Charitable giving, receiving FAIL

This post is more than 3 years old.

It's science!I recently had this experience trying to make a charitable donation to a not-for-profit organization I want(ed) to support:

I Googled their name to find their website. The "Donate Now" button was located prominently on the front page of the site, so I followed it to the donation form where I filled out my contact information, my credit card number, etc. and hit "Donate".

I got the form back with an error message in red saying "An error occurred during processing. Please try again." There were no other messages indicating whether the error was with something I'd put in one of the form fields, or if it was an error on their side (perhaps talking to their credit card processor, etc.). I fiddled with some of my form data (maybe the phone number field needs dashes? Maybe the postal code field doesn't actually accept 5+4 format?) but still got the red error message.

So then I sent email to the generic contact address on the site saying "I'm trying to donate to you online, here's what happened." I sent them all the details they'd need to troubleshoot the issue, including a screenshot of what I saw on the form.

Several weeks went by with no response to the email message. So then I saw that they had a fairly active presence on Twitter, and I sent them a message there saying something to the effect of "I'm trying to donate to you online, are you still taking donations?"

No response.

So here's an organization that has invested time and money in creating a website with online donations, in having a presence on social media, and in having a way to contact them by email, and yet doesn't seem to monitor any of those methods of reaching them. I could put something in the postal mail, but I won't - though they are otherwise reputable and well-established, this experience immediately reduced my confidence in their ability to be good stewards of any donations they do receive.

I'm also a brand new donor - someone they haven't had to invest any time or money in cultivating a relationship with, ready to contribute something out of the blue because I know of and believe in the work they do...and there's no one there to receive it. (Either that or I'm on some sort of black list of people who aren't allowed to donate or communicate with them.) I've probably been more persistent than most people would be; who knows how many other donors they're losing to these issues, people that they'll probably never hear from. And now I'm giving up, too.

A few important points come out of this experience:

  • If you invest in an online presence, you also need to invest in people who can respond in a reasonable amount of time to questions or concerns that come from your users, donors, customers, etc. If you put up a website and sign up for a bunch of social media accounts that then just sit there, you could be wasting everyone's time.
  • Monitor critical parts of your online presence for problems; if someone can't submit your online donation form, you should know about it at the same time they do. If there's a sudden drop in account signups or store checkouts, you should be aware of that right away. I'm talking having beeping alerts go off on your smartphone in the middle of the night if necessary; there are plenty of tools/services that can help support that kind of monitoring.
  • You never know what kinds of people might be trying to donate / buy your products / get in touch - they may be far outside your usual "sales pipeline" and completely off your radar. But you still need to have a welcoming and easy way for them to complete their transaction; little things can make a big difference between having a new valuable relationship or a lost opportunity.


6 thoughts on “Charitable giving, receiving FAIL

  1. I recently signed up as a "sustaining member" to a public radio station. I chose "Other" and entered a higher amount than their highest radio button. "No premiums available at this level" So I went back and chose one of their options and the process worked. I got a generic "Thanks for the contribution" email.

    I looked up the contact email and sent a note along the lines of "I just gave you $x. I wanted to give you $(x*2) but your website didn't work in these specific ways." No response.

    Not as bad as your experience, but definitely left me thinking "If you can't do this basic stuff, in what other ways are you incompetent."

    PS. You don't have any indication as to what are required fields to leave a comment and the error message for leaving off a required field is ugly and non-helpful. Jus' sayin'

    1. Eric, how embarrassing! I've now added notes about what fields are required, and set up inline comment submission so that errors will be displayed right away on the page. Thanks for the nudge.

  2. I've been creating a few online donation forms recently and see this stuff from the "inside". It's a matter of someone at the organization paying attention. The software to run all this stuff does everything that you needed (especially a "Confirm" page), and it is easy to use. My bar for "easy" is very low. There are lots of details but, pay attention. There's no excuse for taking a donor (or potential donor) for granted.

  3. Since I currently work in IA for Bethany, I shared this post with our department and others at the school that oversee our web-presence and donor pages. I think that Bethany tries hard to monitor these things, but can always find ways to improve. I've gotten positive responses so far for the reminder. One unique situation that happened just this week is that I opened my e-mail Monday to see that a recent graduate donated online 3 times in less than 2 minutes. It raised a red flag, and because this did not fit their giving patterns. I made sure to contact the donor and found out that they only intended to give once, and we were able to correct the situation right away. Not trying to boast, but this is the sort of thing that any development team should be watching out for.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Monica, glad to hear these thoughts were helpful!

      The monitoring piece may be the hardest because I know a lot of organizations see online donations as a way to reduce the staff time they spend on development/advancement tasks, and having someone pay attention to patterns and notifications may feel out of step with that. It's also a piece that online commerce/donation software doesn't always include (e.g. "get a notification or bump a statistic when a donation form submission fails"), but probably should.

  4. I once had a similar experience, except the web page spit out an Oracle error with the offending syntax, that happened to be a call to a function that I was familiar with. The fact that I pointed out the error was not received well. I assume someone got on some hot water over code that was obviously not tested. Guess I should have just let it go.

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