Flash fundraising with flair: Using bold strategies to reach fundraising goals

Mercy For Animals (MFA) is perhaps best known for its work exposing the cruel abuse of the secretive factory farm and slaughterhouse industries. MFA’s undercover investigators have brought numerous companies’ abusive policies and practices to light. In the last year alone, thanks to exposing abuses and hard-hitting advocacy work, major companies like Walmart, Safeway, Tim Horton’s and McDonald’s were convinced to introduce sweeping animal welfare policies.

Addressing the complex and disturbing issue of animal cruelty requires Mercy For Animals to take on significant challenges to run campaigns that keep supporters engaged.

When we recently launched the Flash Fundraiser campaign for MFA right on the heels of the busy year-end fundraising season, we knew we needed to present fresh new messaging, eye-catching graphics, and tried-and-true strategies to foster a sense of urgency for their audience. We also knew that the most thrilling part of MFA’s work was the dangerous and emotional nature of their undercover investigations. Our campaign plan centered around the importance of contributing to those investigations and supporting the investigators who take part in them.

Here’s what we knew:

  • Images of animals in appalling environments facing unspeakable cruelty foster an emotional response from MFA’s fans and supporters.
  • Presenting a deadline creates urgency and encourages list members to donate quickly.
  • Offering a match allows for rapid momentum for a campaign’s revenue possibilities.

Here’s what we set out to prove:

  • Could running a short campaign or a “Flash Fundraiser” help ramp up urgency?
  • Could image-based emails engage audiences in ways that text-based emails cannot?
  • Will a smart combination of strategies help raise money during a stagnant time of year for fundraising?

Click to enlarge.

Here’s what we did:

  • We sent three “Flash Fundraiser” appeals during a short two week period directly after a series of renewal appeals.
  • We used innovative design to grab the attention of readers.
  • We presented a dollar-for-dollar match up to $50,000.
  • We used animal cruelty imagery to tug at the audience’s heart strings.
  • We used minimal copy to make the fundraising ask quickly and succinctly.

Here’s what we found out:

  • The three emails we sent performed at the same relative conversion rate as the renewal appeals that went out to MFA’s list right before the “Flash Fundraiser” campaign launched.
  • We found that there were a number of donors who did not respond to the Renew/Join language they had recently been presented with. Those donors were responsive to the Flash Fundraiser look and feel, match, and short deadline.
  • The Flash Fundraiser brought in enough money to exceed the match.
  • We were able to organically bring in multiple sustaining gifts that will continue to increase the overall revenue of this campaign over time.

The biggest take-home elements from this campaign are: be creative, take risks, play to your strengths, and know your audience. These results are due to a successful deployment of typical but hard-to-achieve tactics. With the help of Mercy For Animals, we were able to launch timely, well-crafted, and compelling appeals that aren’t afraid to live outside of the box; and we were able to raise a lot of money while doing it.

Jack Hilson is an Account Executive at Donordigital and has over five years of experience in non-profit and political campaign-based digital consulting, specializing in email marketing, Google search ads, Facebook ads, and social media management. 

What we learned about multichannel fundraising from raising money at year-end

Although it seems like eons ago, our team at Mal Warwick | Donordigital is still taking stock of what the year-end giving trends mean for our client programs, and for nonprofit fundraising as a whole.

Many programs we manage experienced strong revenue growth in their online channel, driven by Giving Tuesday, as well as other tried-and-true techniques such as matching gift challenges, website lightboxes and homepage takeovers, improved donation pages, an increasing volume of email appeals, better mobile optimization, advertising and retargeting, and coordinated social media engagement.

It will take a bit longer to see the full results of the direct mail efforts, but we know that this channel will continue to provide a lion’s share of overall direct response revenue – and will for many years to come.

While integration still may feel challenging in actual implementation, this year-end season reinforced for me the power and necessity of integrated fundraising for overall program success. Here’s why:

  • We saw a big surge in direct mail donors going online to make their gifts, including the use of custom URLs. The upcoming match-back analysis we’re performing for many clients, will clarify how big this mail-to-online effect really is.
  • Targeted email messages to individuals receiving direct mail appeals reaped high response rates and average gifts. Even when these groups were small, response rates were often triple the average email response rate and revenue per email sent was very high.
  • New targeting tactics allowed for a fuller experience and supported all efforts. Facebook ad targeting of email lists members and direct mail donors served impressions to individuals primed to give – a tactic we know helps overall fundraising. In addition, many of these campaigns generated enough gifts to cover the modest costs of the efforts.
  • It’s about the donor experience! The multitude of email messages from my favorite charities I received in December was immense. But I remembered those that reinforced that message in the mail, in email and social media. I knew what I wanted to give to and why!

