How I helped grow a charity with online digital marketing

Here’s how I helped a charity grow a whopping 4,500% in just four years

7 min read

When done right, online marketing can bring you amazing results.

And in this article, I’m going to show you the 5 growth tactics I used to help skyrocket donations for the charity Penny Appeal.

It’s much harder now to get the same instant results, but if you apply some of my techniques, then over time, you’ll be sure to see your income grow!

Once you’ve finished this, you can also hear my thoughts on three big challenges Charities face with Digital Fundraising, including one big tactic that even Penny Appeal are missing out on.

So how can a charity grow by 63 times in just 5 years?

This is the unicorn of growth that many dream of. Even though it wasn’t all down to online marketing, digital transformation was (and still is) a key driver of their success.

Humblebrag warning – I led the marketing function at Penny Appeal for over 3 years and to see them still growing is a great validation of my approach.

Here’s a closer look at their growth and why, from relatively nothing, they are one of the fastest growing humanitarian charities in the UK.

Now, it seems whenever I talk about charity income these days, the general public start asking ‘admin or policy’ related questions.

These are important topics, but this article is here to talk about the marketing strategies I used, with growth tips that anyone can apply.

So, let me start by discussing my five main ingredients that were a recipe for success.

1) Plan big, think small

Right from the start, there was a shared appetite to grow the charity.

So, we made a five-year plan to help us break away from being trapped by and too focussed on the seasonal fundraising cycle.

It’s one of the most common flaws I see – when the focus is all about this year’s income.

If you want success from your digital strategies, you need to think about both the short-term and long-term goals.

This will help you put in the right resources at the right time and get you ready for whatever changes the future brings.

You should also do more testing scenarios so you can preempt where and when to scale. Don’t wait until you have the perfect website or in-depth programme in place, just start small.

An example of this is how we created landing pages for projects all the time and piloted them. Once we saw a pattern, we knew we could scale and grow, so we brought in experienced people and paid them what they deserved to run the growing functions.

They still practice this philosophy today and it’s one reason why they’re able to pump out so many award-winning campaigns.

2) The Rule of 7

This is an age-old rule but still very relevant today. It’s based on how audiences are more likely to take action once they have seen your message at least seven times.

It could be someone donating after seeing seven ad-posts on Facebook or seeing your messages on multiple channels.

What’s certain is you’ll get faster results by creating more touch points. Here are a few that I used:

The aim here is not to use every channel possible but identify the ones your audiences use. Then you create content that produces the best results from those platforms.

When you start using a lot of output channels, it becomes harder to track ‘root source’, which is an important attribution to recognise.

Usually, organisations are looking at the ‘activating source’, but charities need to go beyond this to discover the key conversion factors. Performing good attribution analysis is how you’re going to see where and when you can make quick wins.

When I reviewed trends at Penny Appeal, I realised I could use digital marketing to engage with audiences seven times every single day – even in a crowded, competitive market!

According to research, 93% of donors said they used a smartphone or tablet to make a donation to a charity, either through apps, SMS, social, going online or by calling.

That’s why I developed a new digital diversification model. I’ve updated it over the years to accommodate the importance of macro and micro content, which is important if you want to get the best out of digital fundraising.

Here’s a look at how I push out content now.

Quick tip: if you’re not utilising web notifications, then you’re missing out on a channel that gets more engagement than email marketing.

3) Personalisation

This one sounds easy – but it’s the hardest to get right.

That’s because you need to take an in-depth look at your data, and to do that, you need to have a good CRM platform in place.

Penny Appeal created a bespoke database that helped them to scale by automating processes and improving personalised feedback that was given to donors.

When you segment your audiences, you can start reaching new people as well as engaging your supporter base.

Let’s apply this thinking to outbound campaigns and you’ll see what I mean.

We were targeting different audiences based on age, location, interests, sex and a host of other combinations – including if they liked other charity pages.

Facebook now lets you see what ads other organisations are running – all you need to do is visit any page and click on the ‘info and ads’ button.

When I was running ads, we found demographics would engage with ad imagery differently. Males responded better to pictures of South-Asian children and females had a higher response rate to African children.

There were trends in conversions too, with males tending to give more towards emergency response appeals and females giving more towards education and clean water-related projects.

When you segment audiences and test ads, you can amplify returns on your sponsored posts.

So, it’s no surprise that Penny Appeal (at the time of writing this) was running over 30 pieces of sponsored content on Facebook, ranging from videos to event promos.

Now let’s compare this against five similar organisations operating in the same space.

I was actually shocked by these results.

Between the other five charities, there was a combined total of two sponsored posts, one towards careers and another on a ‘page like’ campaign.

