New blood: finding donor leads online

publication date: Jun 13, 2012
author/source: Ryann Miller
Ahhh, donors. We spend so much time cultivating them, worrying if we're contacting them too much or not enough, wondering if they might have given more, and then they just leave. They don't even say why. What's a nonprofit to do?

Well, to be brief, find more donors. A smart nonprofit does all the right things to ensure that it's keeping the ones it has, but it also needs to think about finding new donor leads, particularly online. Why online? For a few reasons: it's cheap, the donors are younger, and it works.

Studies such as the 2011 Target Analytics DonorCentrics Internet and Multichannel Giving Benchmark Report and others show that online-acquired donors tend to be younger and have higher household incomes than offline-acquired donors. In almost every age group, those who joined online gave around twice as much.

Looking for younger donors, or concerned that direct mail acquisition lists are aging? The 45-54 age cohort gave almost twice as much online. Within that same cohort, almost twice as many of them (24%) gave their first gift online, versus 14% via direct mail. And in 2011, 16% of new donors gave online, up from 9% in 2007.

Lesson #1: younger people are giving online and they're giving twice as much.

Where to find online donors

Here's a short list. Each source has its pros and cons:
  • Your own website
  • Display, search engine and social network advertising
  • Email rentals
  • Lead-based list growth
Leads from your website

Your website should always be a great source for online leads. You should be using Google Analytics or another program to track how to get more of them to go to your donation page (that's called a conversion funnel). This is something every nonprofit should already be doing, all the time.


Display advertising (banner ads) are great for brand awareness, and to some extent, growing your list. Search engine and social network advertising are great for the tracking (see above for conversion funnels), and in the latter case, the targeting. But they get mixed reviews on ROI.

Rented email lists

Renting an email list (or chaperoned email) has the advantage of more direct targeting, as a bulk email is sent on your behalf to a list of people who fit criteria that matter to you (age, location, etc). The thing here is that you pay for impressions, not email addresses. So sending an email out to 10,000 people means you pay for 10,000 people to receive your email one time. You can't guarantee they'll open it. And you don't own that name.

Lead-based list growth

This refers to acquisition in which you pay a cost per lead. It costs more, because the leads you get are qualified. It's 100% permission based, and the company doing the recruiting pre-qualifies the lead for you.

At Care2, where I work, we do a lot of lead-based list growth with nonprofits. The lead has affirmed that they care about the issue by taking action, and has signed up to receive information directly from the nonprofit.

What folks seem to like about it is that the donor lead has expressed concern about the issue or cause and is willing to be contacted by the organization. That means she's much more likely to donate and join the organization. Plus, you now own that name.

This list isn't exhaustive, but it covers the basic acquisition channels. For years, online acquisition yielded little by way of retained or valuable donors. One of online fundraisers' first big assumptions was that donors who started giving online would want to contine giving online. We've since learned that this idea of "channel continuity" is a myth.

Converting, retaining and upgrading

The three main channels to convert, retain and upgrade donors are: direct mail, telemarketing, and email. It turns out that where a donor came in or where the lead was found should not determine where they are converted, retained or upgraded.

Many large organizations are seeing time and time again that when you acquire donors or donor leads online, the most successful channel of conversion and retention is telemarketing. Why? My guess is because it's the most personal and direct means of communication. It's not just real, it's urgent.

The other best way to convert and retain? Direct mail. Yes, it's counter-intuitive that someone who was found online would convert and/or retain better through the mail. But here's the thing: email is so passive and impersonal. It's too easy to unsubscribe, to ignore. The mail and the phone are able to create and nurture a two-way relationship in a way that's almost impossible with email alone.

Lesson #2: Don't communicate with online-acquired leads and donors solely through online means.

What I'm seeing - and this is anecdotal - are donor conversion results of about 2% to 6%, with telemarketing representing the high end. To be fair, it's not just telemarketing alone. It's a number of best practices, including welcoming new supporters right away, ongoing and consistent email to keep supporters engaged, and generally understanding that a combination of channels is most likely to work the best.

Lesson 3: Learn how giving channels perform better or worse in relation to each other, not in competition with each other.

If I had to sum it all up, it would look like this: the secret to converting and retaining online-acquired donors successfully is actually...offline.

But don't trust me; test this yourself!

This article is drawn from the author's presentation to the Digital Leap Conference,

Ryann Miller is director of nonprofit services at Care2, where she helps nonprofits recruit supporters and donor leads online. Care2 is the largest online community of people making a difference. Email her.

Like this article?  Join our mailing list for more great information!

Copyright © 2011-Current, The Hilborn Group Ltd. All rights reserved.

Free Fundraising Newsletter
Join Our Mailing List