Case Studies in Sustainable Online Nonprofit Fundraising

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Case Studies in Sustainable Online Nonprofit Fundraising, part 1

In varying measures, nonprofits such as ACLU, Charity Water, and Planned Parenthood are successfully using the best practices of attracting donors through SEO tactics and social media advocacy, and increasing donor motivation to acquire massive donations. Although the exact amount donated was not made public, Planned Parenthood was able to attract about 80,000 new donors with the launch of its #Idefy campaign on Facebook, using Facebook Live. Charity Water raised about $100 million from its online fundraising efforts, attributing most of their success to social media, and grew their Facebook fans count to over 300,000. ACLU used social media advocacy to raise $79 million, growing their Facebook fan count to over 2.2 million; Twitter followers to over 1.2 million; and Instagram followers to about 244,000 in the process.

Using the best practices already identified, we researched press releases, nonprofits' industry reports, blogs, news articles, and credible publications to source successful case studies that met the criteria of those best practices. However, while there were sprinkles of reports for nonprofits who have successfully raised funds through donors, our research led to only three nonprofits that used the identified best practices for their respective online fundraising activities. Hence, the information in this report was not sourced precompiled after extensive research. We gathered the most credible resources for each of these nonprofits in other to develop their case studies, respectively. Sadly, after extensive research, the time frames, with which these online nonprofits achieved their feats were not publicly available.

In short, nonprofits are amassing notable donations using the best practices earlier identified to grow their online presence and penetration in the process, and fuel their respective online fundraising attempts. While this research was only able to gather enough information to develop case studies for nonprofits such as ACLU, Charity Water, and Planned Parenthood; Sick Kids, American Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders are other nonprofits remarked for their use of SEO, social advocacy, and donor motivation to raise funds, although all the details needed to develop a case study could not be sourced publicly.


In the case of ACLU, they strategically used the treble of SEO, social advocacy, and donor motivation to achieve a sustainable online fundraising campaign. They used SEO to outreach to the general online generation; while their social advocacy effort was targeted primarily to the millennials, with their strategy identifying them as digital natives.

According to their Social Media Manager, Diana Scholl, ACLU started with few thousand subscribers, but was able to grow their social media followers and fans to hundreds of thousands of followers just by staying connected to their targeted audience. On the SEO front, ACLU buttered their online fundraising effort by employing a visual marketing campaign that motivated visitors to click web buttons, where they received a donation for each click.

Results of ACLU Online Fundraising

On the social media advocacy front, ACLU recorded enviable successes. From a few thousand followers, they grew their Facebook fans to over 2.2 million; Twitter followers to 1.2 million; and Instagram followers to about 244,000 followers. This massive increase in their social media handles, coupled with the visual SEO marketing campaign adopted by ACLU saw them raise about $79 million from over 1 million donors.

Charity Water

Although Charity Water is only a few years old, this organization whose primary focus is to drill wells in impoverished communities around the world, raised most of its funds online. Using SEO and social media advocacy, Charity Water won the donor motivation of hundreds of thousands of millennials. It is reported that they achieved by this by been transparent, tangible, authentic, offered quality online presence across their social media handles, and engaged in real-time with the greater community. By taking prospective donors on a virtual trip, and later releasing the video online, Charity Water used this campaign to increase donor motivations.

Also, on their web page, visitors to Charity Water web page from SEO are treated to a compelling 'About Us' description that presents them in the light of spending 100% of donor monies to fund the projects they were donated for. This is in line with the transparency they project on social media.

Results of Charity Water's Online Fundraising

Building trust by presenting themselves as a transparent online nonprofit organization, and engaging thousands of millennials, Charity Water raised over $100 million and have rightly attributed most of such funds to come from their Online fundraising efforts. Also, they grew their Facebook fan base to over 300,000 in the process.

With its virtual reality trip, which was later released online, Charity Water specifically raised about $2.4 million from donors who were motivated to donate to the organization's course of drilling boreholes at impoverished communities globally.

Planned parenthood

Based on its policies on abortion, Donald Trump was reported to issue threats of defunding Planned Parenthood. In response to this, Planned Parenthood launched its #Idefy campaign, which targeted support for the online nonprofit from the millennial audience. The campaign was launched on Facebook Live and hosted by celebrities and influencers. After its launch, the campaign achieved its aim of identifying, engaging, and mobilizing youths on social media to support Planned Parenthood, which, in turn, led to a successful online fundraising campaign.

