Digitisation is rapidly changing the nature of retail fundraising, making it easier for small and big nonprofits to raise money from across the world. It’s time for us to take it seriously.

When nonprofit leaders hear the word ‘retail fundraising’–small donations from many individuals–it usually draws one of two reactions. Either they stare at you blankly, or, they shrink back in fear at the thought of having to build complex backend systems within their nonprofits.

Some of this comes from widespread ignorance about this very important mode of fundraising but much of it also comes from the hard truth that retail fundraising in its traditional form has, in fact, been hard.
This need not be the case anymore. Digitisation in all its forms–online giving, payment gateways, social media and mobile wallets–is rapidly changing how this game can be played.

What can digital really do?

For starters, it multiplies your reach.

As a nonprofit, digital gives you access to anyone with a mobile phone or a net connection; you can use this to build awareness of your work and to convert that awareness into a contribution.

Digital gives you access to anyone with a mobile phone or a net connection.

Previously, fundraising from individuals entailed acquiring lists, deploying telemarketers or face-to-face fundraisers, as well as building systems to process cheques, credit cards and receipts.

Related article: Retail Giving: The power of many

Now, you can transfer money to pretty much anyone in the country. Suddenly you have reach at a scale that you’ve never had before. You can be based in Nagaland, Chhattisgarh or Uttarakhand and have access to people in Bengaluru, Mumbai or Manhattan.

Many years ago, when I was at CRY, my colleague Sangeeta and I were playing around with Google Adwords late one night. (Yes, that is how we nonprofit-types amuse ourselves.) We ran an online ad in Portuguese to see what would happen. A few hours later, money came in from Brazil!

When CRY opened its US payment gateway in 2004, within the first 10 days, people of Indian origin had made donations from all 50 US states! (Which just goes to show that Indians really are everywhere!) That sort of reach had never been possible before. You needed volunteers in cities to do events; you could raise big money but you couldn’t reach the doctor in Wisconsin or the techie in Arkansas.

retail fundraising
This image has been licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 1.0

It breaks through the clutter.

As much as people talk about the opportunities, the flipside is that you still need to build the brand. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a big nonprofit or have lots of money. You could be a small unknown nonprofit and then employ a tactic like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or Kony 2012 and get people’s attention and money.

You don’t have to be a big nonprofit or have lots of money to build a brand.

Even if it’s a media stunt–and digital lends itself well to that, it can still jumpstart the awareness that would otherwise take decades to build. What you do need to do however, is to sustain it. And social media when used well and consistently can help build trust, knowledge and faith in your brand over time.

It is flexible.

The very nature of digital provides for immediate feedback. You can try many different things and within 24 hours you will know if a financial appeal is working or not, thanks to the analytics that everyone from Google to Facebook to Mailchimp provides. You can keep modifying your campaign till it ‘works’.

This contrasts with direct mailers that can take anywhere between one to four weeks to yield customer feedback; with an event, it’s a few months, and with a proposal it can take six months to a year.
More importantly, it permits you to respond almost immediately to opportunities, be those news headlines or a chance to influence policy.

Plus it’s cheap.

Most digital channels require little or no investment upfront, barring the investment in understanding the medium. The costs are essentially variable which work well for a nonprofit with limited resources. (And it’s a lot easier to get board approval for!)

Most digital channels require little or no investment upfront

What can cost a little bit of money is the paid use of social media especially Facebook and Google Adwords. But even here these companies provide concessions to social enterprises. Registered nonprofits are entitled to USD 10,000 per month for Adwords. And if you know a Facebook employee, you can use their monthly allowances for supporting a cause. This can go up to USD 200 per month and I know many nonprofits that use this really well for promoting their Facebook posts and attracting retail attention.

Today, you don’t have to build it yourself.

There are many supporting players in the sector today who can help you ‘go retail’ and capitalise on the many advantages that retail has to offer.

  • Service providers like Dana Mojo provide you with a payment gateway, pick up your cheques, do the receipting and send the 80G certificates-–in essence, everything you need to serve individual givers.
  • Crowdfunding platforms like Milaap, Ketto and Wishberry.
  • Online platforms like GiveIndia, Charities Aid Foundation India (CAF), Give2Asia and others that provide platforms that donors trust and will give through.

Why aren’t many people doing it yet?

In India, too many nonprofits, as well as funders, are technophobes.
They tend to be behind the curve in terms of technology adoption and social media is just one more example of this. I see dead Facebook pages, updated maybe once a month. I see leaders still shunning digital for their marketing and communications work.

And why should I, as a nonprofit leader, explore it?

It can work, even for ‘tough’ causes.

A nonprofit working on digital accessibility always maintained that they could not raise retail money because what they did was too esoteric for individuals to understand. To prove them wrong, a person put up an appeal on Twitter on their behalf. He was able to raise Rs 1.9 lakh from 19 individuals almost immediately. And demonstrate his point that no cause is unexplainable or unsupportable.

It can work, even for ‘tough’ causes.

Nonprofit fundraising is well overdue for real disruption. It’s already happening through disintermediation of the crowdfunding kind, and Facebook could soon do to nonprofits what it has already done to news media.

We’d all better ‘do digital’ before digital does us.

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Ingrid Srinath

Ingrid Srinath

Ingrid Srinath is the founding director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) at Ashoka University. CSIP, India’s first such academic centre, aims to galvanise the ecosystem for philanthropy and social impact in India towards greater impact, relevance, resilience and recognition.A graduate of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, Ingrid has previously served as Secretary General of CIVICUS, and as CEO at CRY, CHILDLINE India and Hivos India. She is a passionate advocate for human rights, social justice and civil society.

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