which takes one to a rather different form of wildlife.)

To sum up on "Pull." Make sure your site offers something that will pull visitors, and not just once, but repeatedly. Be clever. Test ideas. Allow yourself to be surprised. Quick: what is one of the hottest "pulls" to Alumni web sites? Answer: Offering an online directory of email addresses of fellow alumni. It's so�simple that it would be easy to miss.

What unique information do you have that might interest your potential constituents? Think Different, as Apple Computer might say.

Cybergifts, Part 3


A Push strategy takes your site, or your message, and sticks it in your prospect's face. The most obvious instance is "spam" email, where a prospect receives an unrequested message about a product or service.

The fact is, we get advertisements and products pushed at us all day long. They come at us from the radio, from the television, from banner ads, from our newspaper, from telemarketing calls, from billboards, from pop-up coupons at the supermarket. Even "And-have-I-told-you-about-our-two-for-one-apple-crisp-special?" is a push.

Personally, I prefer the "pull" of the popcorn smell in a theater lobby. The "pull" of a measured dose of caffeine in a can of Diet Coke. The "pull" of reading about Gwyneth or Regis or Demi or Julia while I stand in a supermarket checkout line. I really dislike spam, I can barely stand the "Attention Shoppers" announcements in my local grocery store, and I and getting ready to unlist my phone number because the telemarketers are trading it amongst themselves with liberality.

So why spend time on "push" methods for Internet fundraising?

  1. Because it exists, and I am trying to be catholic.
  2. Because, rightly done, it may be the most powerful tool we have for bringing in online gifts.

Any organization with a web presence can use traditional "push" methods to try to drive traffic to their site. This can be as simple as putting your URL in Direct Mail pieces, to having a radio announcer say "or contact"

We are all familiar with traditional advertising methods, so I will not go into those in this article. Rather, I would like to focus on methods that are unique to the Internet.

First up is spam. We all get those unwanted emails from time to time, and most of us delete them with varying degrees of emotion. Spam is cheap-practically zero in marginal cost once you are on the Internet-and if only .01% of the people you spam respond to your pitch, you are ahead of the game. Not popular, but perhaps profitable.

I have yet to receive a spam email from a non-profit organization, including ones that I support. I haven't even heard of one, so I can't cite or castigate anyone. Theoretically, there is an argument for spam fundraising--defining spam as unrequested email-since it is a cheap way to get the word out fast. The Red Cross, for example, might be tempted to send a follow-up appeal to the 9,000 people who have made online gifts this year for Balkan Relief. Or, if not an appeal, then an "update" on their relief work, with a subtle or not-so-subtle pitch for additional contributions.

The World Wildlife Fund may decide to send one, or a series, of messages to everyone who visits their site. All they need to do is openly or covertly capture email addresses. Or Sywash University may decide to run an Annual Appeal message out to every alumna/us who has given their email address on an "update" form. Why not? Sywash pays a professional telemarketer to pester its alums at dinnertime twice a year.

The reason "why not" is that in these theoretical examples, the WWF would be violating the privacy of its visitors, and Sywash would be violating the trust of its alumni. So it's a High Sense of Ethics that keeps non-profit organizations from spamming friends and strangers, right?

Sorry. It's not ethics. It's practicality. The anti-spam culture of the Internet is pretty strong. The backlash could be tremendous, especially if you are the first to cross the line. An NPO that spams its constituents will probably lose constituents. Besides, there are other more sophisticated ways of utilizing "push."

Banner Ads, for instance. Some charities have taken to running such advertisements on heavily-visited sites, and why not? The Internet Culture does accept banner ads, the same way we accept advertisements during our favorite TV shows. So any of us could run banner advertisements inducing visitors to "click here" to learn about our organization.

Banner Ads can be very sophisticated these days, and they will be getting even more sophisticated as time goes on. The first time I discovered this for myself was when I searched on a popular site for gay activist organizations. The search engine started pitching "gay-friendly" products at me. I am certain that the search engine would have been happy to send me Act Up promotions if that organization had wanted to pay for such coverage.