Results from Planned Parenthood online fundraising

Although the impact of their #Idefy campaign on the growth of their social media handles and the exact amount raised has not been made public, Planned Parenthood reports that it received over 80,000 new donations nationwide and a spike in contraceptive demands after it launched its #Idefy campaign on social media.


Nonprofits such as ACLU, Charity Water, and Planned Parenthood are successfully using the best practices of attracting millennial donors through SEO and social media advocacy, and increasing donor motivation to raise donations online. Planned Parenthood was able to attract about 80,000 new donors with the launch of its #Idefy campaign on Facebook, Charity Water raised about $100 million, and ACLU used social media advocacy to raise $79 million. All of these online nonprofits employed the best practices of attracting attention through SEO tactics and social media advocacy, and by increasing donor motivation.
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Case Studies in Sustainable Online Nonprofit Fundraising, part 2

Best practices for nonprofits who wish to reach small-donor Millennials via online campaigns include maintaining transparency and accountability through regular participation, staying connected with the Millennial generation in the ways they want to stay connected, and remembering to always thank donors – both big and small. The ACLU Dash Button campaign highlights how a nonprofit can use both offline and online functionality to successfully run long-term giving campaigns. Charity: Water’s efforts have proven them to be a leader in running successful online campaigns geared toward Millennials; their birthday campaign is a perfect example of how they find success with sustainable campaigns. Finding creative ways to show gratitude to donors is of great importance to nonprofits and can mean the difference between a one-time gift and a lifetime of giving.


In our search for relevant case studies, we first looked at two of the organizations mentioned in your query: ACLU and Planned Parenthood. We were able to create a case study based on an ACLU campaign, though nothing of use was found that we could provide on the second organization (PP). Since you are working with United We Dream, we did not want to include them in our search, but instead searched for similar organizations that might provide interesting / relevant case studies. Unfortunately, our search did not turn up any campaigns that work for the best practices on which we were focusing. So, we searched other nonprofit organizations that serve typically under-represented populations, and pulled from those for the remaining case studies.
As requested, we focused on online/digital campaigns and efforts. For the ACLU campaign, the best item we found included both an IRL (in real life) element as well as online elements. Since it met your other requirements and was from one of your selected organizations, we included it. We also focused on campaigns that were designed for sustainable (or long-term) giving efforts, and those that focused on Millennials and small donors. For each best practice, we have provided background information that will be useful in translating this research into action, as well as a relevant case study demonstrating successful utilization of the best practice. It is important to note that, for the last best practice (thanking donors), no specific case study could be found, so a collection of creative ways to thank donors was provided in hopes that this meets your needs.


