Social Media is NOT a Winning Fundraising Strategy

Social Media is NOT a Winning Fundraising Strategy


11 August 2020


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


It’s Election Day in Wisconsin – the Partisan Primary. We’ll be voting for our party’s candidates for everything from Congressional Representative to State Senator to County Clerk of Deeds.

So, I’m off early to work the polls.

So, I’ll need to keep this short.


I never ended up completing the Five-Year Value of New Members project this year – one of the several casualties of the advent of Covid. But the patterns seemed to be following what I have seen in previous years. The lower five-year values belong to organizations that converted their marketing and communications to digital.

The data seems to reinforce a feeling I’ve for many years that converting to digital – sometimes under the premise that environmental organizations shouldn’t be using so much paper – is actually costing the organization money.

So, let’s talk about this conversion. Let’s talk about the real promise of digital marketing.


Marketing differs from other forms of communication because it contains a specific call to action. Services to potential clients, volunteer opportunities to people with time to give, and funding needs to potential donors/members are three examples, but these three audiences do not respond equally to digital applications.

For land trusts, marketing is important in bringing new people to the table. But marketing for new members rarely helps raise money for this year. Organizations raise money from existing donors. Marketing helps increase the number of donors you have, so you can raise more money next year.


Digital marketing projects with fundraising objectives seem attractive because they are often cheap(!), because every once in a while someone hits the viral lottery (for example, the ice-bucket challenge), and because it seems to work in political fundraising.

The downside is that digital marketing does not engender longer-term loyalty and increased organizational engagement. This is what is showing up in the five-year data. Furthermore, I have never personally witnessed any kind of significant fundraising success with digital marketing. And I don’t believe the time invested is worth the potential return.


Now don’t get me wrong. The first place nearly everyone goes to “validate” an organization is their website. You need to have a website, and it needs to be fairly high quality. Your website is your front door. It’s your first impression. It’s your credibility source. And you should also invest in the yellow, blinking DONATE NOW button that allows interested people to give on the spot.

And let’s not confuse digital marketing with online giving. Marketing is the call to action. It’s the ask. Online is simply how the donor chooses to make their gift. Many online donors were solicited in some other way.

You could also create a video, or start a crowdsource campaign, or use Facebook or Twitter to draw people to the website. Ask everyone to give, and some people will. But, let’s face it – most of the time, not very many and not very much. Meantime, what are you NOT doing that could mean much more in the long run?

Just be clear, I’m not ragging on social media campaigns. I’m ragging on social media as a substitute for more traditional fundraising. Because it’s not a winning strategy.


Consider this thought experiment: Say we have four weeks. The challenge would be to develop and distribute a marketing message that goes viral and raises $25,000. No restrictions on budget or the type of digital media. Believe me when I tell you that there are people in the country who could do this. They make $100,000 a year and DO NOT WORK FOR SMALL LAND TRUSTS.

While someone is doing that, I will coach someone else to go meet with (or call now-a-days) their top 50 donors. Thank them for their past support. Tell stories where donors made the difference, where donors are the hero. Make the case for giving $5,000 right now while emphasizing that all gifts are equally appreciated.

OK, so in four weeks, that might not work either.

But which strategy do you think holds the greater potential for a successful outcome? I think you can guess my answer, but that’s not even the most important question. How many donors from the digital strategy are still giving a year later? How about five years later? Let’s say you need to raise $100,000 ten years from now. Which strategy will you wish you had invested in ten years ago?


Adventures in digital marketing can be effective when the purpose of the marketing is to reinforce core messaging delivered by other channels: mail, events, website, and so on, but this assumes that you still have all this other stuff going on. That you are not converting from traditional to digital.


Generally speaking, I get two forms of pushback on this topic. The first is that the world is changing and the second is that the organization’s core constituency is young and doesn’t respond to traditional marketing in the same way.

To both I offer the same answer – show me the science. Show me the A/B tests. Maybe the world is changing by getting bigger, and not by shunning mail. Maybe you’re attracting younger constituents at the expense of attracting older ones. Why not work on reaching both?


We are living through a dangerous time for fundraising. Digital solutions will be very attractive this Fall because they are cheaper to implement. The early signs are that many will do well. But I worry that the combination of relative up-front success and lower costs will drive more organizations to reach for digital as an alternative – instead of as a complement – to more traditional marketing work.


This is what I tell anyone who will listen: Raise money first. If your organization sucks at raising money, investing time and energy in digital marketing will not help. It will only distract you from getting better at raising money.


Stay safe and stay well. And have a great week!




Photo by Matt Bango, World Wildlife Fund, courtesy



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  • Laura Speer
    Posted at 13:10h, 18 August

    Hi David, two(ish) observations on digital fundraising: Peer to peer relies on loyalty to the peer and their passion for a cause. I believe that the peer donors are supporting their friend of family member more than the cause much of the time. When we do get those names into our DB, the unsubscribe rate is greater than the second gift rate. Second in response to your comments on “pushback,” I may not be listening as well as I should to all sources, but it seems that much of the digital advocacy is coming from the database and fundraising platform companies. My fundraising software company is a huge corporation that knows they make more money if they convince us that donors want to give online…where the gift earns a commission and processing fees for the corporation.

  • Kathleen
    Posted at 18:12h, 11 August

    We did our annual report entirely digital this year and honestly, its hard to know if anyone has even looked at it. Looks cool and saved us money though…

  • Sara Painter
    Posted at 09:41h, 11 August

    Thanks David! Your posts are a bright spot in my week. 🙂

  • Trish Aldrich
    Posted at 07:21h, 11 August

    As you may know, I read your post religiously every week, have benefited tremendously and am grateful for your help. Added bonus: you’re hilarious. Love this comment and thanks for the laugh, as well as the invaluable advice: “If your organization sucks at raising money, investing time and energy in digital marketing will not help.”