How to Choose a Fundraising Platform, Part One


If you’re a nonprofit decision maker, at some point you’ll have to consider (or reconsider) how to choose a fundraising platform for your organization. This can be a painful process. Over the last 10 years, there’s been an explosion of online fundraising products, tools and software. There are legacy systems, niche players and shiny new things. Some are stand alone, some integrate directly into your website, and yet others are mobile-only apps. It’s enough to make your head spin.

If you’re a nonprofit decision maker, at some point you’ll have to consider how to choose a fundraising platform; read this post before researching options.

Every time we redesign a client’s website, we’re asked what the “best” fundraising platform is, and the answer is, it depends. There are a host of factors you’ll need to consider, from revenue goals to technology requirements to how you’ll staff and oversee the system. So I’ve dedicated my next two posts to providing a framework you can use to help make the right decision. It won’t be an overview of available products–there are entire websites dedicated to that–but rather, what you’ll need to take into account to help you make the right choices. I’ll cover:

  1. Auditing your Online Fundraising Needs: the information you’ll need to gather to help you choose the right platform
  2. The Big Picture: The pros, cons and trade-offs you’ll be making based on the type of fundraising platform you choose

Let’s start with performing an online fundraising needs and expectations audit.

The Online Fundraising Platform Audit

Choosing the right fundraising platform will pay benefits for years. Making the wrong choice will result in unhappy donors, irate staff and crucially, lost time that could have been spent on more productive fundraising.

The solution to avoiding costly mistakes is to think through the purpose and implementation of your fundraising platform as deeply as possible. The clearer the focus you have on what you want out of these systems, the closer you’ll get to the right approach. Picking the tools themselves is the easy part–indeed they all really do the same thing, to varying degrees–but to get there, you’ll need to know why you need that specific product.

Gathering Input

The first step in performing the audit will be to gather feedback from the relevant individuals on your team. In an organization with a small staff, this might include:

  • The Executive Director
  • A key board member(s)
  • An “ideal” donor
  • The person responsible for your day-to-day fundraising platform oversight and supporting outreach

A larger organization might include:

  • The Executive Director
  • A key board member(s)
  • An “ideal” donor(s)
  • Director of Development (and supporting staff)
  • Director of Marketing/Communications
  • Director of Operations
  • The person responsible for your day-to-day fundraising platform oversight and supporting outreach

No matter what size team, the idea is to hear from a range of voices, since each will help to shape fundraising system requirements. Casting a wide net also promotes a greater chance of fundraising success since key individuals will have had buy-in around the product(s) and thus greater motivation to see things work.

Asking the Right Questions

With your review team in place, it’s time to really dig down and uncover the needs and goals that your fundraising platform will need to satisfy. The answers you develop will inform the types of tools you’ll require, how they’ll fit into your existing marketing and technology “stack,” and how you’ll oversee their use and output.

The solution to avoiding costly mistakes is to think through the purpose and implementation of your fundraising platform as deeply as possible.

These questions can be presented via email or in-person discovery session. In either case, I recommend providing an introduction to your review team that summarizes why you’re undertaking this exercise and the benefits that will be derived from it (see above). Again, making key players feel part of the process will go a long way towards a positive outcome.

Based on our experience helping clients shape their fundraising platform requirements, I’ve listed a series of questions that you should include in your review, grouped by topic. You can amend or add to these as you see fit, but they represent a good starting point to ensure that you’re covering all bases:

Organizational Goals

  • How much are we looking to raise through online fundraising efforts over the course of 1 year? 5 years?
  • How committed are we to active digital fundraising (versus our other forms of revenue generation)? What percentage of our donations do we want to come from digital-centric initiatives?
  • How comprehensive do we need this platform to be? Do we require a full-on digital fundraising suite with multiple tools such as peer-to-peer fundraising (crowdfunding), events management, text-to-give and donor management? Or do we simply need a high quality process for accepting online donations and perhaps keeping tabs on donor activity?

Target Audience(s)

  • Who is our ideal current or prospective donor that we’ll be targeting via our online fundraising efforts? What type of experience and outreach do we feel they would be most responsive to? (Hence the idea of recruiting an “ideal donor” onto your review team).
  • Who is our ideal current or prospective donor that responds better to traditional forms of asking? What do we need to provide them in terms of user experience and functionality?

Tactical and Technology Requirements

  • What is our general plan for digital outreach to current and prospective donors? What marketing tactics will we be using initially?
  • How are we currently collecting donor information? What will our data and reporting requirements be going forward? How extensive/granular does that reporting need to be?
  • Do we have a payment processor in place (e.g., Paypal, Stripe, Will this product work with the platform of our choice?
  • Do we need a system that will automate asks and outreach, or do we plan to do more customized, manually-driven asks?
  • Which tools and functionality must this system have:
    • Accept and process donations
    • Create and deploy forms
    • Promote and process events
    • Ecommerce
    • Donor Management/CRM
    • Email Marketing
    • Text-to-Give
    • Social media tools
    • Online auctions/bidding
    • Peer-to-Peer/Crowdfunding
  • What other tools will we need?
  • Do we want this platform to have the ability to integrate directly into our website so that the user remains on our site at all times? Or are we comfortable with sending the user to another website to complete our fundraising functions?
  • Do we like the convenience of an all-in-one system where all of our tools are contained in one platform/package or do we prefer the familiarity and flexibility of using some stand alone tools (email marketing, event system) and combining those with this platform? Do some or all of these tools need to integrate with the fundraising platform?
  • Do we need a fundraising platform at all – or do we prefer simply using a collection of separate tools integrated into our website?

Practical Considerations

  • How are we staffed to handle our online fundraising program?
  • Who will be the point person to oversee implementation, operation, optimization and reporting of the platform and our overall digital fundraising efforts?
  • How much time can we dedicate to surrounding/supporting digital marketing efforts (social media, email marketing, PPC, display advertising)? Will the person in charge of the fundraising platform be the same person undertaking marketing?
  • How much time can we dedicate to learning the ins-and-outs of the fundraising platform? Will it require on-going training or a professional consultant to support that learning?
  • What is our budget for implementation and ongoing platform servicing/consultation?

Drawing Conclusions

In sum, you’ll now have answers to the three most important concerns when selecting a fundraising platform:

  1. What your technology needs are
  2. What kind of experience you want your donors to have
  3. How you plan to implement and run your system and campaigns

You may find it helpful to summarize your answers into a spreadsheet for quick reference; this will come in handy when you begin to research specific tools and talk to product representatives, who will now have a good understanding of what your requirements are.

Having done your homework, you’ll now be informed (and in our experience, well ahead of many organizations that simply jump right into product selection). But before you begin researching fundraising platforms and talking to product experts, I recommend one additional step, and that’s understanding the various categories of fundraising platforms, how they will impact your fundraising efforts and how much of your toolset can or should be custom-developed. That’s all for next time.

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