Stanford Business reports that the 1990s saw a shift in the behaviors of nonprofit organizations; these organizations began adopting for-profit-business strategies and methodologies toward achieving greater levels of efficiency, as well as toward increasing their bottom-line donations. Stanford Business School conducted a long-term study on the consequences of this shift, and found that the nonprofits that had been “early adopters of business-oriented practices, had become less insular by actively collaborating with other organizations and soliciting input from constituents through online channels”. They became more focused on strategic planning, more pointed toward efficient and effective fundraising, and began measuring their progress along more channels to better guide their future steps. This led to more tech-savvy nonprofit groups who understood how to harness the power of the internet and social media in reaching out more-fully and more-often to donors, and especially younger, more tech-savvy potential donors. Overall, this led to “greater openness and transparency and more engagement in working with constituents”. Additionally, the study found that nonprofits began to view similar or like-minded organizations as allies or collaborators, rather than competition for limited donor funds.
A study from the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research on how transparency, accountability, and specificity of message affected donations showed that, those individuals who already are inclined to donate to charities were more likely to do so “when presented with a message that included information about how administration costs are essential to the charity accomplishing its mission, or when presented with a message about how donations would be given to one specific program, compared to the standard charitable messaging request currently used”.
The National Council of Nonprofits recommends that, in addition to the required public disclosures, nonprofits can also demonstrate transparency and financial accountability in the following ways:
• Practice ethical solicitation by being clear and truthful in how all monies are spent
• Create a conflict of interest policy and display it prominently/often
• Create a clearly-laid out executive compensation policy that requires full board approval
• Ensure all financial management policies, processes, and controls ensure accountability
• Create clear expenditure accountability processes
• Display tax-exempt status across all communications
• Post all financials to the nonprofit’s website and in regular board/donor/public updates
Along with openness and transparency in where the money goes and who gets to decide what happens to it, connecting potential donors to unique methods of accountability – either for the organization, for themselves, or for a third-party – is a strong way for a nonprofit to demonstrate dedication to its cause – as well as to increase their donor pool exponentially. The case study for the ACLU below is one example of how this works in action.
OVERVIEW: The ACLU Dash Button is a creative marketing campaign with an actual call-to-action button. This was released to the public via the ACLU’s website, a video released by the designer Nathan Pryor (which garnered over 33,000 views), and via all the organization’s social media channels. Additionally, it was heavily featured across multiple third-party media sites, thereby increasing the reach exponentially. Although not a fully online fundraising solution, it meets your requirements in that it displays the ACLU’s commitment to accountability for all (when it comes to everyone’s rights, everyone is accountable) and shows how the “Trump Bump” could be translated into long-time extended giving.
CAMPAIGNS/EFFORTS: Using Amazon’s physical button, ACLU and designer Nathan Pryor “created a way for Americans to instantly satisfy their frustrations with their current president”. They created the Dash Button so that “users can physically click – or slap – [it] each time they are angered by the president”. Each click of this innovative IRL (in-real-life) call-to-action button donates $5 to the ACLU, “helping the organization in its promise to use legal means to protect Americans’ rights”. Although Trump will not be president for the long-term, those who use this button are likely to click it on a frequent basis over the period Trump is in office at least. Therefore, this campaign focuses on the long-term period of at least the four years he’s currently in office, so it meets your requirement of sustainable giving.
RESULTS: This creative effort has significantly increased donations to the organization, leading to a spike in donations in the first months of 2017 (when the button came out), and allowing them to raise “$24 million in a single weekend – six times the annual average”. In part, this campaign helped them raise their Grants & Contributions from $69.7 M in 2016 to $125.8 M in 2017.
ADDITIONAL INFO: It is also important to note that the ACLU meets all 20 standards for charity accountability on, demonstrating true accountability and transparency across their organization. They fundraise via “direct mail, telemarketing, special events, print advertisements, grant proposals, internet appeals, door-to-door, planned giving, and cause-related marketing”. Their fundraising costs equal “8% of related contributions” or $95,076,550, while they only spent 4% on administrative costs. Their website shows all of the last six years’ of annual reports, IRS Form 990s, as well as their audited financial statements – demonstrating full financial transparency.

A case study from the University of Colorado on the Museum of Science Boston’s attempts at full transparency and accountability can be found here, if you’re interested. This case study shows some mistakes that can be made that decrease a nonprofit’s levels of accountability and make it difficult to accurately measure progress toward specific goals.
The Sunlight Foundation tracks case studies of organizations around the world that focus on technology-enabled transparency and accountability. Although not a US-focus, they have multiple case studies on how effective this strategy is from corporations around the world, if you’re interested.


Next to Gen Z, Millennials are the most-connected generation. The Balance notes that this generation especially has helped to disrupt the charitable landscape via the digital revolution. Let’s look at what the numbers say. In 2016, whereas overall giving grew only 1%, online giving 7.9%, with almost 17% of those donations coming via a mobile device. They note that “Millennials expect to do their giving online, and they want the websites and platforms where they give to look sleek and up-to-date”. An additional bonus of this generation’s willingness to do everything online – and share it via their various social media channels – is that this serves to get donors’ friends involved, as well, thereby increasing the potential pool of donors exponentially (for very little extra work/cost).
Forbes Nonprofit Council notes that Millennials’ behaviors have changed the entire landscape of nonprofit giving. This “cause-driven, socially-motived, and generous generation” engages differently than other generations – and should be approached differently, as well.

