Online Fundraising and Engagement: The Vital Link

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Editor’s Note: This interview we did a decade ago with Eli Pariser, board president of MoveOn.org and chief executive of Upworthy, calls us all back to a fundamental law of sustainable online fundraising: first engage!


The Nonprofit Quarterly‘s editor in chief, Ruth McCambridge, conducted an interview with Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn Pac about MoveOn’s very successful approach to citizen engagement and fundraising. Although MoveOn now uses some advanced technology to support its operations, readers should note that just like many small organizations, it started with a single email and commitment to serve member interests and facilitate their involvement in issues of concern to them. In this model, online fundraising is just one of many pieces that comprise member involvement.

Can you explain what MoveOn has done in online fundraising over the past two years?

Just about 99.9% of our fundraising has occurred online and it’s been remarkable. We have three separate organizations—the total raised by all those organizations over the last two years is more than $60 million, and that comes from over 500,000 individual contributors. So an enormous grassroots base of concerned citizens has been able to translate their passion into money to support the causes that they believe in. Our basic theory has been that you engage people on the things that they’re passionate about and they will be happy to put their money and their time where their mouths are. But this is definitely not something that you can do disingenuously — it’s not something where you trick people into giving you money by pretending to engage them on issues. The way that you get that passion and the trust which is necessary for online organizing and for online fundraising is by serving people.

And how do you determine that you are truly serving people—that you really have their pulse?

We listen very carefully. We listen to where our members are and what they care about and try to follow their lead in many cases by adopting the issues that our members are most excited about. Not only is that where we find the most energy, but it’s the best way of getting new people in and expanding our base.

And how did you build your lists?

Entirely by word of mouth — by people sending messages to their friends and neighbors who send their messages on, and it happened organically over the course of six years. We have gone from one e-mail in the beginning to 2.9 million members now.

And how do you determine that someone is a member?

We consider everyone who’s on our list to be a member, and I think that’s one of the interesting things about the dynamics we have with our membership. The typical dynamic is you send in 25 bucks and get a membership to the Sierra Club, for instance. We turned that on its head and established that anyone who wants to be a member can come and join and then if you feel well served and if you feel like we’re offering you a compelling opportunity to make an impact through giving something, then you give.

How do you view the relationship between giving and volunteering? Do you think that those are inextricably linked?

Well, to put it simply, I think that the more people do, the more they do. What we found interesting is that people who gave money also felt more compelled to get involved, giving some of their time also. The standard way of looking at this is that people have finite resources. I think that the pool of resources and energy and time the people are willing to bring to issues that they really care about is much deeper than it appears, and the way that you get at that is by asking people to step up—and to do so together. Also, I think it adds an important aspect when you do something with hundreds of thousands of other people. It has a whole different feel to it.

What turning point surprises have there been along the way for you in developing this massive combination of human and financial resources?

Well, our first experience with this was when we were trying to raise $60,000 to put an ad in the New York Times in our campaign to stop the Iraq war. We sent out a message saying we got $30,000 and we needed a match. Overnight about $400,000 came in—at first we thought it was an error in our database—and it was people giving $10 or $15—a lot of people. That was when we began to realize that people are really looking for opportunities to amplify their voices and their opinions, and when you offer them something like an ad that they can fund right now as a way of doing that, that’s a very powerful thing. We tend to do our fundraising around concrete opportunities—it’s not a “Help us fund MoveOn for the next five years” message. It’s, “We want to put this ad on the air tomorrow, can you help us?”

How has the management of these lists been? Has it been difficult?

I guess we think that “managing a list” is a narrow way of thinking about what we do. We try to think about who is there as a pool of people who are interested in getting engaged if it makes sense as an opportunity and is impactful and clear enough.

There are a lot of our readers who are wondering what part online fundraising might play in their organization. Is there anything that you would say to people about the things they might look at in their own organizations before they even seriously consider trying to engage people in giving online?

Well I think that you have to approach it in a more holistic way then from the point of view of getting people to give online. You have to approach it from the point of view of developing a program to engage people online with what the organization is fundamentally about, and from that fundraising follows. It definitely flows in that direction.

Any other words of wisdom that you want to give other organizations in the nonprofit sector about your online strategies?

Sure. Just as a last comment, the thing that we found is the best way to actually do this work is to hire someone who truly gets it. The phrase we use is a “geek organizer”—someone who understands both how to get people involved in things and also how the technology works. A typical mistake that organizations make is they try to implement an online strategy with existing staff and existing structures and it just almost always fails. So finding and empowering the kind of the people who really have a passion for this particular kind of work has been the key to our success.

And would you typify who those people are and where you can find them?

Well they’re often young, entrepreneurial people who have figured out unusual projects in the past. We look for people who have just done interesting things on the Web related to online organizing, because the depth of technical skill is really important. Also, you want people who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. This combination is not an easy thing to come by, but when you get it, it’s golden.