One-Third Of Web Donations Didn’t Go Through


It was a name of an unassuming donor, Chris Doyle, that gave 30 Catholic organizations some insight about their online donations and how they work -- or don’t, since one-third of the online donations could not be processed.

Amergent, in Peabody, Mass., decided to contact 30 Catholic organizations and test their responses to $25 online and offline donations sent out this past June. Amergent wanted to analyze the ease of donating, how organizations cultivated and renewed donors, and what were the differences between giving online and offline.

The 30 organizations weren’t informed of the test until after Amergent gathered the responses.

Ten out of the 30 online gifts could not be processed online: five organizations required the mailing address to match the credit card billing address, two didn’t accept online donations, and for two the donation processes did not go through. One organization had a bill-to company requirement.

Marist Brothers was one organization where online donations required the billing address to be the same as the mailing address. Although Marist Brothers wasn’t told of the study, Brother Hugh Turley, co-director of the Chicago-based provincial development office, said he was excited to learn the results. “When we found out about it we were just fascinated. We thought it was a great idea,” said Br. Turley.

"We're delighted that Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers have qualified for such high marks with our Web-presence, though we’d be interested to know more fully just how the grades were assessed,” said David Tereshchuk, executive producer, interactive media, at Maryknoll. “We're always at pains to make our sites as visitor-friendly and donor-friendly as possible."

The 30 organizations were invited to participate in a webinar, which showed the study’s findings, and then see individual results. Br. Turley explained that seeing examples from other organizations prompted the Marist Brothers to tweak its site immediately. “It was very good to see what other people were doing,” he said. “It was that same day of the webinar we made two changes.”

As a result of the webinar, Marist Brothers decided to put the development office’s address on the donation and development pages, making it readily available for someone who might want to give a gift but doesn’t feel comfortable online, as well as including warmer language in their follow-up email.

Rick Christ, vice president of online fundraising at, now a part of Amergent, explained that having any roadblocks to your online donations could severely affect whether a person will give at all. Donors expect online donations to be easy and they sometimes don’t have the patience to sift through 12 pages to find the donate link or navigate an error message.

Christ said that sometimes the error messages themselves were confusing, even for someone who works within the online sphere. One error message proclaimed an “AVS mismatch,” with no way of correcting the error. “Imagine the impact on the 80-year-old woman getting that error message. It’s written by the programmer, not a fundraiser,” he said.

He explained that organizations couldn’t assume everyone can breeze through an online donation form. “We are in the forgiveness business – and need to practice a little here,” said Christ. Error messages should apologize for the error and plot out how the donor can fix the situation.

Jean Simmons, director of annual giving at Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS), said, “it’s absolutely terrifying” that one-third of the online donations in the study hit a bump in the road.

“A lot of those individuals, especially the younger ones that are coming up to groom and cultivate, they want to be able to go back and forth between giving to direct mail and online or purely giving online,” said Simmons. Online giving represented 2.7 percent of CRS total private revenue in Fiscal Year 2009, with nearly $3.5 million in online donations.

Simmons said that online giving is another channel to be “hitting those individuals where they are comfortable, and if online is it and you are not there or you are having issues, that’s a major problem.”

Simmons explained that the average age of a CRS is 60-years-old. Even though the organization has been online for nearly 15 years and saw huge growth in online contributions after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, she explained that 94 percent of gifts are still made via checks.

But that doesn’t make the CRS site obsolete – donors still go to the Web site to get more information about the organization and read stories about CRS’s work. CRS even has an editorial team, which focuses on a mix of marketing, fundraising, communications and Web presence on the CRS site.

These team members “serve as advocates between the groups and make sure we have consistent messaging between the online information and direct mail appeals, so everything is interconnecting and we are all singing from the same song sheet,” she said.

That way, the messaging between direct mail and online stay as cohesive as possible, making it an easier experience for donors to get more information online after driven by a mail piece.

“And if maybe [donors] decide to take that next step and make a donation online and they can’t, talk about turning them off to the medium as a whole. It’s really kind of scary,” said Simmons.