How can you measure the effects of your integration efforts?

  • At Mal Warwick | Donordigital we carefully track multichannel giving shifts between the online, mail and telemarketing channels through a careful analysis of donor data, and do this bi-annually for many of our client programs. The shifts in giving channels often reflect not just changing donor trends, but also changing investments that the organization is making to grow each channel. Most importantly, it allows us to create strategies that prioritize multichannel conversion.
  • Multichannel giving analysis allows us to identify donors’ origin source which informs our recommendations for acquisition investment. Based on first gift, who is most likely to convert to another channel? How does the ROI compare for different origin cohorts? What we see consistently is that a higher percentage of online generated donors cross over to also give in the mail, than the reverse. This trend points to the importance of having a mail program that can work seamlessly with online.
  • We’ve seen a dramatic increase in donor value when our clients convert single channel donors to multichannel giving (especially direct mail donors to online). We also see much higher upgrade rates to $250 or more from donors who are multichannel, more conversion to monthly giving and significantly higher retention rates. It’s clear that multichannel behavior has a big impact on donor value and increased attention to an integrated strategy will result in overall revenue growth.

Integrated, multichannel fundraising efforts are yielding valuable results and stronger long-term value for many organizations at year end and throughout the year. The focus of integrated strategy should continue to inspire more single channel donors to convert to cross-channel giving. This in turn will deliver stronger renewal and upgrade revenue to help direct response programs thrive, while engaging supporters more deeply into the organization—and most importantly deliver the best donor experience!

Mwosi Swenson, President and CEOMwosi Swenson is the President and CEO of Mal Warwick Donordigital. She has over 20 years experience in direct response fundraising and is one of the nation’s leading experts in direct mail, online and integrated fundraising.

Client Highlight: Mercy for Animals

A team of Mercy for Animals undercover investigators is exposing the cruel and secretive factory farm and slaughterhouse industries. Last year, through the use of undercover investigations and hard-hitting advocacy work, abusers were brought to justice and major corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s were convinced to introduce sweeping animal welfare policies.

Mal Warwick | Donordigital is working with Mercy For Animals to create its direct mail program and expand online fundraising. MFA just experienced the most successful year-end fundraising season in its 16-year history, with an increase in number of gifts, response rate, and total revenue.

We worked with Mercy For Animals to brand its sustainer program “Investigation Allies” and create a series of appeals inviting supporters and advocates to become monthly donors. We also helped introduce a tracked welcome series promoting monthly giving to new advocates and supporters.

The organization now has over 1,000 sustainers, helping to fund its core programs month after month. Many sustainers made additional gifts this December thanks to targeted appeals.

Read more about MFA’s undercover investigations >>

It’s Not Too Late to Supercharge Your Year-end Online Fundraising

There’s a lot riding on your year-end online fundraising efforts. Some nonprofits raise a quarter (if not more) of all their online revenue in December. No doubt your team has been carefully planning its year-end online campaigns and is hard at work implementing the messages. Here are a few last-minute ideas to supercharge your fundraising.

Resend to Non-openers

So much of year-end fundraising is about persistence. For email appeals, that means resending your email message to people who haven’t opened your message. Wait a day or two, pull a report of who opened the message the first time, and suppress them from your resend. Yes, there is always a risk of over-messaging, so be sure to change the subject line.

You might also pick a different time to message such as very early in the morning, in the late evening, or on the weekend, all in the name of standing out to get noticed — and opened.

Add a Special Appeal for Monthly Giving

Year-end is traditionally the time for one-time gifts, but we know that donors are always in search of flexibility and options. Make sure you make the case for monthly giving, either in the body text or P.S. of your email message, and also on all your donation pages. This is one of the fastest growing segments of online fundraising, so jump on the bandwagon at year-end too.

Keep Sending Appeals to People Who Already Donated

We go to great lengths to avoid sending appeals to people who have already donated to our campaigns. But year-end is a great time to keep including recent donors, especially if you have a dollar-for-dollar match. Include a sentence recognizing and appreciating their gift, and many donors will be motivated to give again, or to spread the word via social media with friends.

Ask Your Donors to Tell Their Friends and Family

Your donors feel great after they make a donation to your cause. That’s what charitable giving is all about. Make it easy for your donors to share that feeling with friends and family by adding sharing options on your website “Thank You” page and also in the thank-you email/receipt that gets sent to each donor. Discuss with your online vendors to find out how to add these features.

