So what’s the problem? Why are they lagging behind their corporate counterparts?

One big reason is that when you complete your payment (donation) on a charity’s website, you get nothing physical in return. No pair of shoes, no concert tickets – just a thank you email for contributing to the cause.

That’s a pretty tough product to shift.

So, how do charities overcome this unique challenge of essentially asking for money for nothing? Here are five ways charities are tackling their unique ecommerce challenge.

1. Provide a ‘shopping list’

Most charities aren’t trying to compete with ecommerce platforms. They are totally open that the person making the contribution is mostly just getting satisfaction in return.

Most provide a ‘shopping list’ of the sorts of things the user’s donation could pay for. The emotive imagery and copy helps an intangible contribution become more tangible, enabling the user to visualise the impact they are having, thereby increasing that satisfaction.

For example, Shelter’s donation page updates the shopping list when the user moves the slider across different amounts:

Shelter donation image

2. Use transactional email to magnify the impact

While ecommerce platforms mostly use email to simply confirm the order details, charities can use it to personalise the impact of the donation through user and service-centred stories.

Letter example

The more organised digital teams will then put the donor into a more complex communications funnel that expands on the impact of their donation, cross sells to other ways to help or upsells to a regular donation.

3. Package the donation as a product

Instead of throwing your cash into the charity’s general pot, many charities (especially those working in international development) package it as a product.

The most famous example of this is “Buy a goat” and “Buy a cow” made famous by Oxfam Unwrapped. Here, you make the donation on someone else’s behalf as a gift. The recipient then has the satisfaction of knowing they have paid for cow for a village in rural Africa.

Their one-off gift has a long-term impact on the charity’s beneficiaries.

watch image

4. Open an online shop

Many of the larger charities also sell physical products via an online store, making their offering a more traditional ecommerce one. Often the products are branded merchandise, including t-shirts, keyrings, and mugs.

Some charities also sell service-related products that deliver their mission. For example, Parkinson’s UK sell watches for those with visual impairments or pet bowls you don’t have to bend down to pick up.

Physical products like these are both a source of income and a way for the charity to deliver upon its mission.

watch image

5. Focus on user experience

While many will look closely at the commission charged by different platforms for processing their donations, they are also looking at the user experience each provides.

They know that a better UX is likely to mean more donations, and ultimately more money for their cause, with percentages becoming less important.


Charities are starting to take on the challenges posed by the ecommerce sector. The depth and complexity of their digital strategies is increasing day by day.

As well as deploying the above tactics, the bigger charities are investing in finding out more about who actually donates or purchases those products. The highest converting traffic sources, ads and keywords are a rich source of information.

The best charities draw on this information to deploy donation page testing programmes that can increase conversion rates long term.

These investments will lead to a bigger piece of the ecommerce pie, and ultimately work that will have a much bigger impact in the world than buying that pair of shoes on Amazon.

Further reading: