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Updated with new info and links 06/27/2016

We work with many non-profit organizations including theaters, libraries, museums and so on. Over the last decade we developed new websites for many of our clients and migrated some of our older institutional clients from sites built 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 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 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 many sites.

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>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 built a couple of stores and additional components with this open-source ecommerce platform abck in 2012/2013. It proved somewhat fragile and difficult to manage so we are trending away from this one at present. It may be time to revisit it in 2015 – let me know if you use it successfully.

Square – Not so much an online tool (NOTE – this is changing!) 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. 2016 note – Square is coming out with API’s that will allow it to integrate with your online and offline stores and other ecommerce system – this should be a good one to watch and may be a game-changer over traditional ecommerce architecture by obviating the usual links of shopping cart>payment gateway>transaction processor>merchant bank by rolling them all into one…. Keep your eyes open.

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, you need a CRM….

CRM’s (Customer Relationship Management) tools are a must for organizations willing to think about their customer as the focus of a network of transaction types. A good CRM will allow an organization to manage all of the data points of a customer – who they are, contact info, relationships, history – and integrate that database with all of the types of transactions that might occur – donations, ticketing, membership, product purchases, and more. A good CRM system can be a key element in making this happen – but too many organizations I find are overwhelmed by the choices, the technical complexity, and the power of these systems to really take advantage of them. The big guns in CRMs are Blackbaud, SalesForce, Zoho, and others. Smaller providers in NeonCRM, WildApricot, (Wild Apricot just announced that they are launching an APP version of their service – which is super!) and Classy. An open-source, community supported CRM that I’ve been working with recently is CivicCRM.

There are MANY variables to consider with a CRM. 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. Let me know if you’d like my thoughts on these different systems.

For a more in-depth look at the role a CRM might play in an organization read this post.

For sites that need to sell hard goods on site and online

We have a couple of clients that use counterpoint – the system was stuck for a looooong time in a kind of software limbo but the company was bought out by NCR and now things are looking up. They’ve upgraded the whole system to be more web friendly c.2015 – responsive themes and updated templates. Counterpoint and LightSpeedPOS are two systems that we have worked with where you can run integrated online and offline stores with shared inventory, database, contacts, etc. These systems can be easily extended to handle ticketing, donations and memberships but sometimes it takes a bit of thinking to realize that a membership is really just another “product” – like a t-shirt – that comes in multiple sizes (single, family, business….). SiriusWare is another one recently brought to our attention. We haven’t used it but it appears quite robust.

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. Also, be aware that you can use more than one solution – nothing wrong with cobbling together a handful of these tools to handle different tasks. Each of them do something REALLY well – figure out what your needs are and move forward.

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

Sprague Studio Admin

Author Sprague Studio Admin

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Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • B. says:

    Excellent rundown Kevin. I’m looking into WooCommerce now. Was originally going to do Storenvy or something similar but we need our online storefront to interface with our brick and mortar POS system (Quickbooks POS). From what I’ve read, 61 Extensions will allow us to do that. Is it possible through WooCommerce to receive money via PayPal’s gifting option? Our members buy memberships every year and it would be nice to allow more of their money to go towards the NFP instead of expenses.


  • Really good info and perspective, Kevin. Thanks.

    As a heads-up, I’m working on a project exactly in the range you’re describing and have found another less expensive WooCommerce extension for receiving user-defined donations. Like the Dynamic Pricing extension you mentioned, Name Your Price is available directly from WooThemes and seems to be a less feature-bloated solution for just receiving donations:

    Thanks again for the good info!

  • Laurie Egan says:

    Thanks for all the info Kevin! Do you have any experience linking these e-commerce sites with a Salesforce Database? If so, which would you recommend using? Thanks!

  • bartek says:

    Hello Kevin, i have a problem. First of all sorry for my language i’m form Poland. I have instaled gravity form on my wordpress connected with woocommerce. My client fill the gravity forms fields that i created. Next step is to fill the fields of woocommerce. All information i have in orders, the fields from woocommerce and gravity forms but i must work on filters in my excel. How to export all the files from orders (woocommerce and gravity forms fields)is there any plugins or someone can creat one for me?

  • aqifzenieli says:

    another plugin for donations that does the job is this . at least they allow any amount to be donated and it integrates with woocommerce . so it supports all the gateways you might have on woocommerce and also it shows on the orders/reports.

  • Thom says:

    Kevin, you listed systems that combine membership/registration with product sales, but we would like to take it a step further. Is there a system/partner that takes in the money into their account and then cuts the organization a monthly/quarterly check less their service fees?

  • Great article. However, we are a non profit and we sell services and do pledges, I have tried every technology you list here and not a single one of them will do a basic export of service/product name (e.g. Cake Decorating Class) and event name (e.g. Walkathon2015) and the payment type whether it be cash, check or credit card. If by chance you use Square or PayPal Here, you are stuck with the added step of stitching together all the transactions and a multi step process. We spend 100s of hours after each event just doing the reports.

    Woocommerce looked promising, but it won’t export without you paying for a plug in that may/may not work. I have found that every vendor (PayPal, Square, Shopify, Wix, Koincloud, etc.) will tell you “oh yeah, our site does that”…only to find out the day after the event, it DOESN’T.

    Anyhow, I do appreciate the post, but will probably build my own javascript shopping cart that writes to Google Sheets or simply a MySQL db.

  • JAvery says:

    Hi Kevin,
    There is a lot of good information in this article, so thank you for putting it out there. I work for a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational program and we are working on re-vamping our online store. We currently are selling products from 3 locations and online. I have to keep inventory separate from the 3 locations, but we can add the online store inventory to the home office location. What are the best POS systems that would allow me to basically create 3 stores but still have them intergrated together under one administrator? Our other 2 locations have specific inventory that is specific to their ship and their stores would basically be private and not online. What suggestions do you have? Thank you for your time.

    • ksprague says:

      Hi – sorry for the slow reply. This is a complex question and I can’t say that I have a simple answer. I’d look at lightspeed POS and Counterpoint from NRC as possible contenders. The main strategy – I find – is to consider that the online store is the “master” for all other stores – in other words you have one store, one database and one checkout system – all of which resides in a robust online system – and the storefront POS are basically web terminals with a cash drawer. Most organizations approach it the opposite way – their bricks and mortar stores are the primary focus and online is second, so they think about their systems this way. By putting everything “in the cloud” by imagining that ALL sales are “online” sales it frees you up significantly. With this kind of approach you could have multiple POS locations with only one share inventory and checkout system.

  • Trisa says:

    Thank you Kevin for this great article on the many options for ecommerce. We are a new 501c3 and our primary ecommerce needs are for donations. That being said, we also plan to sell small amounts of merchandise and hold events from time to time, events that we will sell tickets for. I like eventbrite for events but it would be great to have everything together. Since we accept donations, it is imperative we are able to run reports for our donors. We have a wordpress site so I know Woocommerce is compatible. What would be your recommendation for us?

    • ksprague says:

      HI – so sorry I missed the notice that you posted. Yes, woocommerce with a few extensions would be ideal for your needs. We’ve built a number of these solutions for organizations. Drop me a note at if you are still looking for some answers and I can give you more info.