Add a Pop-up Lightbox to the Highest Trafficked Pages on Your Website

It’s vital to grab the attention of your website visitors during the last two weeks of the year. The pop-up lightbox is a perfect tool to get in front of people and convey your year-end fundraising message, especially if you have a match. Set a cookie for your returning visitors so the lightbox only appears once every few days.

Increase Your Messaging out on Social Media

You’re probably planning some social media messaging at year-end to promote your fundraising efforts, but you’re probably not planning enough. Get creative with ways to promote your year-end campaigns, using tie-in graphics, thermometers, and thanking donors publicly. Your creativity and humor will pay off, especially for your followers who are also on your email list. And don’t forget to track your social media click-through traffic to your donation pages.

Michael Stein is a Senior Account Executive at Mal Warwick | Donordigital in Berkeley, California. With Nick Allen and Mal Warwick, Michael wrote the groundbreaking 1997 book: Fundraising on the Internet: Recruiting and Renewing Donors Online.

Paths to year-end fundraising success in a multichannel world

AMC_YE2013-Lbox3-Calendar_FINAL-copyDirect response fundraising should be multichannel. I say this all the time and while direct causation is sometimes difficult to track, I stand by the principle that truly donor-centric communications allow donors to access information in the channel they choose. We also have the data analysis to prove that multichannel donors are the most valuable donors for an organization to have over the long term.

It’s our responsibility to ensure that the messaging is cohesive and coordinated.

In the real world of people opening their mail, answering their phones, and checking their inboxes, a multichannel donor is a person who knows what matters to them, consumes information in a number of ways, and dedicates some time and their dollars to the cause that moves them.

Maybe it was the person that asked them to make a donation, or the photo on that envelope or at the top of that email, or a headline in large font, or simply the timing of an email that was formatted nicely on their iPhone6 while they were waiting on a train platform – whatever the trigger, later that night they remembered to go on your organization’s website and make a donation.

The most important thing about a multichannel donor is that they decide to give and give in a channel different than their first gift. That change and movement to being “channel agnostic” means that they are more likely to give again to your organization and to give a larger amount.

So, how do you embrace multichannel messaging when planning for year-end? The reality is that every detail matters when it comes to achieving year-round fundraising success in a multichannel world. Year-end fundraising is a unique challenge because of the competition for dollars among organizations and a limited number of donors. The sheer volume of fundraising appeals by nonprofit organizations is enough to overwhelm any person who opens their mailbox or their in-box.

As a direct response agency, we’ve learned to adapt and innovate in the unique environment of year-end fundraising. Below is a quick overview to how we approach year-end fundraising success in a multichannel world.

  1. Create a communications matrix that honors the donors’ perspective. Align your channels by reviewing your year-end calendar for mail, email, website promotion and telephone solicitations. Consider how your donor and non-donors audiences will react to getting multiple appeals for funds in different channels. Adopt a donor-centric approach and make sure your appeal calendar is driven by their needs. Honor and accept those things that won’t cross channels (not everything can be integrated!).
  2. Scour your organization for other opportunities to coordinate messaging. These might include newsletters or magazines, direct mail acknowledgment buckslips, welcome kits and welcome series, videos or other online resources.
  3. Segment your audiences carefully and integrate those segments into the communications matrix. Think about the best way to approach each with the correct ask or cultivation. For example, what about those folks that are getting direct mail during the year-end email series? What about those who aren’t? Also plan for coordination in gift asks – although donors will often give higher gifts online, it’s important to keep gift strings similar across the channels.
  4. Fundraising techniques aside, it’s the content and messaging that you create that will drive your supporter’s attention span and engagement. Donors want to be asked and inspired to make a year-end gift. Take the lead-time you need to produce engaging content that can span across direct mail appeals, emails, videos, year-in-review annual reports, holiday cards, infographics and more. Remember, donors have short attention spans (especially online donors), so highlighting key points are important whatever the channel – direct mail letter P.S. content, reply devices, and email masthead and sidebars, to be exact.
  5. Carefully consider your email calendar in December so you can create the right cadence for your supporters. One message per week and then an increasing number the last few days is the new normal, so jump on board and craft an authentic email series that inspires your supports to give. Consider the dates that your mail will reach donors in-home and if the content is complementary.
  6. Acknowledge the multichannel touches – we often reference or show a visual of a direct mail package that the donor is receiving in an email message. And we’re careful to strategically include dedicated URLs in direct mail packages if donors want to make their gift “immediately online.”
  7. On your website, be sure to use your homepage carousel or above-the-fold content areas to highlight the theme of your year-end campaign online and offline. It’s common for supporters getting your mail to visit your website to make their year-end gift. Deploy a lightbox on your website to catch the attention span of your visitors.
  8. Use paid advertising channels at year-end to reach your supporters wherever they might be. Search engine marketing, Facebook ads to custom audiences, and remarketing to visitors of your website or your donation pages can play a vital role in creating visibility for your year-end campaigns, and increase year-end giving across all of your channels.
  9. Make it social! Using online social networks at year-end is vitally important to connect with the attention span of your supporters. Dedicate staff time to posting year-end content on social media channels, and schedule coordinated tweets and posts on all channels. In your emails and on your Web pages make it easy for your supporters to spread the word about your year-end campaigns.
  10. Keep testing and trying new things. Every audience is different which means it’s vitally important to test to see how your audience responds to multichannel tactics.
  11. Don’t neglect January as an important time to thank donors—across all channels—for their year-end support.

