The other day a friend of a friend emailed me to ask about accepting donations on her website.

Her banker was talking about “merchant accounts” and “payment gateways” and “PCI compliance” — whatever all that is. She asked her web designer, but the designer didn’t know any of the technical details and referred her back to her bank. One of her colleagues had told her, “Just use PayPal.”

She had more questions than answers. The only thing she knew for certain was that asking visitors to her website to write a check and “Mail it to the address below” wasn’t working. The site was getting zero donations.

There’s a lot of confusion around what’s the best way of getting online donations. And the answer, of course, is always:

The best way to handle online donations is the way that will make it easiest for your ideal donors to give.

When it comes to handling money online, there are lots of options. Some of them are expensive, but not all of them. And for those on a tight budget, believe it or not, PayPal is no longer the only option you have available.

As you consider accepting donations online, here are a few things you need to think about:

1. Will sending donors off-site to a payment processor (like PayPal) to make their donation cause them to lose interest?

This depends on the giving patterns of your donors. Some people are used to doing online business via services like this. If your typical donor is also an avid bargain hunter and does online shopping on Ebay, the PayPal interface will be completely familiar and comfortable. Other donors, though, may find being sent to another payment processing site confusing and give up before they make their donation.

2. How will your website capture donor information (so you can say thank you!), and what information do you really want to keep?

Of course, you want to say Thank You. But there are other reasons you’ll want to keep some of the information collected during a donor transaction. What about sending them a follow up request for end of the year donations? What about sending them a tax reciept and another thank you note come January? What about keeping them informed of new opportunities to give in coming days?

There are also some kinds of information — actual credit card numbers for example — you might want to make sure you don’t keep, or if you do, that it’s handled with extra care.

3. What about automatically recurring donations?

Some donors really do want to “set it and forget it.” Not that they don’t love you and the work you do, but they’re just to busy to keep coming back to your site every month to hit the “Donate” button again. These donors want it to happen automagically. Instead of getting a reminder to do yet another thing, they get a “Thank You!” and a reminder of something great that their donation made possible this month. Again, you need to know if that kind of donor is your kind of donor. As you can imagine, some people are wary of having things happening to their money without their direct involvement.

Which Online Donation Option Is Right for You?

It depends! There are technologies open up a huge array of possibilities. But the last thing most nonprofit organizations need is to get bogged down in the details of the technology.

When you go to get your car fixed, you don’t really care what kind of machine your mechanic uses to balance your tires. What you’re really concerned with is that it works and keeps your car safe for you and your family. Same with your nonprofit organization’s website. What you’re really concerned with is that it works and keeps you and your donors safe.

The right online donation option is the one that fits your donors. Once you’ve decided that, a good developer should be able to navigate the technology for you.

Think about it. You might be tempted to choose the cheapest online donation option available. But how much is it worth to grow your relationship with your online donors and to focus on your mission without worrying about whatever stuff like “payment gateway” and “PCI compliance” means?

Photo credit: David Goehring