Choosing an online donation platform can be overwhelming. There is an astonishing number of options to choose from, and it seems like new ones are cropping up on the hour. They are at every price point, with features galore and promises of bringing in the money.

But which one is right for your campaign? Before getting lost in the comparison maelstrom, let’s first break it down by what you actually need.

1 | Where is your audience?

Ask yourself where you donor audience and your tribe of supporters hang out. Getting people to donate to your cause can be difficult enough. If you have to drag them to some foreign land of newfangled technology, you’re likely to lose them. Before launching a campaign, ask your audience what donation platforms they are already familiar with.

In my own experience, I know that most people, regardless of demographic, have some familiarity with PayPal. So, I know that if I want to keep it super simple, I can set it up that way and people will intuitively know how to contribute. If I’m using a donation plugin, I want to be sure it includes PayPal as a gateway payment portal.

2 | What’s your budget?

To be honest, I’m a big fan of going as free and scrappy as possible, so I tend to balk at the online donation platforms that charge hundreds of dollars a year to use them. I’m also not convinced they’re worth it. The point is to make it as easy as possible for your donors to support your work by donating online, and there are plenty of free or low-cost options available without having to spend a ton of cash.

3 | Does the platform have a built-in audience already?

Keeping in mind that an online donation campaign is only successful when you do the legwork of spreading the word, it’s also helpful if the platform already draws an audience that may stumble upon your campaign and give without ever having heard of you.

When choosing a platform, also look at how the company behind the platform promotes the projects and causes that it hosts. An “explore” feature, for example, has the added benefit promoting your project if you can get featured. A classic example of this is Kickstarter, where people go to browse current projects in need of funds. Patreon, Crowdrise and YouCaring are also similar in their community engagement models.

So what features do you *really* need?

Oh, the features. So many to choose from, all with corresponding price points and learning curves. But what does your donation campaign really need?

Do you need to be able to customize the donation receipt? Are you selling tickets to a fundraising event or offering merchandise to raise money? Do you need specific information about your donor? Do you want others to be able to fundraise for you? And so on.

Well, here at Open Rivers, we’re all about simplicity. And in the spirit of simplicity, we’ve brainstormed a humble checklist to blitz through before you even start looking at the plethora of platforms available on the market. Check off what you need, ignore the rest, and then choose an online donation platform that will serve your needs.

Update! I love the Open Rivers community. Some of you wrote in with your suggestions and experiences in choosing an online donation platform. I’ve updated the ultimate checklist with your wonderful input. – Thank You –

Now, let’s get rolling.

4 | Are you self hosting the campaign on your website or using an external website?

If you want your donor to be able to make her donation to you on your website, you’ll need someone with website savvy, a solid plug-in such as Give or Donor Box, a donation form you can embed on your website and a payment portal. A standalone page on an external website would simply be a campaign where all donations are made on the online donation platform itself, such as Kickstarter.

5 | Is the online donation platform secure?

If you are using a mainstream portal, such as PayPal or Stripe, SSL security encryption is already built in. If not, you’ll want to talk with your website developer to see about integrating your own SSL security certificate into your website.

6 | Is this platform easy and intuitive for me to set-up and use?

Before committing to an online donation platform, take advantage of a free trial and try it out to be sure it works for you.

7 | Is there good customer service if I have a question about the platform?

In this day and age, quality customer service is a must-have with any provider.

8 | Can I setup a custom URL?

You want your donors to visit a page with your name in it, whether it’s your “yourwebsite.com/donate” or “externalplatform.com/your name”.

9 | Is it easy for the donor to make a donation?

In order to reduce donor abandonment, my ideal scenario is a simple two-step donation process. Click #1: Make a donation. Click #2: Fill out your information and hit submit. Done.

10 | Is the online donation platform mobile-friendly?

People need to be able to view and give from their mobile phones.

11 | Is the online donation platform design responsive?

Short answer: it should be.

12 | Is the online donation platform pretty?

With a background in design, I’m admittedly a little biased. But I think a good looking donation platform is somewhat important. Bonus points if I can control the branding, fonts and colors of the donate page on the platform.