Multichannel fundraising does require more effort and resources. But the end results is cohesive messaging and a larger group of dedicated donors.

photo-thumbnail-mwosi-2Mwosi Swenson is the President and CEO of Mal Warwick | Donordigital. She has worked in direct response fundraising for the past 20 years and has managed the direct mail, telemarketing and online programs for some of the nation’s most respected environmental, advocacy, and political organizations.

Growing your sustainer program

Mal Warwick | Donordigital Senior Account Executive Wendy Marinaccio Husman joined forces with Jeanne Horne of Share Our Strength, to present a dynamic session on “Growing Your Sustainer Program” at Blackbaud’s BBCON 2015 in Austin in October.

The session covered numerous facets of growing a sustainer program with a discussion of strategies for retention, stewardship, and upgrades. Wendy and Jeanne outlined No Kid Hungry’s multichannel promotion of monthly giving, with efforts spanning email, online advertising, social, direct mail, and telemarketing. They provided exclusive examples for how to improve retention, create a communications calendar for monthly donors, and more.

Here are the presentation slides:

Donordigital Heads to #15NTC

ntc-logo-1Many of our staff will be traveling to Austin on March 4-6, for this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference which is organized each year by NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Network. With over 100 sessions about the latest trends in nonprofit technology, we’re excited to dive into this annual festival of educational experiences, networking, and the legendary parties.

Several of our staff will be participation in breakout sessions:

Wednesday, March 4 at 10:30 am
Play it again, Sam: Monthly Giving Programs for Sustaining Donations ‘As Time Goes By’
Wendy Marinaccio Husman, Senior Account Executive, Donordigital
will be presenting with Jeanne Horne, Senior Manager, Digital Communications, Share Our Strength.
This is a must-attend session to gather ideas for growing your monthly giving program as well as strategies for retention, stewardship, and upgrades once your sustainer file is built.

Friday, March 6 at 10:30 am
What Has Your Donation Page Done for You Lately? Testing, Optimization & Best Practices
With Mwosi Swenson, Vice President, Donordigital
We’ll do a review of the tools, technology and methodology needed for effective testing and then dive into best practices and real testing results – things you’d expect, things that you need to know, and things that surprised us all!

bar96-logoThursday Night Progressive Party: Party Like It’s 1996
And speaking of parties, we’ll be hosting one of the Thursday night Progressive Parties and you’re invited to join us to “Party Like It’s 1996”. In 1996, we literally wrote the book on online fundraising … since then, online engagement has certainly evolved! But, for one night only, join the fundraising team from Donordigital for a ‘90s throwback, from 8pm to midnight at Bar 96 (96 Rainey Street). Come meet, socialize, and reminisce about the founding days of fundraising on the Internet with your fellow NTC techies. Don’t forget your NTC Badge for street tacos and drinks, including a taste of our signature e-Martini. Learn more about the #15NTC Progressive Parties.

Is your Donation Page letting you down? Try this 7-step formula for building a high converting page

People reach your landing pages by clicking on a link in an email or a paid search ad, via a button on your homepage, or myriad other ways. Regardless of how they get there, the language they saw upstream made some sort of promise about the content a visitor would find if they clicked through to a landing page.

Persuading someone to take action on a landing page requires keeping that promise. In other words, a visitor will take action if the offer is consistent with what she was expecting—i.e. there are no surprises, and the perceived benefits of taking action outweigh the costs.

Brian Massey’s excellent book Your Customer Creation Equation: Unexpected Website Formulas of The Conversion Scientist™ defines a simple litmus test to ensure that your landing pages keep their promises—and move visitors closer to your conversion goal. The test is to evaluate each element on your donation page with one criterion:

Does it facilitate the donor’s decision-making process?

