Rethinking Small Dollar Fundraising

As a non-profit, Mozilla has access to four types of revenue: grants, gifts, donations, and earned income. Our earned income streams come through Firefox, which leaves the other three – grants, gifts, and donations – to be driven by our fundraising strategy (the focus of this post).

So far, and while we can always get better, we’re pretty good at securing grants. We’ve built meaningful working relationships with large philanthropies and government agencies, which contribute approximately $5M each year to Webmaker, Open Badges, and our policy work.

We don’t have a major gifts program (as yet; more on this later in the year).

And, while we’ve spent a fair amount of time building a small dollar donations program, it’s definitely not what it could be. Last year, we generated around $750K from e-mails to more than 500K people and an end-of-year presence in the main Firefox channels.

There are many and valid reasons for this result. Fundraising as a large-scale social enterprise is challenging and I believe we’ve done well to get where we are. But given our reach and the importance of the Web there is massive room for improvement.

Solving Small Dollar Fundraising
Building an effective small dollar program is important for several reasons:

  • It’s the most stable form of revenue available to the Foundation: small amounts of funding from a large and diverse group of donors;
  • It mitigates risk by distributing external dependence and increasing revenue diversity; and
  • It’s a meaningful contribution path for a large number of Mozillians who don’t have the time or capacity to code.

Grants and (eventually) gifts will always be crucial to the health and growth of Mozilla. They allow us to work with amazing partners, test new ideas, and launch new products. But building a sustainable small dollar program is our top development priority for 2013.

Enter the Study
Good fundraising – like many things – involves constantly questioning and challenging assumptions. We used the first part of year to hold conversations to gain perspective and input from the Mozilla community: people who care about our mission and want to help it succeed.

We asked what people think about Mozilla. Why they have chosen to become involved. Whether they think being a non-profit is central to what we do. Whether fundraising should be a part of that. And, if yes, how we can make it more effective.

The Story So Far
The discussions have been amazing. We’re learning a lot about Mozilla and why our community and staff devote their time to the cause. And we’re also seeing themes emerge around how people view Mozilla, our mission, and our fundraising:

Being a non-profit matters. It’s the foundation of our brand, what differentiates our products in the market, and the source of a lot of pride. Not having external shareholders is empowering. But people resist being identified as a charity. The sense is that ‘charity’ carries connotations of need and behaviours that don’t apply to Mozilla.

Tension between being ‘mission-driven’ and ‘product-driven’. There’s a healthy, though challenging, day-to-day tension between the ‘why’ of our work, the mission, and the ‘what’, shipping products. That tension is surfacing more as we enter new markets with different operating cultures. And in terms of fundraising, the tension impacts decisions like whether to direct site traffic to fundraising or product marketing campaigns.

Fundraising has been a black box. Very little is understood about how or why we raise money. Most of the participants in the study wanted to learn more: to have a chance to engage and help shape our fundraising. So we, as the development team, need to get better at sharing our work.

Donating is considered a more accessible contribution path than coding. Mozilla’s competitive advantage is and has always been its community. We don’t have the financial strength or employee base to go head-to-head with our competitors. When we win, it’s because of the people who contribute to our work. As our mission gains importance – as more things move to the Web – we will need to attract contributors from outside our usual channels. People who don’t code, but have other sources of expertise that can advance the mission (see the groundswell of educators gathering around Webmaker). Donating is seen as an easy yet meaningful way to become a Mozillian.

Online fundraising isn’t the only way to raise money. To date, small dollar fundraising and online fundraising have been synonymous. But as we scale Webmaker events around the world, as we get more people into more rooms, and as ReMo continues to grow, we increasingly have opportunities to raise money in-person. We need to look away from the Lost Ark of online fundraising to new ways to engage directly with donors.

Donors want to know where their money goes. In line with trends across the non-profit sector, people want to understand the specific impact of their donations. Crowdfunding, social media, and micro-lending platforms have led donors to expect a direct relationship with the recipients of their support. We can do more to draw the line between a $30 donation and a scientist, teacher, or teenager learning how to express themselves on the Web.

We should be good at being a non-profit. One of the most interesting themes was the sense that if we’re going to be a non-profit, we should be good at it. That we should leverage all the advantages – volunteers, movement building, partnerships, activism, fundraising, etc. – that come along with it. Not at the expense of our strength – building meaningful products – but as a way of pursuing our mission and expressing our brand.

The study is also surfacing a healthy amount of skepticism:

  • “Why do we need my $30 when we have all the Google revenue?”
  • “I delete all those e-mails. I don’t think they’re effective.”


  • “Doesn’t everyone get paid from the Google deal?”
  • “Why do we even have a Foundation?”

And resistance:

  • “We shouldn’t be asking people for money. It’s annoying and unnecessary.”
  • “We need people closing bugs, not giving money.”

Perhaps the best finding so far is that many of the people who work for Mozilla also donate to the mission. This means that the people who experience Mozilla on a daily basis continue to believe in the organization and its work. As a fundraiser, I know that one of the first things major donors ask is what percentage of employees also donate to the mission. So we’re in good shape.

So far we’re thrilled at the number of people who actually want to step up and help Mozilla raise money. The challenge is on us, as a team, to make sure you can and to do so with pride.