Every campaign is its own ecosystem of personalities, relationships and budgets. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all vendor.
When it comes to online fundraising options, my advice is to not just focus on technology. Rather, look at how it fits in with your communications, fundraising, field, and volunteer operations.
Picking the right option requires asking the right questions of yourself. Here’s what campaigns need to answer before they sign on with an online fundraiser:
1. How much money are you planning on raising and who are you raising it from?
If your donor base is small, but each donor is giving large sums, then perhaps you can sacrifice features in exchange for making sure you get a good price. Giving up close to 5 percent of a donation to your online fundraising tool is unnecessary when you've already got someone willing to give and you just need to have a mechanism to collect funds.
If you are looking to expand your donor base and expand your outreach using modern communications and fundraising tools, then 5 percent per donation is a bargain. These tools become essential, but only if you are planning on implementing such a strategy and have the staff or volunteers to see it through.
2. Are there tools that your campaign staff prefer?
When dealing with matters of money, you should find out if your campaign staff or volunteers have a preferred solution. Odds are they have operational preferences that narrow the types of tools that should be used. For example, some online donation systems don't give the option to deduct fees monthly, but rather take fees out during the deposit. This can cause reporting and bookkeeping headaches, and your treasurer may dismiss them outright due to this.
Some payment processors have very strict and/or complicated disbursement policies. Often, a wait time is required, or a grace period, before all of your funds are ready for deposit. Some options (such as merchant accounts) have much more predictable deposit schedules, as regulated by government policies. Your campaign staff may prefer a clunkier toolset if it means consistent disbursement policies.
3. What are you willing to spend on the right tool?
Online fundraising tools make money by taking a percentage of each contribution. In my mind, that’s money you raised, from people who support your cause or candidate. Giving a portion of it over to a processor can be galling. So it's a perfectly reasonable question to ask a donation processing service how much of each donation they actually keep.
The details of these different pricing models is byzantine. Whichever services you’re evaluating, ask them how much money they stand to make from your campaign. If your campaign is about to embark on a fundraising campaign that you hope will bring in $1 million in donations, then it's important to know whether you are going to hand over $10,000 or $20,000 to a donation page processor. Evaluate the tools in light of those numbers. If the tools aren't equivalent to the sums you anticipate giving them, it might make sense to look elsewhere.
4. Do you need to integrate with your other software?
If your campaign is already using some software to manage your operations (QuickBooks, NGP VAN, Salesforce), then it may be important for your donation to be synchronized automatically to other services and software. Paying more for a service that integrates may not matter if you’re already having a staff person review and audit each donation record for campaign finance law compliance.
5. What are your competitors using?
Using the FEC database, dig into the operations of your opponents and see what online fundraising tools they’re using. For donation pages, it’s usually obvious what solution they’re using by looking at the footer and reading the “powered by" tag most services affix to every form. By browsing the sites of peer campaigns, you can get a good list of services to evaluate.
Then ask around. Everybody who has worked with online fundraising systems has opinions about their favorite solutions. Sometimes, the smallest problem can make an entire system unworkable for a particular campaign. I had one campaign that was forced to change its donation page simply because the chosen solution wouldn't allow the email field to be optional. By asking people's opinions, you’ll get a wealth of feedback on details you'd never get from a sales demo or a quick trial.
Picking the right toolset can be a bit daunting at first, but by asking the right questions and spending the time to consider the people and systems that will be affected by the selection, the decision can be made a lot easier.
Ben Krokower is the owner and founder of Upwards Technologies, a Seattle-based software consulting firm focused on nonprofits and political campaigns, and Faster Campaigns, an online fundraising tool.