If the answer is yes, keep it on the page. If the answer is no, remove the element, as it’s probably harming your conversion rate. We know there are stakeholders in your organization that may argue to keep numerous elements on landing pages. This article makes the case to remove as much as you possible can.

I like to think of this test as a fool-proof tool for designing high converting landing pages. To illustrate how it works, let’s apply the test to elements commonly found on web donation pages:

  1. Primary navigation

    Primary navigation typically appears on every page of a web site out of habit. But on a donation page, navigation provides an easy way to detour off the path to giving, and access to content that isn’t relevant to making a donation decision (Programs, About Us, Get Involved, etc.).

    In my survey of 53 different year-end donation pages last month (mostly large, national organizations), navigation appeared at the top of the page on 19% of them. Thankfully this is down from 2013.

  2. Secondary calls to action (e.g. follow us on social media, sign up for our email list)

    These kinds of actions commonly appear in the page shell of a donation page. Again, they distract the visitor, compete with your donation ask, clutter up the page, and tempt visitors to leave your site. (Seriously, there could be kitten photos in my Facebook feed!)

    To my surprise, social media icons were displayed on 23% of the year-end donation pages I surveyed. Do you really want to send your high value donation page traffic to Mark Zuckerberg?

Now, let’s look at the 7-step formula for building a high converting donation page, adapted from Massey’s advice for constructing effective landing pages.

  1. Define Your Call to Action

    A call to action (CTA) is the simplest expression of what you want the visitor to do on your landing page.

    Appropriate CTA language for your donation page depends on how you frame financial support for your organization generally. The way it’s expressed on your donation page should be consistent with what you say elsewhere—not only on your website but also in other marketing channels.

    When defining the call to action, make sure it’s specific and in the active voice. Some examples include:

    • Make a Donation
    • Become a Member
    • Join [your organization name]
    • Give a gift

    Because urgency is a well-established technique for increasing conversion, pairing your CTA with words like “today” or “now” can also lift response. (Please avoid ending CTAs with exclamation points and resist the urge to write in all caps because that’s interpreted on the web as yelling)

  2. Fulfill Your Promise

    Fulfilling your promise to visitors on a donation page means being consistent with the copy the web user saw upstream. Repeat the exact keywords words or phrase the visitor clicked to get here—don’t bait and switch on a donation page. Repetition provides positive reinforcement to the web user that you’re going to keep your promises.

    The page headline (every donation page needs one!) and subhead (if you choose to include one) are the primary vehicles for orienting visitors and grabbing their attention. Make it clear and obvious in your headline what the visitor can do on this page. Be specific—and make certain that you also address visitors’ burning question: What’s in it for me? (Why should I take this action?)

    Below are some donation page headlines that do an excellent job of expressing the CTA and the benefit(s) of giving:

    CTA plus benefit headlines

  3. Give the Visitor Something To Do (but not too much!)

    What a donation page visitor must do to successfully convert is complete a form. Testing consistently shows that each additional field you include in the form area will reduce your conversion rate.

    Long forms often intimidate prospective donors; all but the most highly motivated folks will abandon them. Use a simple, streamlined form that asks only for information needed to complete a transaction. As I noted in a previous blog article, defer nonessential questions and steps that lengthen the process until after the transaction is completed.

    There is no right or wrong way to display form steps—some find that a single page converts best, while others break up a form into multiple, short steps displayed over several pages. You must test to find out what works best with your audience.

    The short form used by democrats.org is a great example of focus and simplicity:

    Democrats_tight form

  4. Sell the Offer

    Never assume that because someone navigates to your donation page they’ve already decided to give. With donation page abandonment rates often 90%+, the vast majority of visitors to your donation page are just kicking the tires—and need a compelling reason to pull the trigger.

    “Selling the offer” means answering a visitor’s top question: What’s in it for me?

    In charitable giving this means figuring out what motivates your donors to give. Even for one organization there are many possible reasons—and they may vary due to external factors, e.g. on December 31, tax-deductions are big motivator for many donors, whereas at other times of year the mission-related benefits of your work will prove to be much more inspiring.

    On a donation page there are three especially important vehicles for selling your offer:

    • Copy (headline & body text)
    • Photos & video
    • CTA Button

    Persuasive copywriting is critical to selling your offer. It must give the visitor a compelling reason to donate to you (instead of another organization doing similar work). You want to entrust this responsibility to talented copywriters with a strong track record in direct response. Do not ask your IT team to write copy—and please never write donation page copy by committee.

    Use specifics in your headline and body copy that emphasize the benefits of giving, how you’re effective, unique, and get things done. Focus donation page copy on what your donors care about—not what you care about.

