Thwarted by online forms that have geographical restrictions

June 29, 2012

There are some pretty severe wildfires happening in Colorado right now. As someone who lives in Australia, a land plagued by out-of-control bushfires every summer, I really feel for all those in Colorado (and New Mexico) affected by these latest fires. So much so that I decided to donate to one or more of the charities that look after people and/or animals in such crises.

But I was thwarted by their localized view of the world, so much so that I couldn’t donate to these specific disasters even though I wanted to. Those not as tenacious as me would have given up and not donated at all as it was just too hard, with too many barriers in these forms to actually hand over your money.

What’s the problem?

Well, here’s a start:

  • Geographical limitations in online forms. Either my country (Australia) wasn’t listed, or, if it was, the list of states didn’t include any option for ‘international’ or ‘non-US’ or similar. Note: State was a required fields in all these online forms so I couldn’t leave these ‘blank’ if nothing matched my circumstances. There was one exception to this — the Larimer Humane Society repopulated the State list to match the Country selected. Only one form (American Red Cross) had a ‘none’ option for State, but that was no use because they don’t accept non -US credit cards!
  • Likely limitations on ZIP code. The US has a 5-digit numeric postal code, Canada has 7 digits (including a space and a mix of letters and numbers), Australia has a 4-digit numeric code, and other countries have other variations, or no postal code at all — when the web form designer makes the ZIP field a required field, how do those who come from countries without postal codes get on? I couldn’t complete the online forms because of the State/Country limitations above, so I couldn’t check if there were validation checks on the length or composition of the postal code I would have entered. But it’s possible that there were limitations — another barrier to completing the form and thus donating.
  • Geographic limitations for credit card entry. At least one form (American Red Cross) clearly stated on the page before the donation form that non-US credit cards could not be accepted. However, the other forms said nothing about whether they checked the validity of the credit card or its country of origin before submitting the form. So it’s very possible that non-US credit cards wouldn’t be accepted by these organizations either (yes, I’ve encountered this in other websites before). However, because I couldn’t choose a Country/State, I couldn’t check if this was the case. I wonder how the Canadians get on with these sites — the Canadian provinces are often listed with the US states, yet, if the form validates the credit card as being US, how does a person with a credit card originating in Canada deal with that?
    American Red Cross doesn't accept non-US credit card donations
  • No option for PayPal donations. PayPal is quick, easy — and international. Yet not one of the sites I visited had an option for a PayPal donation. They all required (US only?) credit cards. Another barrier. The exception was the American Red Cross, which did allow something called ‘Amazon Payments’ (no, I haven’t heard of that either).
  • Sometimes no option to select a specific cause to donate to. When I went to the Australian Red Cross website (because I couldn’t donate via the American Red Cross site) and selected International for the donation type, I wasn’t able to specify which cause I wanted my money to be directed to. If I’ve decided to donate to the US wildfire disaster relief, then that’s where I want my money to go — not to some bucket called ‘International’. On the sites I looked at, only the Salvation Army clearly stated that my money would go to the wildfire victims. But the Salvation Army site wouldn’t allow me to donate because of where I live!

Here’s a summary of what I found on the four donation websites I visited:

Donation matrix

* = required field

Of course, I could have done what a colleague suggested and selected any US state and matching ZIP code. But I wanted a receipt for my donation and for taxation purposes, that receipt would need to be correct.

‘Fudging’ an address also doesn’t help with the US-only credit card situation, and it would give a false impression to the charitable organizations about where donated monies were coming from. How can you track how much has come from those outside your own country if you have no way of capturing that information on the donation form?

What could these sites do to remove the barriers to donation?

Some ways that the web designers could make these forms easier to use and thus encourage users to donate include:

  • Remove the ‘required field’ designations for fields like State when you only offer US states/Canadian provinces, yet allow users to choose any country. Alternatively (and even better, in my opinion), offer a selection option of ‘none’ or ‘international’ or similar. The ‘required field’ designation could then still apply, and those from out of country would have a valid option they could select.
  • Allow free text in the ZIP code field to cater for those outside the US, and those in the US who want to use the full postal code of the 5-digit ZIP plus a dash plus the 4-digit location designator.
  • Offer PayPal as a payment option. Not everyone has a credit card, and definitely not everyone has a US-issued credit card.
  • Allow validation of any major credit card from any country. The systems are all international — it shouldn’t be that hard. If you can validate a US-issued credit card based on the number and the security code, why not any other credit card from the same species? When I’m in the US, I have no trouble validating my Australian-issued Visa and AMEX cards in US stores, so why is this so difficult online?
  • If you’re collecting donations for multiple causes, allow the person donating the option to choose which cause they want their money to go to.

Yes, all this may require some extra work, and perhaps extra cost, but the benefit to these organizations is that they would be able to accept donations from potentially 7 billion people instead of some 300 million. Even if only 1000 people outside the US donated $100 each, that’s $100,000 they didn’t have before! I would expect that the cost of implementing these sorts of changes would be far less than that, and once implemented, the donations for other disasters would have no extra cost at all. It would have to be a win-win for these organizations.

Oh, and don’t think this little rant is just about US sites not acknowledging the rest of the world — when Australia had some pretty nasty natural disasters (fires, floods etc.), friends of mine in the US and Europe tried to donate to specific Australian charitable organizations and weren’t able to for many of the same reasons as those listed above.

It’s a global world — let’s make our web forms as global and inclusive of everyone as possible.


Donation pages of the organizations I visited (but couldn’t donate to) are:


[Links last checked 28 June 2012]


  1. I suspect that was done on purpose, because US charities cannot accept donations or issue tax receipts to international donors. Your best bet is to donate to a local fund or charity that is collecting donations to assist with the overseas disaster. For instance, Canadian Red Cross and a number of other charities had funds set up for the Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in southeast Asia and so on and so forth.

  2. Thanks Sarah. I can understand them not issuing tax receipts to international donors, but not accepting donations? That seems odd.

  3. Here’s another twist on it – when Wikipedia had their fundraising drive a couple of months back, I wanted to donate. But they auto-detect your location based on your IP address, and only accept payments in that currency, from those credit cards. I was overseas at the time, and wanted to use my home credit card. Do you think I could? Sure, I could have gone into a local bank, but then the donation goes to the local chapter for their local activities and that wasn’t what I wanted to support. Sometimes it just feels like people don’t want my money.

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