13 | Do I want to accept recurring donations?

This is where many online donation platforms bump up their pricing. You can get around the added expense with a PayPal subscription button, by using a donation plugin that contains recurring donations as part of their core package such as Donor Box. You could also simply use an external platform with a subscription model such as Patreon.

14 | Do I want donors to be able to donate by text?

You may have seen them before: “Text Give to 12345 to donate.” Text giving can be somewhat expensive to set up so question whether it will really be useful in your particular campaign.

15 | Am I selling tickets to an event?

A number of platforms integrate ticket sales into their features. If you are going the cheaper route, you could also use a third party service such as Eventbrite.

16 | Am I selling merchandise?

There are a few ways to go about offering merchandise. You could either set up an e-commerce site if that is in your budget or set up a PayPal button with inventory tracking to keep it more economical.

17 | Do I need to be able to personally collect donations on-site?

Some platforms conveniently offer fancy hardware for you to plug into your cell phone and swipe credit cards on the fly. You can also just bring along your laptop and have people make a donation on your website. Both have worked fine for me.

18 | Which payment methods are accepted?

Most people are accustomed to whipping out their Visa or Mastercard and nearly all online donation platforms accommodate this in their payment portal. However, if you are accepting donations internationally in a range of currencies, or you want to offer additional payment methods such as electronic wire, you’ll want to do more research.

19 | How long does it take to transfer the donations to my bank account?

If you need the money promptly, pay close attention to this. Some can take days or even a week to get access to the funds you raise which is not especially helpful if you are in rapid response mode.

20 | Does it have a goal requirement?

Some platforms, such as Kickstarter, will only pay out if you reach a pre-established goal. It’s an all-or-nothing motivation mechanism which can be effective for time-sensitive projects, but may not work for you if you want to cultivate donations on an ongoing basis.

21 | Are the transaction fees reasonable?

Frankly, this is the first thing I look at. Whether a transaction fee is reasonable is subjective, but I start to get cranky anywhere north of 5%. If an online donation platform is going to take more than 5% of all the money I raise, they should be offering something incredible in exchange.

22 | Does it give the donor the option to pay for the transaction fees?

Some platforms have a convenient check box for the donor to check if they want to pay the transaction fees for me. It’s a nice little added feature.

23 | Can I customize the donation form easily?

The donation form is the information that the donor provides when making their donation. The bare minimum will be name, email address and payment method. However, sometimes it’s good to collect a bit more information, such as mailing address. In order to do that, you may need to be able to customize the donation form.

24 | Is the donor automatically sent a donation receipt?

I haven’t come across any online donation platform where the donor doesn’t get an automatic receipt, but it’s worth double checking.

25 | Can the donation receipt be customized?

Whether I can customize the donation receipt is something I do look at closely. I like to have a fair amount of control in the overall communications that I have with donors and I especially want the donation receipt to be warm, appreciative and include tax acknowledgment language if the donation is for a nonprofit organization.

26 | Does this online donation platform easily sync with the database I already use?

Often an added feature or plug-in, automatically syncing donor contact information with your database will save time.

27 | Does this easily sync with my accounting software?

Another way to save time, some online donation platforms will allow you to export your donation data directly into accounting software such as Quickbooks.

28 | What type of analytics would be useful to me?

Online donation platforms can offer various types of analytics reports to help you gauge your ROI (return on investment) and help you determine whether your campaign efforts were worth it. Online donation campaigns (and any type of donation campaign, really) take an inordinate amount of hard work. Personally, at a minimum, I like to know where my donors are coming from, what prompted them to give and whether they are sharing the campaign within their own networks.

29 | Is it really easy for everyone to share?

Spreading the word about your donation campaign is a must. Social sharing tools, embeddable widgets, anything that makes it easy for you and your supports to share your campaign is a bonus.

30 | Is it easy for me to share updates with donors and followers?

Platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon have this feature built in (and in fact it’s expected that you provide updates to your supporters). You could also have a simple mailing list sign-up form to collect email addresses. Any way that you do it, it’s also imperative that you keep the lines of communication open and regularly share your work with the wonderful people who have just invested in you.

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