Fundraise Smarter

The Nonprofit Website Tweak You'd Be Crazy To Not Try

Posted by Andrew Littlefield on Jan 25, 2016 10:00:00 AM

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The other day, I saw this tweet pop-up on my timeline:

Ah, the age-old debate: should we feature a pop-up ask on our nonprofit website or not? 

I have a problem with this question though. I don’t think it’s the right question to ask.

It’s not whether or not you should have a pop-up ask; it’s what should you be asking for?

A word on pop-ups

I’m just going to come out and say it: you should be using some sort of pop-up call-to-action on your site.

With a few exceptions, I think it’s crazy not to.


Because they work.

They’re also ridiculously easy to set up these days, and there are a ton of free options out there (I’m partial to SumoMe). 

Now, when people hear the phrase “pop-up,” they immediately recoil, and for good reason. For years, that phrase meant intrusive, aggressive, scummy internet ads that would open up in a new window and flash wildly in your face, trying to get you to play online poker or visit other…*ahem* sites of ill-repute.

Check out our nonprofit website guide for more tips

Today’s pop-ups are different (technically, it’s not even a pop-up, but a “lightbox”), and when used properly and ethically can help you grow your audience and turn one-time visitors into repeat readers, donors, and supporters. They’re highly customizable, so you can make them effective but not overly intrusive. They don’t open in a separate window, so they’re very easy to close and dismiss if your visitor is uninterested. Plus, we’re talking about pop-ups that ask people to take an action involving your organization. You know, the very site they’re willingly visiting. You’re not directing them to some outside site that’s completely unrelated to what they’re looking at.

So what does properly and ethically mean? Here’s some guidelines:

  • Make sure it’s mobile-friendly. Nothing will turn off a visitor more if they can’t close your pop-up form because it only works on desktop
  • Give people an easy out. If they want in, they’ll click it. If not, they’ll exit. Hiding the close button or making it hard to find only serves to push away your visitors.
  • Don’t be excessive. One pop-up should be enough. If you start showing multiple, you run the risk of just pissing people off.
  • Make it smart. Most forms will allow you to control how often they are shown. You don’t need to show it to every visitor every single time they visit. Show it once, then give people a break for a week or so.

When sticking to these rules, you can use a pop-up on your site without hurting user experience, and the amount of people who will be turned-off by it will be minimal.

Now, back to my original point: it’s not should you ask, it’s what you should ask.

What Should You Ask?

The initial thought by many digital fundraisers is to use a pop-up to make a donation ask. That just makes sense right?

Not so fast.

When’s the last time you walked into a brand new store, grabbed the very first thing you passed as you walked in the door, went immediately to the cash register and slapped down $100?

Never, right?

No, you look around. You pick up a few things. You try something on. The sales associate tells you about the item and the store. They tell you how it’s handmade in Italy. You feel the high quality. You have an internal debate about whether it’s worth the money. Then you lay down money for the purchase.

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Asking for money from a first time visitor to your website immediately upon entering is like asking someone to buy a pair of shoes before they’ve even tried them on. It ain’t gonna happen.

What’s much more likely to happen is someone might exchange their email address with you.

That’s what you should be asking for.

More than money, more than social media “likes” and “follows,” you need to be converting visitors into subscribers by asking for an email address.

There’s two big reasons for this: 1) it’s a low-commitment ask (i.e. - higher conversion) and 2) it allows you to build a relationship (i.e. - better retention rates) with a supporter by entering into a communication correspondence with them.

When it comes to online fundraising, the email list is king. Email traffic is consistently the #1 driver of campaign page traffic.

Not only that, but if you’re using a good donor research tool, you can quickly and easily find individuals on your email list who need some extra attention from your fundraisers.

**Shameless Plug**

The key is turning anonymous web visitors into known contacts. Once they’ve opted into your email list, you can put them into a drip email campaign that informs them about your cause, introduces some of your work, profiles other donors, and eventually makes an ask for a donation.

Or, if flagged by your donor research tool as a potential major gift prospect (see shameless plug above), alerts your fundraising team to reach out and establish a relationship.

“We already tried asking for emails and it didn’t work…”

I’ve venture to guess that if you’ve tried collecting email addresses via your website before and didn’t have success, you fell victim to one of several common mistakes:

1. You put your sign-up form somewhere no one ever looks.

This one drives me crazy. I see so many nonprofits who put their email sign-up form in the footer of their website. Who is ever going to see that?! The same goes for sidebars: they just don’t get a lot of attention. It’s okay to put a form here, but if that’s the only place you put it, you’re not going to get many sign-ups.

2. You didn’t give anyone a reason to subscribe. 

Why would they want to sign-up? Just saying “Sign-up for our newsletter” is unlikely to work. You need to be offering value to someone. Remember, even if it doesn’t cost money, exchanging one’s email address is still a transaction. Our time and attention is a limited commodity, so we won’t exchange it for free.

So offer an incentive for signing up! This could be discounted admission to your museum/zoo/aquarium, or even someone like a guide on “10 ways to reduce your carbon footprint at home” for environmental organizations.

3. You don’t drive people to your website

In order for someone to sign-up on your pop-up, they have to actually see it first. Many nonprofits treat their websites like a static billboard: a place to give basic information about themselves that never changes.

Give people a reason to visit your site and keep coming back! Post donor stories on your blog, stories about your impact, videos about your mission, something.

Is it ever okay to ask for money?

Certainly. I think the fear that many fundraisers have in not asking for a donation via pop-up is that many people might hear about their organization (maybe on TV), connect with their mission and want to make a contribution, type it into Google, and land on the homepage. Then they see the pop-up and think “Aha! Here’s where I can donate.”

So in certain instances, yes, I would use a pop-up for donation asks. But I would limit it to these situations:

  • After a positive press mention that sends lots of interested traffic your way
  • During a big campaign, like an end-of-the-year appeal or #GivingTuesday
  • If possible, only after someone has already signed-up for your email list

I’m still not convinced, I need to see some examples…

Oh c’mon, be bold! No one ever accomplished big things in life by following the crowd! But, if you need a gentle push, there are a few organizations out there who do this well. Here’s my favs:

  • While not a pop-up form, the World Wildlife Fund does a masterful job of adding people to their email list through the use of petitions and pledges in their Action Center. People LOVE signing these and sharing them
  • Our friends at the Clearwater Aquarium have a pop-up call to action to join their newsletter (and they raise big money online)
  • charity: water takes you to a donation form immediately, without even using a pop-up. Now, I know I just said that I wouldn’t do that, but charity: water is a special case in that they’re an organization that receives tons of press and gets thousands informed visitors every day.

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Topics: Nonprofit tech, nonprofit marketing,

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