Christ said the average online donation should take less than three days to clear. The test of the 20 remaining organizations that could process online donations found that the processing ranged from one day to seven days, with the average as less than three days.

The organizations that processed in one day, including Oblate Missions and St. Joseph’s Indian School, are geared up for success, according to Christ. Those organizations that take seven days or more to process run the risk of donors assuming the gift didn’t go through.

Amergent used white mail donations, which means the checks were sent to the address given on the organizations’ Web sites without a direct mail reply device.

As for the mail contributions, gift processing took less than nine days, on average. Organizations like Catholic Relief Services and The Redemptorists processed gifts in three to four days. But one organization took 24 days to clear the gift.

Christ explained the organization was going through a system change, but other organizations took 18 to 21 days to process without system glitches. Christ recommended setting a seven-day processing goal, at maximum.

Simmons explained that many organizations struggle with quick processing, from receiving the gift all the way to the acknowledgement. Simmons said, “the key for us is the lion’s share of donations that come back to us are scannable pieces, so we are able to work with our caging company to quickly process those, which really allows us to focus on the ones that fall out of that,” which she described as unscannable pieces, such as white mail or donations to specific programs.

Simmons said nearly 90 percent of the mail pieces received are scannable. “The key is getting that speed, having the internal process and having a good partnership with our caging facility and acknowledgements that we work with to make the process as smooth as possible from the donor perspective,” she said.

Cultivation is another significant component in the donor relationship. Out of the 20 online gifts, 12 organizations sent follow-up emails, and an additional two organization that only received white mail gifts responded with emails because an email address was included with the mail.

Some organizations are optimizing rapid donor cultivation practices by sending multiple emails within the first 60 days from the donation, including St. Jude League/Claretian Publications with 10 emails during that time period. Christ said the emails varied, from more mission information to petition signups to information about purchasing a religious sun-catcher.

Christ said he received the first piece of mail within four days of making the 30 white mail gifts. In all, 28 organizations sent direct mail cultivation and appeal pieces and 14 did so within two weeks.

Organizations may also want to analyze their customer service processes. Christ said each organization received the same email from the fictional Chris Doyle donor, asking for his current gift records so he could plan for next year’s donations.

By mentioning next year’s giving, the organizations had the incentive to be prompt and accurate to ensure donations for the next year. Amergent wanted to see how well the organizations were tracking their donor data and how quickly they would respond.

After making 50 donations, 30 by mail and 20 online, to the 30 organizations, only 17 organizations responded with accurate information in less than 24 hours. Three organizations reported inaccurately that Chris Doyle gave one gift instead of two. But the fictional Chris Doyle is still waiting to hear back from 10 organizations.

Paulette Karas, co-director of the Marist Brothers’ provincial development office, said she received the email inquiring about Chris Doyle’s donations. “I went to the records immediately and sent back to him within the hour,” she said, which received high marks since Amergent was tracking the response time.

From the answers Amergent received, eight asked for a full postal address to track gifts and one organization followed up with a typed, mailed letter that arrived 10 days later.

Br. Turley said the experience “was fun” and that other organizations should try to test their processes in the same way. “Go in to your online donations and make a donation, under a false name, and see what happens. Really test it out in a blind fashion. It may be very revealing,” said Br. Turley.

“The advantage that we had here is that someone else did that and when they evaluate that they showed us what other people were doing,” he said.

Karas explained that revisiting the Website design was always in the back of their minds, but the study brought the need forward. “I think that we had become complacent and just saying, ‘It’s up there and people are getting thanked.’ And I think that’s a mistake,” she said.

Br. Turely explained that the current site is information heavy about the Marist Brothers’ history and recruitment of those interested in the ministry of education. One major revision idea Karas and Br. Turely discussed was creating a separate site for cold acquisition donors, which would give more concise information about the Marist Brothers and make donating easier.

Karas said while major online revisions would take some time and effort by many people, it’s something the organization wants to do in the not-so-distant future. “You shouldn’t become complacent,” she said. “You need to go in and reevaluate what you are doing, how you are doing it and if you can do it better.”