    Photos and video are also important tools for selling your offer—because they can trigger powerful emotions that copy alone cannot. (More on this below in item #6.)

    Button text is the final key element on a donation page that helps to sell your offer. It should reiterate the action a prospective donor is about to take. Be as specific as possible! Vague or neutral words like “submit” or “process” are poor choices—because they’re not clear about what happens next. And they don’t reinforce why anyone would want to take action.

    Below are some examples of motivational button text:


    Audience research and testing are essential to uncovering which “selling points” are most motivational for your donors. Once you’ve identified the most powerful and persuasive arguments, segmentation of donation page traffic can provide additional opportunities to personalize your offer and increase conversion.

  5. Overcome Resistance

    Anyone being asked to enter their credit card number online will have some fear about doing it. This is what’s known in conversion science as “friction.” On a donation page, friction can be remedied with strategically placed trust elements.

    Trust elements that we’ve found can positively impact donation page conversion rates are:

    • Facts that back up claims and establish your credibility, e.g. Specifics on what you’ve accomplished, the size of your membership, the length of time you’ve been around, etc.
    • Independent ratings, e.g. Charity Navigator, Better Business Bureau Accredited Charity seals.

      Independent ratings

    • Security seals, e.g. Norton Verisign, McAfee & TRUSTe are the best known and most influential seals when placed in close proximity to payment fields.

      security seals

    • Social proof such as testimonials by a prominent supporter or positive media mentions about your organization’s work. Below is an example from Donors Choose:


    Finally, remember that your brand logo is the most basic trust element on a donation page—or any landing page for that matter. Don’t forget to include it in the upper left corner of the page.

  6. Showcase the “Product”

    In charitable giving, “showcasing the product” can be thought of as a subset of “selling the offer.” Photos that illustrate a problem you’re trying to solve, show beneficiaries of your work (especially people or animals), or your team in action, help prospects visualize how their gift can make a difference.

    A well-produced video can do even more to tell your story and help to foster an emotional connection with donor prospects—but remember that not every visitor to a donation page will automatically want to watch video (they could be at work or in a public place) so it’s best not to configure them to autoplay.

    Be sure that the images and video you use are authentic and of high production quality—or they can backfire. Photos and video are especially important elements to test to validate their impact on the conversion rate.

  7. Use a Visual Hierarchy

    Every high performing landing page uses a visual hierarchy that reinforces the main conversion goal. This simply means that your page design emphasizes those elements that are most critical to making a decision.

    Good visual hierarchy on a donation page means:

    • A headline displays prominently at the top
    • The main purpose of the page is immediately obvious
    • Steps to make a gift are clear and follow a logical eye path
    • Copy is brief and easy to scan – Trust elements are present but not visually dominant
    • A call-to-action button (there should be only one) is big enough to be easily noticed and contrasts with other elements on the page
    • Color is used sparingly—to focus visitors’ attention on mission-critical elements


If you follow these 7 steps to building a high converting donation page, I’m confident that you will reap the rewards. That said, it’s essential that you validate donation page changes through testing to ensure that they’re actually positive for conversion. Every audience is different and you should be prepared to accept whatever results you see with your own users.

photo-dawnDawn Stoner is Donordigital’s Director of Analytics & Testing and works with clients to help them increase online revenues with web usability best practices and landing page testing. Dawn speaks regularly about testing and optimization at industry conferences and publishes papers highlighting what’s working and not working with our testing clients.

6 things nonprofits can learn from e-commerce checkout pages (and apply to their Donation Pages)

Working to optimize web content with nonprofit organizations, I’m regularly asked to help improve donation page conversion rates. Clients usually want to know … What are the best practices? Do you have case studies on what converts well?

Even though nonprofits do a lot more testing than in years past, published research on what “works” to lift donation page conversion rates is still fairly hard to find. That said, there’s plenty that charities can learn from optimization efforts on e-commerce checkout pages when it comes to improving the user experience for donors.

Image1_C+B_Checkout_1_smallThere are a large number of commercial marketers who test everything—in order to maximize conversion on their websites. These companies (and the experts they hire) have identified common “conversion killers” on checkout pages via live testing and usability research.

As a fundraiser, the key question you’re going to have while reading this is… How do I get more people through my online giving process to complete a donation?

Let’s take a look at 6 tactics commercial marketers have identified from extensive testing on their checkout pages that improve conversion. These techniques are all easy to apply on web donation pages. (Insights described here are adapted from research conducted by the Baymard Institute).