They recommend following specific tactics to engage – and keep the attention of potential Millennial donors, including:
• Ensure that fundraising opportunities offering any type of consumption, does so in a socially-responsible way.
• Focus on social media-based advocacy that requires little effort and have the potential to create significant change.
• Provide opportunities for volunteering IRL (in real life) rather than just online-only giving opportunities. Millennials love to show off (typically on social media) the ways they are contributing to their favorite causes.
• Run campaigns that allow for the instant gratification that comes from crisis-giving (giving during a time of major crisis), but that translates that crisis into continued systematic giving.
• Find innovative ways to create peer-to-peer giving that benefits your organization.
Lastly, they recommend ensuring that your campaigns demonstrate clear value (or useful need), that your campaigns and giving strategies are planned and focused, rather than spontaneous, and that your efforts foster great community-connected. The Balance highlights the Millennial Impact Report (from 2015) which notes that over half of Millennials “said they would be interested in making monthly donations to a nonprofit”. With all that potential, staying constantly connected to Millennials will only serve to improve your nonprofit’s bottom line (and keep improving it). Now, let’s look at an example of charity started by a Millennial and geared toward Millennials – and how that focus has contributed to their continued success.
OVERVIEW: This global NGO is a master at online fundraising efforts – and focuses mainly on the Millennial crowd, which might be partly due to it being founded by Millennial Scott Harrison. In seven years, they have “raised more than $100 million dollars, garnered 313,000 likes on Facebook, and nabbed scores of celebrity endorsements and corporate sponsors,” according to Upleaf.
EFFORTS: Charity: Water has a simple, clean, clear brand that includes a logo that is “bold, clean, uncluttered”. This design transfers over into their entire website and brand. Their online store also boosts their brand through supplemental advertising and increases their donations overall. Their overall look is “simple, clean, and visually appealing” and their website uses bold images with intuitive navigation – completely geared toward the Millennial generation. Their calls-to-action are displayed on the front page – with simple instructions, and they use infographics to highlight specific information that appeals to potential donors. Much of their efforts are delivered in a storytelling format – with video, text, and curated images, and they post new videos on Youtube nearly every month. The tone conveyed across all media and through all narratives is upbeat and positive, and they share their successes via concrete examples of how donors have changed the lives of others for the better. As noted, Charity: Water gears their efforts toward your perfect audience via their “transparency, authenticity, tangibility, quality on online experience, engagement with a greater community, [and the] opportunity to contribute beyond money”.

Additionally, Upleaf notes that Charity: Water reports on their failures (not just their successes), has worked to build a volunteer network infrastructure featuring opportunities for minor and major time and/or money investments by donors, has created special social media connection opportunities for their donors, and stayed on top of shifts in technology, utilizing all innovative modes to reach new audiences, and innovated the standard nonprofit business model. For this last point, the charity puts all (100%) of their donations toward projects, and seeks private funding to cover administrative and operating expenses. Lastly, they have literally owned all social media channels on which they appear, including Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Pinterest. To read more about how they dominate these avenues, check out the full case study from Upleaf.
CAMPAIGN EXAMPLE: One of the charity’s campaigns demonstrating their ability to connect with this audience in a personal way that leads to long-term giving is their birthday campaign. This annual campaign runs in September (the month of their founder’s birthday), and asks potential donors “to forego birthday gifts and ask friends and family to donate to Charity: Water instead”. This innovative approach ensures continued giving by donors – while encouraging new donors to join their loved ones in being generous on their special days. Several of their largest individual contributions have come through because of this campaign, including over $254K from actor Nathan Fillion’s birthday in 2014 and over $1.2 M from Rachel Beckwith’s 9th birthday in 2011.

RESULTS: The charity’s most-recently-available annual report is from 2016 (they haven’t yet posted items from 2017, except for a salary survey). The report shows that, in 2016, they raised a total of $36.1 M to fund projects and manage operations. Over their 10-year history, they’ve grown from funding 237 water projects in 2007 to funding 22,936 in 2016. Additionally, the number of people they’ve served over time has grown significantly – starting at just under 200K in their first year – and growing to over 7 M people by 2016. Of the monies they’ve raised, in 2016, they recorded 58,964 donations made to their online campaigns that raised $4.3 million to fund nearly 5000 water campaigns.
If you’re interested in another case study about a charity targeting Millennials (and what they love most), you can read about how focusing on a community-generated content campaign can bring you success via Upleaf’s case study on The Center for Nonprofit Excellence. This type of campaign falls into your focus of grassroots-type efforts.


Network for Good explains the importance of having a Gift/Donor Acknowledgement Policy that is clearly outlined – and includes a wide variety of methods for thanking (and continuing to thank) donors. Creating this culture of gratitude helps foster continued giving, especially with today’s younger givers.

