Pareto Fundraising Digital Strategy Director, James Herlihy shares five major online trends that are reshaping the fundraising industry.

Every year, a diverse set of charities contribute donation and analytics data to the Pareto Fundraising Benchmarking program, allowing us to analyse sector trends and develop insights on a range of giving types, channel activity and donor characteristics. Fundraisers can then use this rich intelligence to make smart, data-driven decisions on their strategies and plans.

Some of the most interesting new trends are arising in our channel reports, and within the digital sphere specifically. In this piece, we explore five key digital trends from Pareto Benchmarking this year – based on data from 2018 and before.

1. Digital is now the leading driver of sector growth

Online has seen the greatest proportional income growth amongst channels of solicitation over the last decade, up more than five-fold from $22 million in 2008 to $119 million in 2018. It now ranks as the third greatest channel of solicitation, and on current trends could be close to direct mail and face to face within five years or so.

Also, online’s contribution to income is to some degree under-represented in the reports, as income partly driven by online efforts is sometimes attributed to other channels. For example, charity online actions (eg surveys and petitions) have provided a high proportion of the leads that have helped phone income recover since 2015.


1. Income by channel; LEFT: Online; RIGHT: Phone

What online activities deliver what proportion of those leads, you ask? We’re planning on expanding the Benchmarking digital framework to answer those sorts of questions in coming years. Stay tuned!

Online has also played a key role in donor acquisition, having been the leading channel of recruitment of new donors since 2016. Online donor recruitment has increased six-fold since 2008, exhibiting far more growth than other channels – including face to face.

2 Donor recruitment by channel

The take-away: If you’re not investing in online community, engagement and fundraising, you’re late to the party. Not too late yet, but your peers already investing in digital are reaping rewards.

2. Online average gifts are stagnant

While there’s been some fluctuation over the last decade, average single, regular and event gifts were the same in 2018 as they were in 2008. This is a long time without consistent growth, considering inflation and the growth in the consumer price index and wages during that period.

3 Average online gift

This could be partly explained by the large increase in the volume of online gifts. But for me, it also tells us there may be opportunity for charities to further optimise user experience (UX) around online giving to lift donation amounts.

For example, most charities are not applying the RFV-driven segmentation and personalisation of ask amounts common in direct mail to online appeals. Years of direct mail tests tell us that personalised asks increase income significantly. So charities whose appeals encourage online donation but who fail to personalise asks online risk losing income, particularly from mid-value supporters who visit a generic online donation page.


Learn how to build your own digital lead generation campaign at DigiRaise

In his masterclass at DigiRaise, Pareto Fundraising Digital Strategy Director James Herlihy will share the nuts and bolts of how to create, execute, monitor and adapt your own digital lead generation campaign. Click here for more information and to register.


Personalising asks online involves passing ask amounts from email links through to personalised landing pages to present consistent asks in the donation form. Landing pages can also be personalised to include form pre-fills of personal details, references to the supporter’s past engagements and other personalised content.

Another example of optimising UX to lift donation amounts is multivariate testing of donation pages, specifically variables like ask amounts, dollar handles, order of price-points, form field inclusions, and layout and design options. Testing of such variables can yield great returns that multiply over time.

3. Mobile devices have overtaken desktop for website sessions, and organic search dominates

Charity website sessions on mobile phones are on a strong up-trend and have recently overtaken desktop sessions, which are still increasing but at a slower rate.

4 Website sessions by device type

The take-away here is straightforward: You MUST optimise mobile UX to maximise donation conversion of this traffic, including:

  • Mobile layout responsiveness.
  • Ensuring funnels (simple journeys) to donation are maintained.
  • Mobile (thumb!) friendly forms.
  • Integration/optimisation of simple and popular payment solutions like Paypal, Apple Pay, Google Pay – and any others that grow in general public adoption (keep an eye on Beem It which has been founded by three of our big four banks).

In terms of online channels (‘channel’ here equating to Google Analytics ‘medium’), organic search is by far the biggest referrer of traffic to charity websites, accounting for a whopping 54% of all sessions in 2018. By comparison, social media accounted for just 11%.