#1: Remove seemingly unnecessary steps

Oftentimes, staff with no training in web usability gets involved in decisions about what to include on a donation page. For example, your development director may want to collect a lot of information about online donors during the giving process to put to use at a later time.

The result is often “form field creep,” i.e. you get greedy and ask for too much information up front. Unnecessary steps and questions lengthen the giving process and irritate a portion of your potential donors, causing them to abandon the page without giving and lowering conversion.

Below are examples of unnecessary steps I see required on many donation pages (along with the reason each can harm conversion):

  • Telephone number. People fear marketing calls, so it’s a deal breaker for some if their phone number is required.
  • Program designation. This assumes the donor is already familiar enough with your programs to easily make a choice, which isn’t true. The question unintentionally introduces difficulty into the giving process—and encourages the visitor to leave the page to figure out which program to select.
  • How did you hear about us? It requires the donor to stop and think (something you absolutely want to avoid on a donation page). Your aim is to make the process ridiculously easy and painless.
  • Comments. The user has no idea what you’re fishing for, but people feel compelled to enter something into a blank field—and may get hung up trying to figure out what to enter.
  • Tribute/honor gift fields displayed by default. At first glance few will notice that these fields are optional (because web users skim pages, they don’t read every word). As a result, lots of fields create the perception of a longer form and a more difficult process.
  • CAPTCHA puzzle. These are pure pain for the web user. Even thinking, breathing humans stumble when attempting to decipher those distorted number and letter combinations. If spam is a major problem on your website, find a skilled developer who can help you implement a solution that does not require your donors to perform difficult tasks. This article describes five front and back-end alternatives to CAPTCHA.
  • Multiple email list opt-ins. They require the donor to expend cognitive energy in studying and choosing between offers (another type of difficulty), and distract from the priority conversion goal of the page—giving.

Is your organization guilty of asking for too much? If any of the items above are included on your donation pages, stop and ask yourself if the information is valuable enough to sacrifice donations in order to get it.

#2: Ask for name and billing address first, payment information last

When arranging fields on a form, always put the easy stuff first. Based on Robert Cialdini’s behavioral psychology research and the six principles of influence, the principle of commitment and consistency means people are more likely to finish something once they’ve gotten started. For example, it’s much harder to abandon a book when you’ve already read 90% of it than when you’ve only read a few pages.

Similarly, people are more likely to complete a form after they’re more than half-way through it—because they get invested in the activity. As such, it’s best to put the easy steps first, i.e. those that encounter little psychological resistance like name and address fields.

Anxiety and fear are at their peak when donors enter sensitive information like their credit card number—so it’s best to put payment fields at the end, where they’re less likely to disrupt a donor’s progress.

#3: Don’t ask for the same information twice

Web users are very good at remembering if they’ve been asked to enter the same information multiple times—and get irritated when they must work harder than they feel they should.

Because this happens most often on multi-step forms, it’s well worth examining your conversion funnel to eliminate any instances where you ask the donor to enter the same information more than once (e.g. gift amount, email address, contact/billing fields). Instead of creating extra work for the donor, auto-populate their initial entry in subsequent steps requiring that same piece of data.

With respect to mobile, this can be especially frustrating given the difficulty most have filling out forms on small screens. On a mobile device the UX can be greatly enhanced by changing the order in which information is collected. Consider asking mobile users for their zip code prior to their street address, so that fields like city, state and country can auto-populate based on the zip code, thereby eliminating the need for users to make those entries.

Image2_Mobile form_zip code first

Keep in mind that if you decide to automate—it’s best to allow the user the option to override the output data, since there’s the chance that their zip code may not yield the correct information in all cases.

#4: Avoid in-line form field labels Web designers (and some marketers) love in line labels because they make forms look so clean and polished.

Image3_in-line FF exampleHowever, when form field labels appear inside the field itself they cause a lot of usability problems. This is because instructions disappear as soon as the user begins typing in the field. If the donor gets distracted for any reason (or merely loses their train of thought) they cannot recover the instructions without deleting their entry entirely and clicking outside of the field.

The Baymard Institute has found that in-line labels contribute to a lot of form validation errors because even after the form is submitted the in-line labels still don’t get restored to help the user understand how to fix a problem. If error guidance is not highly targeted and specific, users get frustrated and typically abandon the transaction process right there.

#5: Make entry errors easy to fix

It’s incredibly frustrating when making a purchase or donation online to submit form and trigger a validation error with little or no guidance on how to fix it.

We’ve all seen opaque (or even hostile) error messages displayed at the top of a form that give us no idea what exactly we did wrong:

Image4_Bad_form error messagesThe unfortunate donor who receives this type of message is now thinking… Uggh, what did I do wrong?