The article explains that each nonprofit should consider:
• WHO is involved in the thank you process – at every step along the way
• WHAT the overall policy (and specific highlights) of the thank you process is
• WHEN each donor – of each type – is thanked
• WHY it is important to thank – and continue to thank – donors
• HOW gift-givers are thanked
Finding innovative ways to express your nonprofit’s appreciation for your donors – those at the lowest levels and those at the highest – is of great importance to encouraging donors to become long-time givers. In fact, ElevateClicks and Nonprofit Hub found that many nonprofits lose 60% of donors after they’ve given their first (and too-often only) donation to an organization. Of those that only give once, 13% reported not giving again because the nonprofit did not thank them for their gifts.
Along with being grateful, Forbes Nonprofit Council notes that it is important (especially for younger audiences) to focus on the gratitude rather than the guilt. Creating campaigns that “overwhelm people with gratitude for their support” helps donors enjoy the interactions with your organization – so they will seek it out again in the future. Millennials crave the soul-boost they get from connecting with – and helping – organizations that mean something to them and make them feel like they are needed. “When we highlight how their involvement in our efforts and support actually create positive change in the world, we invite them into the beautiful feeling of personal responsibility for impact instead of guilt for having more than others,” both are which are very important to younger givers.
Additionally, The Balance highlights the fact that campaigns showing tangible results – and who helped them achieve those results – are highly motivating to potential new donors. This is especially true for Millennials who require more proof than any other generation that their giving (of time and/or money) has made a positive impact. This can be done not only through continued thank you contacts (emails, social media mentions, lists in annual reports, etc), but also through frequent/regular updates on the successes of programs and projects they’ve helped to fund.
As noted above, we were not able to create a typical case study on a nonprofit that has found continued success through their donor gratitude programs. Rather, we have compiled a list of ways for your organization to show your continued thanks – and reap continued rewards because of your gratitude. Where available, we have included nonprofit examples demonstrating these methods by searching ElevationWeb’s list of2017's best nonprofit websites.
1. WELCOME PACKAGES: Organizations that provide a “thank you – welcome to the team” package for new donors – are sure to see those donors come back. Classy recommends mailing these physical packages within two weeks of a donation, and other experts recommend scaling them based on the amount of the gift. One mistake is to include a gift for the donor – which can backfire and lead donors to believe their donations are going for the donor gifts instead to help those they are hoping to help. “The package should not rattle off a series of facts and figures about your organization, but rather show the difference your organization has made.” SoapBoxEngage provides two examples of solid thank-you/welcome letters from which you could take some useful tips.
2. INTERNET THANKS: Classy notes that developing a stewardship section on your website that features donors’ names and/or stories boosts engagement and increases donor loyalty. Plus, it allows potential new donors to see who else is supporting the organization – and how thankful the organization is publicly. They give the example of Food Bank Santa Barbara’s website, which shows all supporters’ names, as well as the Leadership Circle, which shows the logos of their largest supporters.
3. SOCIAL MEDIA THANKS: Social media channels are some of the most powerful tools for thanking donors, especially among the tech-savvy Millennial generation. Classy notes that, “not only does it let them know you’ve received their donation and you’re grateful for it, it also tells the world of their commitment to your organization”. One tip is to add a field on online donation forms for Twitter and Instagram handles, for example. The Balance gives two examples from nonprofits, including the Project AWARE campaign that featured a monthly #debrishero in Sport Diver Magazine and across social media, as well as the St. Baldrick’s Foundation who showcases stories of their “shavees,” “the brave people who shave their head bald to raise money toward childhood cancer research”.
4. DONOR PROFILES: Creating profiles of your largest donors – on your website, in your annual report, at major conventions, in marketing materials, across social media – is the perfect way to recognize these top contributors. Classy and the Nonprofit Marketing Guide recommend that profiles highlight four aspects – “Why this person? Why now? What’s the point from a marketing perspective? [and] What are you trying to achieve by telling this story about this person?”
5. ANNUAL REPORTS/MEDIA PACKAGES: Featuring donors (especially those who contribute large amounts or who have some semblance of fame/importance) can be done in a variety of ways, but all organizations should include these individuals in their annual reports. Nonprofit Feeding America exemplifies this in their 2017 Annual Report where they provide small profiles of each of their major supporters (companies) with quotes from company leadership, as well as lists of other donors, and small profiles of high-profile donors (like Rachael Ray).
6. VIDEOS: A short (two-to-five minutes) video (or series of videos) is a creative way to say thanks to donors – and to showcase what their donations have provided. Videos not only give organizations a chance to say thanks, but also provides promotional materials for social media channels, in the hopes of garnering a wider net of support. Classy notes that, “The Nature Conservancy’s thank you video is a perfect example of a quick, meaningful way to effectively say thank you”.
7. EVENTS: Classy calls them “cultivation events” – which celebrate your biggest donors and “creates an opportunity to involve ‘cold prospects’ who may have never heard of your organization in a way that sparks their interest and often, desire to adopt your mission”.
There are hundreds of creative and innovative ways to thank donors – and for an organization to demonstrate their gratitude (let Wonder know if you want us to research these for you!). Each of them – and especially combinations of them – show that a nonprofit is committed to not only their cause, but also those who help them successfully support that cause – which, in turn, creates an ever-widening network of support.


Nonprofit organizations utilizing best practices for achieving sustainable small-donation giving from Millennials include the ACLU, Charity: Water, Food Bank Santa Barbara, Feeding America, Project AWARE, and The Nature Conservancy.


From Part 02