I checked some other similar organisations and found hardly anyone was running ads on Facebook, and I’m going to assume on Instagram too, but they’re still posting content multiple times a day.

This is crazy when you consider how low organic reach has become!!

Here’s a visualisation of how much it’s gone down over the years.

The decline of organic Facebook is real and if you haven’t adjusted to it, then you need to accept that hardly anybody is seeing the content that your teams are working so hard to produce.

Let me put this into numbers for you.

If you have 50,000 followers on Facebook, its algorithms will only push your post out to around 0.5% of your audience. That’s just 250 people – and that will include to users abroad, depending on how honestly you’ve built-up your audiences.

Worst still, if your followers aren’t relevant and don’t engage with your content, then Facebook will know this and your posts will reach even fewer people.

Yes, Penny Appeal might be posting multiple times a day, but at least they are boosting some of that content to targeted audiences.

I’ve written a guide on how you can get more reach from your organic content but ultimately, you need a paid strategy if you want to see any meaningful results, so get a budget in place if you haven’t done so already.

4) Donor Harvesting

Some of the charities I’ve worked with have learnt this next lesson the hard way.

Even if you produce amazing campaigns, without a well-thought-out website, your donor retention and acquisition will eventually crumble.

You have to think about conversion as a process. The rule of 7 doesn’t always guarantee a donation, but it may get someone to leave their email address in the hunt for more information.

Even if they don’t, and you’ve set up Google tracking, they’ll always leave an e-trail on your website of what they looked at and for how long.

Why is this valuable? Because you can target them with specific remarketing and send them down a sales funnel.

This re-engagement can be anything you want, like calling them after an abandoned checkout, targeting them with ads about a page they visited or just adding them to an email welcome journey. 

The key here is to map out each journey with phases and automate them so that the funnel can keep up with you when you grow.

At Penny Appeal, every campaign we launched had a dedicated element of attracting new people, and we were confident that our funnels would eventually engage and convert.

We generated even more lead data by doing things like running campaigns with low price points and having volunteer initiatives, which leveraged their personal and online networks.

But the biggest success we had was from partnering up to deliver 14 UK-wide event tours.

This meant we sold over 60,000 tickets – collecting subscribers in the process – so it’s no surprise it’s a lead strategy that they still use today.

5) Learning how to fail

Charities are traditionally slow to respond to change. And this leaves huge opportunities for those not afraid to try new things, which is what happened at Penny Appeal.

Not everything you try works out, but the philosophy we practised was ‘you only truly fail if you fail to learn’.

We failed fast but learned faster, and all this combined to set conditions for the right risk-taking that led to success.

Taking risks sounds bold and brash, but when you run pilots and testing beforehand, you can get a better-calculated picture of how things can perform.

Here’s a look at the formula we used to consciously work towards targeting regular giving. The numbers below are random examples to help illustrate.

Say you start a campaign and you’re averaging £1.20 in ad costs to bring in a lead. This is your Cost per Lead (CPL), which you need to match against the average percentage of those who eventually become donors.

If the conversion is 25%, your projected Cost per Acquisition (CPA) will be £4.80. Easy. But here’s where we got really smart.

I looked at the Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) and realised you could increase this to around £600 if, at the right times of the year, you offered regular giving projects along with the faith-based, one-off opportunities.

You’re probably wondering how this is a fail?

Once I knew the costs, it was just a case of upscaling. But this is where we got it wrong, as we went full throttle too soon and some of the programmes had to play catch-up.

It was a near PR disaster as we had taken so many donations without any assurance we could deliver. But we got through it and the annualised model now brings in stable, reliable income.

What’s worth noting here is that, if you want to see the rainbow, you need to bare with some rain first. Put the work in, and you can access negelected or untapped audiences.

The good news is that you can still make digital work for you.

From my experience, I can see that many organisations embraced digital marketing quite late on and only a few got up to speed with social media platforms like Facebook.

For some reason though, they seemed to have stopped developing digital once they ‘felt like’ they had caught up.

The truth is, you’ll never really catch up as algorithms change all the time and new platforms are forever emerging.

You can read more about my big 3 challenges that Charities need to overcome to get the best out of digital fundraising and the one strategy that’s guaranteed to get you results.

There are still huge opportunities to be taken and digital remains the quickest way to get these results.

If you want more insight on digital transformation or want to work with some of the brightest thinkers in this space, then get in touch.

A special thanks goes to my colleagues and teams, old and new, who have helped me accumulate this practical expertise over a decade of hard work so that one day, I could share these learnings with you.

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email

More To Explore

Need some tailored advice?

Fill in our quick form to book your FREE 30-min call.