Let's say I search for news about the recent Turkish earthquakes. Could the search engine begin popping up banner ads for Save the Children? You bet!

And, as any good Development Officer can tell you, paying hard money for banner ads is only one way to proceed. Why not ask the Yahoos and other portals to donate banner ads to your cause? (Some of them have as much as 85% of their theoretical ad space unsold, which represents an opportunity for charities.)

Internet Push is in its infancy, and at this early stage one can imagine any number of other tactics that might be tried:

  • Sign up as a sponsor for a "free TV" giveaway, and have web-enabled multi-media promotions for built into the hard drive. (Worthyorg has the same PO Box as Sywash U.;-)
  • Give away pretty or clever screensaver software, and build promotions into the mix. Beautiful Sywash in all four seasons, along with campus songs softly sung by the glee club, with an occasional pitch for your capital campaign�;
  • Do a "Hotmail," and give away free web-based email. Every time your subscribers crank up their email, there is your fresh message;
  • Emulate Pointcast and offer "push" channel services to your constituents. There are vendors who will set you up with a complete package, including news and stockmarket feeds.

And so on. Internet "push" is here to stay, and we cannot even imagine all the forms it will take in the future.

But that's then, and this is now. Right now, most of us are ignoring the most fabulous "push" technology available: email.


Email? Fabulous? How can this be? Email is old technology already. It's downright boring.

True, but how many of us have come to depend on email to get our work done? To stay in touch with friends? To lightly remind our daughter at college that she still has a family at home who love her dearly and would like to hear from her once in a while? To request a service or ask a question or make a complaint or tell President Clinton what we think?

Email. Total pieces of first class mail delivered in 1998 = 107 billion. Total pieces of email delivered in 1998 = 3.4 trillion. (Business 2.0, April 1999)

Email. Total marginal transport cost of sending first class mail to 100 additional addresses = $33.00. Total marginal cost of sending email to 100 or one million additional addresses = $0.

Surveys indicate that 80% of the people who plunk down hard money for an Internet Service Provider cite email as their main motivation. My wife's mother bought her first computer system at age 80, so that she could join the email circle that her three daughters and six grandchildren have created. My children thought the Web was boring (especially at pre-cable-modem speeds) but abandoned TV and even the phone for email. (Though they quickly discovered that they could be on the phone and do email, and listen to rock music and check out cool web sites all at the same time. They also claimed they were really doing homework.)

Email. In Part 1 of this article, I cited the USA Today cover story on the astonishing success of They raised over $13 million in pledges for political candidates by sending out an email petition. The petition asked Congress to censure Bill Clinton and then "move on" to more important business. "Within days, the couple had generated 500,000 electronic petitions, so many that they had to be parceled out to avoid choking the computer servers on Capitol Hill." (August 31, 1999)

When the couple, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, later sent out an appeal for donations of time and money to defeat anti-Clinton activists, they got back pledges for $13 million and 776,000 hours of volunteer time. (

Says Joan Blades, "[Online giving] makes it simpler for people to contribute. You don't even have to find a stamp. It's pretty danged easy."

It's pretty danged easy, says the woman who has raised more money online than anyone else in the universe. What made it easy was the high level of political passion that Boyd and Blades tapped into. Keep in mind that they did not accomplish their results through direct mail, or even direct email. They were successful because people passed the message on to their friends. Chain email.

So this is the first thing to note. The power of chain email. Chain email is not spam, though sometimes it feels like it. Chain email is what one friend passes along to another. If it is something that people feel passionate about, or think is funny, or cute, or insightful, or compelling, or alarming -- it can literally go around the world in minutes.

