5 Experiments You Can Learn For Online Giving

I want to be a charity nerd. Not in the “foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious” way but the “single-minded expert in a particular technical field” way (thanks for the definitions Google).

Not only because I want to be an expert in my field, but also because being a nerd has never been cooler. Thick rimmed glasses, hiked up pants and comb overs are ‘in style’. Computer nerds are building multi-billion dollar companies. The #1 show on television is The Big Bang Theory (about nerds). And HBO’s record breaking Game of Thrones is based on extremely long, fantasy novels.

I’m not quite a charity nerd yet, but the good folks at NextAfter I would say have reached that level. I know this because NextAfter runs all kinds of fundraising experiments with their clients and publishes studies, results, methods and key learnings in their Digital Research Library. And I nerd out on them weekly. And since they’ve already done the nerdy work and published the results, you and I can come in, learn from them and apply those concepts to our work and test how it might apply to our lives and nonprofits.

Before we get into the 5 nerdy fundraising experiments you can learn from and apply to your online fundraising, here are a few basic terms you’ll need to be familiar with:

  • Conversion Rate. Think response rate in direct mail or click rate for emails. Conversion rate is the number of people who complete an action (in these studies a donation or email sign up) divided by the total number of people who reached that page/form. If 100 people come to your donate page and 10 go on to complete their donation, your conversion rate is 10%.
  • Average Gift Size. This is much more common, but it takes the total amount of revenue from an appeal, email or landing page divided by the total number of donations that were made. So if those 10 people made one donation each which equaled $1,000 total, then the average gift size would be $100.

These two metrics don’t always work in step with one another and often one is traded for the other. You can get a higher conversion rate doing certain things but if the average gift size is much lower than the total revenue at the end of the day may be less – even though you had more donations. All things being equal, you should focus more on the things that can increase the conversion rate, as opposed to average gift size, as that leads to more donations and donors. More donors gives you the chance to thank them, steward them and grow their donations to you over time.

On to the nerdery…

1. How one required field reduced donations by 42.6%

In this experiment, NextAfter was looking to see what impact making people provide a phone number would have when giving online. As it turns out, quite a bit. Just by having the phone field in there, the conversion rate decreased over 40%!

Reducing friction, or making it as easy as possible for people to give, is a key component to donation conversion when it comes to online fundraising. So each bit of information you require needs to be added infrequently and with caution.

As they point out:

In this case, the visitors’ sensitivity to giving out their cell phone number is high. By requiring that piece of information, we added a certain amount of “cost” to the offer (in this case, membership) that was higher than the perceived value in many visitors’ minds.

Now if you have a robust telephone strategy where you call and thank, convert to monthly and steward donors over the phone then perhaps it’s worth adding the phone field because the overall lifetime value will be higher (and that is most important). But absent of that, be careful to ask for personal information as it only heightens the ‘friction’ and mental stress of donors.

2. How soliciting the donor’s opinion increased the gifts acquired by 20.8%

This experiment shows that not all added fields, questions or steps are bad, however. In this experiment, one donation form allowed the donor to designate what their donation would do. The end result was an increase in conversion rate as well as the average gift (if an experiment leads to an increase in BOTH metrics well… that is great).

Two key things here: Firstly, the NextAfter folks used some interesting copy by asking for people to not choose a fund (which are often driven by accountants and CRM systems to manage finances) but where the organization should focus its efforts (a more human and understood term). Secondly, by letting the donor have a say, they will feel more involved, empowered and have a more direct connection with their donation – all great things.

If you only have a ‘to where most needed’ option for online donations or a litany of ‘funds’ most people won’t understand, think about simplifying the language and options – not removing them altogether.

3. How adding video to an appeal decreased revenue by 81%

I’ve seen this experiment proved a few different times: videos on pages built for donations do not increase revenue. That’s what the NextAfter folks found as well as the page with a video decreased revenue 81%!

Now videos can be great to tell stories, allow people to spread content and present lot’s of information in digestible ways. But when it comes to giving, educating, information and sharing are not what it’s about. And while videos may be moving, it’s too easy for people to click on the video, get distracted and leave the page before even getting to the donation part of the video or page.

Use video to welcome, inspire, educate, story-tell and steward. But keep them off your donate pages if you can.

4. How suggested gift amounts reduced donations by 54.9%

This was an interesting one as suggested gift amounts are the generally accepted best practice (3 suggested gift amounts and an “other” is generally best for what it’s worth). In this case however, the suggested donation amounts, based on the visitors past giving, actually led to a lower conversion rate. Here’s NextAfter’s key learn:

The average gift for their online donors is significantly higher than the most other nonprofits. As a result, the suggested gift amounts were far larger than would normally be seen on a donation page. It is our hypothesis that these larger gift options scared away potential donors to the campaign by presuming too much. We get better results when we let the donor determine their own level of generosity.

When donors go to give, particularly online, they aren’t remembering their past gift to you or their giving potential but simply want to give. And if they see big numbers it can be scary. Now the average gift size in this experiment was bigger with the suggested amounts, so suggested amounts, based on giving, might be great for increasing giving of current donors (incrementally) but can also be daunting.

Keep using suggested giving amounts for your general donation form and appeals and work to be contextual with your donor – just don’t over do it be overly-presumptuous.

5. How following “best practices” reduced clickthrough rate by 15%

Another myth buster here. Email and online best practice are to include photos and pictures as they are more engaging. This is true. But most email and online best practices aren’t built on fundraising focused communications and landing pages.

A term NextAfter uses often is ‘ugly wins’ and if you’ve done or researched direct mail you know this is often true. Design and photos can be pretty, but they can also be overproduced and distracting. When it comes to high performing emails (when it comes to conversion) often the best thing is great, clear, direct and simple writing.

So have nicely designed emails that are mobile friendly at all times. And have a nice looking eNewsletter and eBlasts. Just be careful not to overproduce your email appeals when you just want to be clear and compelling with your donors.


NextAfter has a bunch of other tests from their clients and experience and I encourage you to check it out as you look at landing pages, writing web copy and donation forms. There can be some nice insights in there to simulate your own thought. Key words there… your own. Just because a test worked for a NextAfter client and campaign doesn’t mean it will do the same for you. But gain insights here, become more of a charity nerd and run your own experiments to learn more about your donors and their giving.

Good luck!

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