This post was published in 2015, when I was still running the animal rescue themed apparel line mentioned below. I closed that business in 2017, but as I revisit this post in 2021, my advice remains the same!
In both my personal and professional lives, I work with numerous non-profit organizations. I frequently see posts from non-profit founders/volunteers who seem baffled by (or angry about) not receiving the size or quantity of donations they hope for. I’ve never run a non-profit, but I am a frequent donor, as I donate 10% of my apparel line’s revenue to animal rescue groups.
I’d like to offer my perspective with the presumption that other donors may look for (or avoid) the same things I do when deciding where to send their hard-earned money. You have a LOT of competition out there; doing good things for the world just isn’t enough. If you run a non-profit and are struggling to bring in donations, I hope you find it helpful to see things from one donor’s perspective.
Note: At the time I wrote this post, my experience was primarily in animal advocacy. As such, the examples included are all animal-related. The tips should still be relevant, regardless of the cause or issue you’re focused on!
5 Things I Look For When Donating To A Non-Profit:
#1: Appearance of Success
When I see posts from non-profit founders complaining about their lack of donations, I always cringe. The language typically says or implies things like, “I don’t understand why ______ rescue gets donations every day and we haven’t seen anything come in for weeks,” “Bigger organizations get all the credit, and no one cares about us,” or “Well sure, if we had a celebrity doing PSAs for our cause like _____ does, we could get more donations, but I guess we just aren’t important enough.”
I understand that these people are just venting, likely due to frustration from trying to make a difference in the world without receiving enough public support. However, justified or not, these statements immediately makes me lose a bit of faith in the organization. It makes me feel like something must not be working, and that even if I were to donate, they still wouldn’t have enough money to accomplish what they want to.
You have to think of a non-profit like a business. If your company projects an image of desperation or failure, it’s a lot harder to bring in customers or investors. Sometimes you gotta fake it to make it, you know? Of course, you do have to ask for donations (we understand you need money to stay functional and grow), but there’s a big difference between, “Donate here to help us save even more lives in 2016!” and “If you don’t want us to be evicted tomorrow, we need you to send $10.”
Catastrophes and unexpected life events happen, but if every week feels like you’re on the brink of disaster, I start to wonder if you’ll ever be able to make it work.
#2: Professionalism & Diplomacy
Social media has been a hugely helpful tool for a lot of non-profits, but the downside is we’re all still just humans dealing with other humans. And now it’s all public. Conflict is bound to arise, and your supporters (and potential supporters) definitely take note of how that conflict is handled.
If I don’t know you personally, you’ve probably lost me the second you post ambiguously (or worse, specifically) about drama with another person or organization in your field. I see this disturbingly often. Even if the trouble is completely the other person’s fault, the average visitor on your Facebook page has no reason to believe you over the other person. All they see is that there’s a problem, and they’re going to move along to the next organization whose staff and volunteers are NOT spreading gossip or inciting tension.
In many cases, these passive-aggressive posts are shared from the founder/president’s personal page rather than the organization’s official page. Still, if you run your own non-profit, remember that you’re representing it at all times. If someone criticizes your work, handle it like an adult. No extra points for snark!
Yes, there’s a time and a place for making a public statement in your defense. As a donor, I prefer to see this as a last resort and only in response to harmful slander that is actively making it difficult for your team to do their good work. We all have egos that can be bruised, but it’s so important to take the high road as often as possible, especially when the high road leads to financial support!
#3: Social Media Presence
I understand that most non-profits have insufficient funds and insufficient time to spare. When there are events to coordinate and lives to save, I know focusing on social media can feel like a low priority.
I try to be as gentle as possible when mentioning this to people, because I know what they’re likely thinking is, “I’M BOTTLE FEEDING FOUR KITTENS WHILE CALLING VOLUNTEERS TO STAFF OUR FUNDRAISER ON SATURDAY AND MY TAXES ARE DUE TOMORROW BUT MY COMPUTER CRASHED AFTER IT FELL INTO THE PIG’S WATER BOWL BUT YES, PLEASE TELL ME HOW YOU THINK I NEED A BETTER FACEBOOK COVER PHOTO!” I get it. You chose a really challenging life mission, and for that you have so much of my respect and appreciation. Still, if I can think of a way to bring you more resources to ease the stress, I’m going to mention it.
Facebook has become a home base for many non-profits, but I encourage you to also utilize Instagram, Twitter, and/or maybe even TikTok! I’ve noticed more and more people either leaving Facebook or checking it far less often, which is mostly Facebook’s fault. Facebook has also made it increasingly difficult to reach your own followers! I’m sure you’ve noticed that the percent of your followers who engage in your posts has dropped significantly compared to engagement from a year or two ago, unless you’re paying to promote each individual post. If your supporters are migrating away from Facebook, you have to follow them.
I’ll give a quick example to demonstrate how important this is. A friend of mine (let’s call her “Megan”) recently reached out to me asking for advice. Megan wanted to help her favorite local non-profit, because they were dealing with some emergency medical bills and they needed an influx of financial support. I recommended the non-profit open start Instagram page where they could host a clickable link to their website for easy donations.