Here is an example my wife loves. A fifth grade class in a small Canadian town sent an email out into the ether. "We are trying an experiment," they said. "Our teacher says that email connects people all over the world. If you get this message, please send a message back to us and tells us where you live. And please pass it on to others. We are going to see how far this message travels in 30 days." Cute. My wife sent a note saying that we lived in Pennsylvania, and passed the message on to her two sisters. After a day she got back an automatically-generated message from the school's ISP. Messages were avalanching in to the school. The responses had shut down their computer after the first few days.

Chain email can be a very powerful marketing tool. In fact, it already has a name: Viral Marketing. "Viral marketing" is just a wired update on "word of mouth" marketing. But what an update! will not be the only NPO to profit from this technique. How can other non-profits use viral marketing and chain email for fundraising? I shudder to think.

Click to Give:

I will probably never forget the impact of a recent conversation with Tim Snyder, Director of Advancement Technologies for Wake Forest University. I had called to talk with him about the nuts and bolts of establishing online credit card giving mechanisms. What kind of results was he getting, I asked.

Pretty well, he said. A number of web-based gifts had been made, some in the $5,000 range. And they had found that email with a link back to the giving site was a great way to collect on unpaid phonathon pledges. In fact, one alum, who received an email Annual Giving solicitation, wrote back saying that if they promised to never phone solicit him again, but used email instead, he would double his pledge.

They say that sometimes the student falls asleep during long meditation sessions at the ashram. The teacher carries a long bamboo stick, frayed at the end so that it doesn't hurt. When he sees that you have fallen asleep, he smacks you on the back. Occasionally, the smack brings instant enlightenment.

Of course, I thought. Put a giving link in email messages. "Click here to donate." Enlightenment followed.

You, the reader, get it right away, yes? It's simple. You are now reading email. You probably have "enhanced" email, so that an http link will be clickable. Try these links just to verify the concept:

I hope that when you stopped at Wake Forest you made a donation. If the email-hyperlink-donate concept is new to you, Tim Snyder just gave you an idea worth millions of dollars.

Permission Email:

We now come to the concept that puts it all together. At least for Part 3: Permission email.

Permission email is simple to understand. It's email that you have asked for, or agreed to receive, or haven't said no to. Like the email that you are reading right now.

Since we all have the Cybergifts list in common, let's look at how they use permission email. For me, it started with a straightforward post to one of the fundraising lists that I belong to. A new listserv was forming, called cybergifts, and sponsored by The potential contents were described, and the signup mechanism was clear. It sounded right up my alley, so I clicked on over to the site and signed up.

At some point in the signup process I was told that Cybergifts would contain advertisements. I was also assured that it would be easy to sign off the list if I lost interest. So I signed up. Since that time,, has sought to extend my level of permission from one service to several. First, they started sending me job advertisements. Then they sent postings about other listservs they were starting. Then they added emailed book reviews. I didn't ask for these additional messages, but each message assures me that I can terminate the message flow if I want to - that is, I can "opt out." Since I have not elected to opt out, I have de facto "opted in." That's called "negative permission."

So now I am a "customer" of charitychannel, and they are slowly establishing "trust" with me. Will they seek to keep extending that trust, and sell me additional services? I presume so. But since the benefits are worth it - so far - I continue to extend permission. Besides, also has a strong personal presence in the form of Stephen Nill, co-moderator. Nill, and co-moderator Mel Krupnick, are very responsive to direct communications, and manage the service with considerable openness to customer feedback.

Permission email is a subset of "Permission Marketing." And the current hot book on this concept is called� Permission Marketing. By Seth Godin, VP of Direct Marketing for Yahoo! (Simon and Schuster, 1999). It would appear that Permission Marketing is a subset of "one-to-one" marketing, and the gurus on that topic are Don Peppers and Martha Rogers (The One to One Future, and other titles).

