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Ecommerce options for Non-Profits

We work with many non-profit organizations including theaters, libraries, museums and so on. Over the last year we developed new websites for many of our clients and migrated some of our older institutional clients from sites built 6-9 years ago to new wordpress-powered sites. In the course of doing this we encountered a diversity of ecommerce requirements and put together some good solutions. In this post I am going to share those solutions with you.

Key to our strategy in 2012-2013 is a core belief that very smart developers out in the world have solved almost any problem we can dream up – and implementing their solutions is a better strategy than trying to code our own. I think this is key to any institution seeking a new web functionality – go looking for someone who has already fixed your problem – it’s out there.

The needs of non-profits are often much more complex than a standard for-profit ecommerce solution…

For-profit companies typically are seeking to sell hard goods and services on the web – like our client Luis and Clark, who sell a line of carbon-fiber instruments via a woocommerce powered store and a traditional authorize.net gateway. Our non-profit clients on the other hand need a suite of functions – membership, event registration, donations, product sales, licensing, recurring transaction, member management, and in-line donations on checkout.

I recently received a call from an organization we work with seeking to build a recurring membership system into their site. Like many organizations, they have a minimal budget to achieve this task yet very lofty goals. They were looking at Network for Good as a possible solution but were afraid of the monthly carrying costs – $49.95/month. Currently they use a simple paypal “Donate Now” button to accomplish the task of capturing online donations.

And thus the recurring dilemma for the small non-profit – take on the additional carrying costs, even if some months you might see no donations to your organization via this gateway – or give up the desired functionality of customer management, recurring donations, and other bells and whistles for the “free” paypal option…. what to do?

So here’s the breakdown of options we have implemented for our clients:

logosnonprofittoolsPaypal basic – the ubiquitous “buy now” or “Donate Now” button – easy to implement, no carrying costs, a variable percentage taken on checkout – users are passed over to the standard paypal window for checkout. We use this extensively on the BIFFMA.org site.

Woocommerce – well-built and well-supported plugin for wordpress-powered websites. Fully-featured product management, shipping and tax tables, and a variety of checkout options including basic paypal all the way through full authorize.net>merchant account>your bank pathway. The latter requires the purchasing of an SSL certificate ($100+ annually). The plugin is a flat one-time fee ($50).

Woocommerce extensions – there are a variety of plugins, some free, some paid, for woocommerce that add functionality. We are using the WooCommerce Product Add-ons and the WooCommerce Dynamic Pricing modules to allow customers to add donations to their shopping cart “in line” with adding products (see here) and to allow variable pricing according to customer status.

Wufoo forms are a great way to quickly deploy some fairly complex ecommerce scenarios. Wufoo does the heavy lifting – ecommerce happens through them so you might be able to get away without an SSL if you have the transaction take place on their servers, and you can create some really interesting forms with many pricing options and variables. There is a subscription fee with Wufoo (pricing here) but it is very reasonable. We use these with Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, MA – if you click on one of the membership levels you can see the form hand-off to Wufoo’s servers – in this case the client elected to allow Wufoo to handle the SSL compliance. But you can also have an SSL and have the transaction embed on your site page seamlessly. Heritage is using the forms extensively for class registrations as well, particularly when there are variables in fees, ages, and options.

Gravity Forms – this is a powerful tool for building forms, which can be ecommerce enabled but unlike Wufoo, you have to have an ecommerce system in place that you can tie into. We use this on the donation page for Charleys Fund.

Magento – We’ve built a couple of stores and additional components with this open-source ecommerce platform. It has proven somewhat fragile and difficult to manage so we are trending away from this one at present. Hancock Shaker Village uses this and with additional plugins has modified it to allow for a variety of transaction types, but it is not proving as stable as we would like.

Square - Not so much an online tool but a great way to be able to take credit cards quickly, easily and anywhere you can get a cell signal. Combine this with eventbrite and you can be a mobile Point of Sale (POS) very easily - potentially also taking donations right at the table at a gala event. A great app.

Eventbrite – the leading event management and ticketing system in the world (at least the one I inhabit) – Eventbrite is brilliantly designed and gives the event manager everything he or she needs, including mobile ticketing, an app to “check in” ticket holders, a whole user-management system, etc. They charge a variety of fees but the basic deal is $.99+2.5% per ticket – and you can choose to have the client pay the fees of absorb them depending on your needs.

For really robust integrated membership, event and donation integration, there are a couple of sites to look at…

WildApricot.com is one – we haven’t built out anything with them but we have one client (an arts school with a really complex set of needs) looking at them seriously. The afore-mentioned Network for Good is another. This is where things get fuzzy – some of these services can effectively run a complete website for an organization, but it is important to look at what the costs are, the flexibility, and the issues of data management, etc that you encounter with these systems. Can you export your membership or donors into a .CSV file? Are you giving up future flexibility for a closed-source solution? Things to consider.

The plan…

In the end, if you are running an institution and wondering what you should do, I would sharpen up the pencil and create a matrix that first lists your “needs” for ecommerce and then the options above and the pricing that would be on the table (we can help you do this – just ask….!). Do you need an SSL? Is there something in your list that “breaks” one of the off-the-shelf solutions? Do you actually “need” that item? Compromise is a word to keep in mind here – you can actually get some remarkable power out of these systems today for very little investment in time, training, or money, but it requires you to make choices – and I would encourage you to consider trying some of these out – Eventbrite, for instance, has a simple account setup and you can be selling tickets to your event in mere minutes – give it a shot. One last thing to keep in mind – giving your customers these tools WILL increase your revenue – if you are hesitating you are likely leaving more on the table than you will lose paying the monthly fees or percentages.

If you can think of something I left out or are looking for clarification, please leave a comment or email me. If you know of an additional resource, please also let me know via the form so I can add it to the thread. Thanks for reading!

- Kevin

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