Megan and I have more than 100,000 combined Instagram followers, who we would have loved to direct to the non-profit’s Instagram page if they had one. People scrolling through social media have a weak attention span. The number of people willing to find a computer and manually type in a url to send a donation is much lower than the number of people who would’ve clicked through and donated if it were easy. Megan passed along my suggestion and even volunteered to set up an Instagram page for this organization, but they pretty much ignored her because they were too busy. Thus, they lost out on potentially hundreds or thousands of dollars we could’ve raised for them.
I do have sympathy for people, especially those of an older generation, who aren’t well-versed in the nuances of each social media platform, yet have to try because they know it’s necessary. There’s a lot of unspoken etiquette regarding frequency of posts, length of captions, etc. And those “rules” change all the time!
Even if you think you’re handling social media pretty well, I encourage you to ask for feedback or seek professional consulting. If you ask your followers for a genuine critique (and if you’re able to truly not be defensive), I feel confident that you would receive some helpful and specific suggestions. I also recommend looking at the social media presence of some of the bigger organizations in your field. The ones whose budgets you wish you could have. Take note of how and what they post. They must be doing something right, can you learn from them?
Speaking generally, the social media content or behavior that bothers me the post includes:
- Low quality photos
- Over-posting (especially sharing too many irrelevant or barely relevant memes, graphics, etc. from other pages)
- Cheesy/outdated/amateur logos or graphics
- Consistently bad grammar
Logically, I understand your ability to use a camera well or find the right graphic artist to design your logo is unrelated to the actual quality of your work. But this isn’t really about logic. This is about instilling confidence and enthusiasm in your supporters, and a professional, eye-catching internet presence can make or break that.
You have very little time to stand out and be memorable on social media. A blurry, low resolution photo isn’t going to do that, not in this day and age. It might be worth investing a bit of money into the problem, as painful as that sounds. If you have $300 to work with and you can use it to either cover the expenses of rescuing another dog from death row or hiring someone to revamp your web presence, I hate to say it, but I recommend the latter. The increased funds and donor support that could come from those changes to your public appearance can enable you to save far more lives in the future.
If you have a decent group of volunteers working with you, you may be able to get some help from them if they have a knack for technology and PR! I haven’t personally used this site, but I’ve heard great things about Volunteer Match. You may able to find some smart, internet-savvy helpers with a few clicks of the mouse!
#4: Prove My Donation Matters With Stats & Stories
I want my donated dollar to make an impact. Convince me that my money should be given to you, using numbers and anecdotes!
One organization that blew me away with their statistics was FARM, an organization working to save animals through plant-based eating. I’ve attended many fundraisers, but a memory that always stands out was a presentation given by FARM, during which they broke down the impact numbers for their donations. Based on surveys given to people who watched their factory farming video, they concluded that for every $5 donated, 4 people commit to either go vegan or choose significantly more plant-based foods. Sure, this is just an estimate, but it makes it feel very tangible.
If you’re a dog rescue, publish the average cost of rescuing and rehabbing one dog. If you’re an advocacy group, tell me how much it costs you to print 500 leaflets or to rent a billboard.
The benefits of breaking down these numbers are threefold:
1) It’s more fun for me (and thus encourages me to donate again) to tell myself “I just covered half the cost of a dog’s spay procedure, which means i’ve prevented half a litter of puppies from being born into an overpopulated community” or “I just enabled this farmed animal sanctuary to buy 200 feet of fencing so they have room to take in three more chickens” than it is to say “Well, there goes $20…I hope they do something good with it.”
2) It makes me feel more confident in your ability to manage and plan finances.
3) It makes me feel like my donation matters and is truly needed. This can be especially challenging for large organizations, which people often look at and think, “Will my $20 really matter if their rescue missions each cost $20,000?” Well, if you know your $20 could pay for the vaccines and flea medication for an overbred momma dog just rescued from a filthy puppy mill, then yes! To her, that $20 makes all the difference in the world.
Once you’ve shared the facts and figures, give me anecdotes. Knowing how you specifically impacted the life of one animal or person can be as powerful as telling me you saved 1000 lives. If these stories are organized (and updated often) on your website, I’m VERY impressed. An example of an organization that does this exceptionally well is Animal Aid Unlimited.
I love when a non-profit’s website has a testimonial page, featuring comments from gratitude from donors who gave in the past. Ask people who have either donated to you, volunteered with you, or been a part of your organization in another meaningful way, to write a blurb for you. Or, post on social media asking people why they support your organization (ask permission before using their quotes on your website). When checking out an organization I know very little about, I feel much more comfortable donating if others have passionately given them public support.
I hope you come away from this with some new strategies or ideas! If you’ve chosen to run or work for a non-profit, I am so grateful for you and for the fact that you’ve chosen something bigger than yourself to dedicate your life to.