Another name for permission email is "opt-in" email. The "E-Commerce Report" in the New York Times recently focused on this topic and found that commercial entities like Macys and J. Crew are making it a central part of their online marketing. People who elect to receive Macy's opt-in communications make purchases five to seven times more frequently than other site visitors. (NYT, 8/9/99)

When you think about it, the principles of permission marketing are everywhere on the Net. Take stock of all the "permission" email that you receive. If you are like me, it is surprisingly vast: five fundraising listservs, one library listserv, one "company" listserv, newsletters from Business Week, the New York Times, the Industry Standard, the Web Gazette, Byte, and several others that I can't remember how I got started with. I am happy to get them. In fact, I asked for all of them. They are, in the immortal and defining words of Seth Godin, "anticipated, personal, and relevant."

Godin claims that the Internet is the most powerful "direct marketing" vehicle ever invented. Stronger than snail mail, more powerful than telemarketing, able to leap the vast distance between stranger and friend with a with a series of carefully-calibrated bounds. In his book, he asserts that traditional marketing is dying, and that Internet marketing will replace it. But not if the Internet is thought of in TV terms-as a dumb "broadcast" medium. Only if the Internet is seen in its own terms: as an incredible tool for one-to-one marketing.

This is not a book review, so I won't go on. The concept is simple enough: Ask, don't spam. Establish trust. Build a relationship. Make the exchange of clear benefit to the customer. Eventually, you will make a sale, and if you keep the trust, more and more sales will follow. Build your base one-by-one, using the sophisticated "personalizing" power of the computer. When you have built a large "permission" email list of friends and customers, it will be your most important corporate asset.

I am delighted to see that several NPOs are using their websites to establish two-way, ongoing communication with their constituents. A good example would be the Nature Conservancy, ( offers:

Free! The Nature Conservancy e-News Every Month

Yes! I want to subscribe to The Nature Conservancy e-News! It's a free, electronic newsletter that will help expand the Conservancy's efforts to protect our natural heritage!

With this subscription I'm eligible for the following benefits:

  • Monthly issues of The Nature Conservancy e-News our free electronic newsletter that will keep you up to date on new initiatives on our web site.
  • Opportunities to support the conservation work of The Nature Conservancy.
  • Free 1999 Edition of The Nature Conservancy Screen Saver with beautiful nature images that represent our protection work.
  • Shop with the Conservancy and support our work with purchases through our partner
  • Volunteer opportunities and other local conservation news by visiting local chapter sites
  • Give us some feedback on our site - tell us what you are interested in -- we want to hear from you!

Another example would be the CARE "email update," which offers readers a choice of several options:

Check the email updates that you are interested in receiving:

  • Please send me updates when there is an emergency.
  • Please send me monthly updates on new features to the CARE website.
  • Please send me electronic versions of CARE's newsletters and publications (when available).
  • Please send me information about key CARE events or other activities I can participate in.
  • Please send me information about opportunities to contribute to CARE.


Both organizations are inviting visitors to enter into a dialogue. Both are quite "upfront" about the fact that they will use this permission to ask for contributions.

When it comes to acquiring new constituents through your homepage, Godin makes a proposal that I found challenging: Create two homepages. One homepage is for your members, committed constituents, etc. That page is where you do business and have most of your resources. The other page: the one you promote, the one with theshortest and easiest-to-remember address, is designed solely to attract visitors and gain permission to enter into a relationship with them. Once they have "raised their hand" by giving you their email address and permission to mail to them, you point them to the "members" page.

I am not necessarily convinced that this is a good strategy for non-profit websites, but it does highlight the fact that your webpage should be clearly focused on turning "strangers" into friends.


So, what does all this mean for non-profit fundraising?

I believe it means that we have the tools we need to sell our lemonade. Far back, at the beginning of this article, I argued that Internet fundraising would not work if we just grafted a "give now" page onto our website and waited for people to drive by and toss money. Good web fundraising will require us to use the creative tools that are available-both "pull" and "push" tools-and to use our imagination.

Godin and his colleagues at Yoyodine, a "permission" marketer, honed their tools for commercial purposes. They found that if they structured their offers correctly, they could go from 2% response rates to 36% response rates. Now Godin is VP for Direct Marketing at Yahoo! and we can follow the evolution of his craft by tuning in to that site. I don't know about you, but I intend to set up a "My Yahoo" page and see what happens!