Good error language is both courteous and precise about which field is cause a problem—and requires a correction. Below are three best practices when designing error messages:

  1. Be nice. Avoid negative and critical words like “problem” or “failed.” No one wants to be scolded for making an error.
  2. Be helpful—and clear. Provide specific guidance to the user on how to resolve the problem, e.g. This entry cannot contain dashes or spaces. And always use plain language—not “developer speak.” This language is a form of customer service, so be sure that someone with good communication skills is in charge of writing it!
  3. Place the error message in close proximity to the field that triggered it, not at the top of the page. Encapsulation of the problem field in red can help it stand out better:

Image5_Field label error_encapsulation

And while it’s not mandatory, you should consider offering phone support for especially high value conversions (like monthly giving) to ensure that problems can be remedied by human intervention as a last resort.

#6: Make the page look secure

Many web users are acutely concerned about the risk of credit card theft online. Because most web users have little familiarity with “https”, simply having a secure page is not enough to alleviate their concerns.

While donor anxiety about page security cannot be eliminated entirely, you can lessen its impact with targeted and timely reassurances.

The best remedy is a visible indication that your site is secure, i.e. a recognized security seal located in close proximity to anxiety-producing steps (payment information fields). Security seals have far less benefit if they’re not easily noticed by web users while they’re completing payment fields.

Besides locating the seal near to where donors enter sensitive information, encapsulation of payment fields (i.e. boxing them off with a distinct background color) is another technique that visually reinforces to the donor that their information will be secure:

Image6_encapsulate_payment fields

Finally, there’s some evidence that widely recognized seals like Norton-VeriSign, McFee, and TRUSTe appear to confer a greater benefit than lesser known providers. Brand awareness likely increases web users’ trust in these particular seals.

Image7_Trust_seals_consumer confidence


These six techniques test-driven on e-commerce checkout pages are well worth trying to improve conversions on your web donation pages. How you apply them will depend in part on your current practice—as well as how flexible and customizable your donation forms are.

Regardless of which techniques you use, remember that optimizing donation pages (or any other web page) for conversion is not a “one-off” exercise, it’s an ongoing process of testing, learning and application. Web conventions, user expectations, and visitor needs are constantly evolving, and your important landing pages need to be, too.

photo-thumbnail-dawnDawn Stoner is Mal Warwick | Donordigital’s Director of Analytics & Testing and works with clients to help them increase online revenues with web usability best practices and landing page testing. Dawn speaks regularly about testing and optimization at industry conferences and publishes papers highlighting what’s working and not working with our testing clients.

No Kid Hungry wins Blackbaud 2014 Impact Award for its #SaveSummer campaign

summer-meals-2014-1We’re thrilled to celebrate the news that our client No Kid Hungry has won a Blackbaud 2014 Impact Award for Best Multi-Channel Marketing for their Summer Meals Campaign — which our agency had the honor to work on.

No Kid Hungry conducts an annual campaign that spreads awareness about childhood hunger, helps connect kids with food, and raises needed funds during summer months when kids are more likely to be hungry.

Many families donʼt know that free meals are available to kids and teens at thousands of sites nationwide — in fact, only 3 million children are participating in these programs.

To help increase this number, No Kid Hungry created a SMS program where people can text FOOD to 877-877 to find summer meals sites near them. They have also created an Action Center where people are directed to action they can take, both online and in-person, to promote awareness of and support for summer meals.

blackbaud-impact-awardNo Kid Hungry launched an integrated multi-channel campaign to #SaveSummer for kids that lasted from mid-May through the end of July 2013. The campaign included 13 email messages, one direct mail package, an mobile phone texting campaign, numerous social media posts, a coordinated web presence, a lightbox asking single gift donors to “make it monthly,” and a video.

No Kid Hungry took advantage of several opportunities to make this program a huge success. The Arby’s Foundation has been a crucial partner in No Kid Hungry’s work over the years, and provided matching funds up to $100,000 to encourage increased donations. National spokesperson Jeff Bridges has used his platform to help us raise funds, build relationships, and increase awareness of the need for, and the existence of, free summer meals for children.

The campaign was a huge success. We surpassed our matching gift goal by over 50%, acquired over 800 new donors, and enrolled over 150 new monthly donors. Over 40,000 letters were sent to Congress asking members to visit a summer meals site, and almost 50,000 individuals used our mobile texting service to locate a summer meals site (100% increase over prior year).

photo-thumbnail-wendyWendy Marinaccio Husman is a Senior Account Executive at Donordigital, the online fundraising, marketing and advertising company.