New Course: A/B Testing & Optimization for Nonprofits. Learn how to set up and conduct A/B tests »Learn More »

Online fundraising is hard. If you’re selling a product for a profit, you normally have market research to tell you that people need what you’re selling. All you have to do is find the right people with that need, and communicate why your product meets their need. (I’m oversimplify, but you get the picture.)

But nonprofits have a fundamentally different challenge. No one considers their money to be some sort of burden that they need to get rid of. So as a fundraiser, you have to find people who identify with your cause, and get their attention, and explain to them in a relevant way why they should give you their money to do something that – in most cases – will not benefit the donor directly.

That being said, we can’t just pick up the latest best practices from Amazon’s checkout process, mimic the brand advertising of Coca-Cola, or send email appeals that look like a weekly ad from Target.

We have to think about online fundraising differently.

The 4 experiments below are all really simple to recreate, and showcase some of the key ways we need to think about online fundraising in order to grow our revenue.

You need more copy on your donation page

This experiment is similar to many others in our research library – we took a fairly empty donation page and added value proposition copy to it.

The control, the version without any real copy, made the assumption that everyone who visited the page was already convinced that they’re going to donate. It gave no additional reasons why someone should give. And it didn’t explain what impact a donation would have.

Many of the best check out processes (I’m thinking of Amazon) don’t continually give you reasons why you need the items in your cart up until the transaction is made. But in the donation process, our conversion rates and total donations are – in most cases – going to plummet if we don’t continually communicate value all along the way.

Here’s Tim explaining this experiment in a quick video:

When we tested the page with value proposition copy, we saw a 150% increase in donations. That’s no small change. Over time, that will multiply the online revenue for this organization significantly.

Emails appeals should be personal…and that means more than just using a first name.

Effective email fundraising is radically different than best practices you often see from many of the major email marketing platforms. Over and over, when we’ve tested a plain-text style email against a big, fancy, heavily-designed template – guess which one wins?

Let’s look at an experiment and see.

This was a three-way test with Harvest Ministries, trying to see which email version would have the biggest effect on donations. The control version was a typical designed HTML template, complete with borders, colors, images, and text links.

The first variation had the same design and layout, but we added some more urgent messaging.

The second variation is a radically different email. It has no designed elements. It looks like an email you might get from a friend or a co-worker. It uses what looks like a copied and pasted URL. And it reads like a human wrote it.

Here are the three emails…

Control

Treatment #1

36.31% Increase to Conversions

Treatment #2

116.28% Increase to Conversions

After running the A/B/C test, we saw a 36% increase in donations from the high urgency email. That’s a pretty significant lift.

But the personal email had a 116% increase in donations. We’re not talking about opens or clicks – that’s 116% more people who donated, resulting in a 75% increase in revenue.

Although many fundraisers are taking their email queues from for-profit ecommerce templates, you need to test using a more personal and humanized approach.

Email acquisition doesn’t have to happen above the fold

“Above the fold” web design is a thing of the past. It used to be a key component of putting any page together. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the idea that you need to put the most important part of your page (typically your call-to-action) in a place that every visitor to the page will see the moment that your page loads.

The idea, and the phrase itself, comes from direct mail marketing and fundraising. Direct mail marketers wanted the most important content to literally be above the fold to ensure it was seen.

But you know what’s more important than an “above the fold” design? Context and motivation.

In this experiment with Focus on the Family, there was an email acquisition offer placed within an article. It broke up the reading path, with the goal of ensuring that everyone on the page would see the offer and have to decide whether or not to take it.

The logic is sound, and it’s something you see all across news sites, blogs, and other web sites with lots of articles. But we thought that by moving it to the very bottom of the page – literally as far down as you could scroll before hitting the footer – that the visitors would experience more of the content, causing them to be more motivated to take the offer.

Here’s what the two versions looked like…

Control

Treatment #1

101.2% Increase to Clicks

Our hypothesis was correct. The offer at the bottom of the page increased the click-through rate by 101%.

Now, I know this experiment isn’t truly “Above the fold” vs “Below the fold.” But it’s the same principle. Placing something higher up on a page doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to improve your performance metrics. Context and motivation play a major role in the likelihood that someone will click-through and accept your offer.

Effective advertising doesn’t mean ‘short’ and ‘sweet’

There’s this common idea that people don’t read online. And there’s some truth there in the sense that most people reading an article tend to scan or skim unless they’re incredibly interested in the subject matter.

But, somehow, this common notion of “People don’t read online” has found its way into online advertising. Most ads you see on Facebook – or really anywhere – have short copy, are image heavy, and have a call to action that asks way too much of you compared to the amount of information that’s been given.

So as we’ve run Facebook ad campaigns to acquire new emails and donors, we’ve put this notion to the test. Let’s look at one of those experiments that we conducted with Harvest Ministries.

The Facebook ad was an email acquisition offer, trying to get people to sign up for Harvest’s daily devotional. The original ad was 3 short sentences, which is already longer than many ads I see in my own Facebook feed.

The treatment that we developed was more than double the length, and appeared very wordy. With this extra length of copy, we were able to communicate more reasons why someone should get the daily devotional.

Here are the two ads…

Control

Treatment #1

316.42% Increase to Emails Acquired

The longer ad saw a 316% increase in conversion rate. And when I say “conversion,” I don’t mean a click to the landing page. I mean 316% more people signed up for the daily devotional.

On top of that, we went on to test another even longer ad that got an additional 21.5% increase in emails acquired.

Going deeper into online fundraising

What’s amazing to me is that these experiments we’ve walked through are just the low-hanging fruit. These represent a starting place to see significant growth in your fundraising.

But every single experiment leads to more learnings, which lead to more experiments, and so on. These same organizations continue to apply testing and optimization every day, uncovering new learnings that help them achieve continual growth ­– not just one-off wins from applying a best practice.

If you want to dig deep into what else we’ve learned through over 1000 online fundraising experiments, you should sign up for the free online course Turning Facebook Likes Into Donors. It’s focused on using Facebook to acquire new donors, but it covers everything from creating an acquisition offer, to crafting your value proposition, to creating an instant donation page.

Have you tested anything that has made you think differently about online fundraising? Or have you seen different results from the experiments above? Drop a comment below and let me know. I always love to be challenged. And the best thing is to be proven wrong, because it means there’s that much more opportunity for growth.

About the author:

Jeff Giddens

Jeff was the 1994 Georgia State Spelling Bee champion.


  • Shelly Gammieri

    Impressive. Those spelling bees are no joke.