In many ways, we are in a much better position than the companies to which Godin is pitching his message. They are trying to sell mouthwash or used cars. We are Changing Lives or Saving Lives.

There is another book to be written-who knows, maybe I will write it-which takes Godin's principles and applies them to the non-profit world. There is a difference. Dell computer, as agile and clever as it may be on the Internet, is still a commercial entity aimed at "the bottom line." Meaning Profit., as friendly and "personalized" as it is, still is about the business of making money and boosting its stock value.

Non-profit organizations are about something else altogether. Call it Changing Lives and Saving Lives, since just about everything from a synagogue to a Nature Preserve can fit under that umbrella. (And I didn't invent that term, by the way. I picked it up at a Development conference years ago.)

Seth Godin is a for-profit marketer, and a good one. In his book, he lays out something that he calls the "ladder of permission." Basically, he is trying to help companies turn strangers into long-term and loyal customers. That happens, he argues, when you establish trust and are focused on a mutually-beneficial relationship. Your goal is to keep your customers, get them to buy again, get them to buy "up," and get them to "cross" buy. Meaning, to buy more expensive goods and services, and to buy new goods and services. To go from buying your jeans, to buying your leather jackets, to buying your vacation-packaging services.

At the very core of his method is the strongest of motivators: self-interest. Says Godin: "Permission Marketers make every single interaction selfish for the customer. 'What's in it for me' is the question that must be answered at every step."

And that, dear readers, is not what we are about. We are not ultimately appealing to our donor's selfish instincts. We are appealing to his or her self-less instincts. We are asking people to be compassionate, caring, empathetic. To take joy in helping a child, or a tree, or a homeless kitten. To nurture someone's faith, to give someone a chance at a better life, to help someone get out of a drug habit or an abusive relationship.

We may joke about how "selfish" our donors can sometimes be. We may even become cynical about the premiums, the "naming opportunities," the stewardship dinners. But the bottom line for non-profit fundraising is simply this: we are asking a person to freely part with their money in order to help someone else.

So we don't start where Godin starts. We don't start with people cruising the Net to see "what's in it for me?" In general, we start with people who are concerned about some part of the world and think that we may be able to help. If they end up giving us money, and become loyal supporters (not loyal customers), it will be because they believe in our organization and have faith in our work.

Relationship Management:

Clearly, Seth Godin has plenty to teach us about how to interact with our supporters and would-be supporters online. Ultimately, what Godin is pointing to is a relationship. And what he is pointing to is the idea of building an "integrated customer relationship system."

That phrase comes from my other current guru, Patricia Seybold, author of (Times Business, 1998). Seybold argues that we should be building a complete relationship system, one that combines all of the ways in which we communicate with our customer and our customer communicates with us. Web site, email, telephone, fax, direct mail, personal visits-the whole ball of wax.

So there we are. It's simple. All we Development Officers have to do is convince our bosses to completely overhaul the entire communications structure of our institution.

There are even two new software terms that describe "packages" which help you accomplish this revolution. One is "customer-relationship management" (or CRM). The other is "electronic relationship management" (or ERM).

Try these out the next time you attend a senior management planning meeting. As in, "Well, I believe we should consider implementing a CRM approach." Try and keep a straight face.


Unfortunately, my vacation is ending, so I am not sure how soon I will be able to get to parts 4 and 5 of Cybergifts. These will be a "comprehensive" guide to web-based fundraising inducements. Followed by a review of "Offsite" fundraising opportunities.

Paeans, criticisms, and direct comments to me about errors, typos, and anything else, are warmly invited.

    Adam Corson-Finnerty 
    Development Director, 
    University of Pennsylvania Library 
    August, 1999
Continue to Parts 4-6    

Send comments to Adam Corson-Finnerty,, or Laura Blanchard,