Focusing on mobile device traffic, organic search drove 52% of website sessions in 2018, followed next by social, which drove 18% of all sessions (see figure 5 below).

5 Mobile website sessions by online channel (or medium)

It’s vital to recognise the role of organic search in our lives. By and large, search engines are how we navigate the web, ask questions and solve problems. Organic search results are dominant in directing our queries when performing these tasks. Charities must be on top of search engine optimisation (SEO) to maximise the direction of this traffic to their own websites.

Also noteworthy is the heightened role of social media in directing mobile traffic versus traffic on other devices. Social is increasingly a mobile channel – we need to keep this in mind when creating social content.

4. People still prefer to donate on desktop – for now

Mobile devices may have taken over for website traffic, but they’re far from dominating in terms of income. Donors are still way more comfortable transacting via desktop devices, as the left graph in figure 6 shows.

6 Income by device type; LEFT: desktop, mobile and tablet; RIGHT: Mobile only

But this isn’t the whole story.

Desktop income has been trending down the last few years, especially at end of financial year, and if we focus just on mobile income at full scale (see right graph in figure 6), we see a definite trend up year-on-year. This is probably due to both (a) charities improving their mobile UX, and (b) our website users independently becoming more comfortable with mobile transactions.

The previous recommendations about mobile UX optimisation apply here. With more charities following those, it will be very interesting to see whether mobile income closes in on desktop in the next few years.

Finally, it’s important to interpret these results in context of the trends in website sessions noted earlier, and to think about what that means for user behaviour. To me, it supports a picture where a donation (that’s most likely completed on desktop) may be the culmination of a consideration process involving many touch points (user queries, browsing and content consumption) often carried out via mobile devices and organic search.

This richer view of a multi-device, multi-channel user engagement and consideration process should lead us to smarter, more holistic digital strategies than focusing just on the end of the donation funnel.

5. Different demographics engage with you in different ways online

Younger women are the most prolific browsers of charity websites, and women in all age brackets visit charity websites far more than their male counterparts.

Don’t get rid of us men just yet though! Men give around the same total amount of money to charities online as women, meaning men in all age brackets convert at a higher rate.

While older people spend far less time than younger people on charity websites, they convert at a markedly higher rate – 2.4% for men aged 65+ compared to 0.2% for men aged 18-24. That’s a 1,100% higher conversion rate!

7 Website user behaviour by age and gender

So how can we use that knowledge?

We should all be thinking in terms of personas when planning digital content, engagement and appeals. These personas should be data-driven, and there’s a wealth of such data available in analytics platforms like Google Analytics and Facebook – provided you’ve got them configured correctly.


Learn how to build your own digital lead generation campaign at DigiRaise

In his masterclass at DigiRaise, Pareto Fundraising Digital Strategy Director,  James Herlihy will share the nuts and bolts of how to create, execute, monitor and adapt your own digital lead generation campaign. Click here for more information and to register.


Additionally, if older people are giving so much and at such a high conversion rate, charities might think more about integrating bequest content and options for expression of interest into their websites and funnels. Soi Dog recently added a simple option to their online donation flow allowing donors to express interest in hearing about bequests, and gained 1,876 expressions of interest in three months. This represented an expression of interest in bequests for 12.7% of all donations.

So what should we do about this?

The importance of online channels for fundraising is undeniable, and is becoming greater each year. To take advantage of these trends, fundraisers must keep learning about the dynamics of online channels, audiences and engagement, and the analytics that reveal such dynamics.

Getting involved in Pareto Benchmarking is a great place to start.

Join the LinkedIn group at or contact us at [email protected].

James Herlihy is the Digital Strategy Director at Pareto Fundraising. His focus is to work with charities to build ambitious fundraising programs that drive sustained growth for  their cause. He has a passion for social impact, fundraising, advocacy and tech for good. He previously held senior fundraising positions at some of our biggest INGOs.

In his masterclass at DigiRaise, James will share the nuts and bolts of how to create, execute, monitor and adapt your own digital lead generation campaign. Click here for more information and to register.

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