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5 Lessons from 5,000 Fundraising Experiments

Published by Nathan Hill

Pop the confetti and cue the music because we’ve just hit a major milestone: this week we logged our 5,000th digital fundraising experiment in our experiment library. 

That’s a whole lot of testing, tweaking, and analysis. And we’ve experienced our fair share of “aha” moments, forehead slaps, and unexpected learnings along the way. 

To commemorate the occasion, we’re sharing a few of the most enduring and impactful digital fundraising lessons these 5,000 tests have uncovered—time-tested lessons that have the power to measurably improve your program today and into the future. But first …

The 5,000th experiment is … 

An instant donation page experiment (shown to pledge signers) that took the bold approach of reducing gift array options to exactly one: $10. The result? 

A 120% lift in instant donations! 

While petitions are great at acquiring new names for an organization’s housefile, they have historically suffered from lower-than-average instant donation rates.

*Wondering what on earth an instant donation is? You can learn more in this guide to online donor acquisition.

But reducing the number of options on the gift array created fewer decisions for the donor to consider, reducing the friction involved in the process and making it easier for donors to give. It also may have simplified the decision process and lowered the perceived barrier to entry for a new donor.

And speaking of friction, this experiment is a perfect segue to one of the most enduring lessons we’ve learned on our way to 5,000 experiments.

Lesson 1: Be a Smooth Operator

Many fundraisers fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on simplifying the giving process. The thought is that if someone is on the donation page, they’re already motivated to give. So all we need to do is make giving easy.

The reality is that reducing friction is just one part of the equation. But it is a critical part of the equation.

Why is it so critical to reduce friction in the donation process?

Imagine you’re making a purchase online but run into an endless or confusing checkout process. What would you do?

I’m willing to bet you would close the tab and either a) go somewhere else to make your purchase or b) decide against the purchase altogether. Donors are no different.

When they run into a complicated or confusing donation process, they’re more likely to make a gift somewhere else or (more likely) decide not to give at all. 

Generally speaking, the less friction a donor encounters during the donation process (I.e. the easier you make it for people to give you their money), the more likely they are to give. 

We found that reducing friction in the conversion process can be a game-changer in terms of both donations and name acquisition rates.

One recent experiment showed that removing a phone number field and combining like fields on the same row can increase donation rates by 18%.

Another showed how a 107% lift in donation rates by removing all but the necessary fields from the donation form.

This concept doesn’t just apply to physically shortening the donation process though.   

For one client, reducing friction by way of lessening the perceived commitment greatly improved account creation rates by 151%.

Lesson 2: Lost in Translation

No one likes to feel lost or confused, especially when they’re trying to do some good. 

So why make your appeals cryptic?

Now, you might be saying “Nathan, my appeals aren’t cryptic. They’re perfectly clear! What are you talking about?”

One thing we’ve learned over the course of 5,000 experiments is that what’s clear to you isn’t always clear to your donor.

Clarity is key when it comes to digital fundraising. If your donors need a decoder ring to figure out what you’re trying to say, they probably won’t stick around long enough to take the action you want them to take. Case in point: 

Adding clarity around a gift’s impact in this experiment dramatically increased instant donation rates—by 262%!

Could your organization benefit from a 262% lift in donations? Improving the clarity of your current and upcoming appeals could be a good place to start.

Here’s the tricky part … improving clarity is really, reeeeally hard to do on your own. You might need to have a colleague, friend, partner, etc. give your copy a read and let you know what needs clarification.

Are you saying only what you must say to make a persuasive case? Are you using easy-to-understand language and writing in an active voice? What can be cut out (and what should be added) to make your appeal more … appealing?

Asking these questions when revising an email appeal can produce dramatic results—in one case leading to a 219% increase in donations during a high-urgency campaign.

Lesson 3: From “Meh” to “Yeah!” — The Magic of Specificity

One of the easiest ways to improve the clarity of your messaging is to inject specificity. 

Nothing says “meh” like generic messaging. And let’s be real, “meh” doesn’t exactly inspire people to get behind your cause. 

You want your audience to feel the fire in their bellies when they read your message, not a sense of indifference.

That’s where specificity works its magic. It breathes life into your messaging, brings it home, and makes your appeal more relatable and impactful.

For example, instead of an invisible statement like, “Your donation will help our cause,” let your donors know the specific difference their gift will make.

That’s what we did on a donation page test during a recent high-urgency campaign. The result? 

A 411% lift in donation rates.

Specificity helps your donors feel like they’re making a tangible difference. By painting a vivid picture of the impact their gift will have, you’ll see your fundraising results skyrocket.

In another high-urgency experiment, one organization tested the effect of centering the ask on a specific initiative, rather than a mission-level appeal. And focusing on the specific initiative produced a 275% lift in donations!

This tactic also works wonders in the context of email acquisition. Instead of asking site visitors to simply “sign up for our newsletter,” try using your form copy to tell them why they should sign up and exactly what they’ll get.

By replacing generic form copy with value-driven reasons to sign up, this organization was able to increase sign-up rates by 258%.  

In a similar experiment, another organization was able to produce a 71% increase in newsletter sign-ups simply by explaining what the visitor would receive when they subscribed. 

Lesson 4: The Enduring Power of the Value Proposition

The value proposition is at work in every donor interaction. Tactics and channels may come and go, but the value proposition remains the constant primary driver of someone saying yes to giving.

The backbone of everything you write and everything you do in your online fundraising should be your value proposition.

Here are 6 ideas to help you craft an effective value proposition:

  1. Define the problem your nonprofit exists to solve
  2. List out your value claims (i.e. how you solve the problem)
  3. Score your claims (1 to 5) based on appeal and exclusivity
  4. Get your donor’s feedback using a survey
  5. Run an a/b test to validate your value claims
  6. Contextualize your value proposition for different audiences

And just to show you how consistently powerful a well-crafted value proposition can be, this experiment from way back in 2013 shows how improving the value proposition on a donation page lifted conversions by 147%.

While this experiment, nine years later, showed how a simple shift in how the value proposition is positioned produced a 105% lift in instant donation rates. 

Lesson 5: Testing without data isn’t testing—it’s guessing

The odds of running a successful and meaningful experiment without using data are about as good as finding your way through a forest at night—without a map, a compass, or even a light.

In other words, making changes to your digital fundraising initiatives without gaining meaningful data on the results of those changes will keep you in the dark about what does and does not work. 

This is because experiments don’t always go the way you expect … and what works in one context, for one audience, may not work for others. Often, the result of a test is that it disproves your hypothesis. 

For example, we’ve found great success for our clients by using yes/no imagery on Facebook ads. But when we tried the same approach for one of our own NextAfter Facebook campaigns, the result was a 58% decrease in email acquisition. 

For a different organization, we hypothesized that providing greater clarity, exclusivity, and credibility on a landing page would surely increase email acquisition rates. The result? A 13% decrease in email sign-up rates!

Point is: data (not intuition) is the most reliable means for testing a hypothesis. Which is why we often say that there is no such thing as a bad experiment – unless you don’t learn anything.

The best place to begin testing is by asking yourself what problem you’re trying to solve. You can often use 3 key metrics to determine which area of your program or campaign needs the most improvement:

  1. Traffic – How many people am I reaching?
  2. Conversion Rate – Of the people I’m reaching, how many are giving?
  3. Average Gift – How much are people giving?

There’s so much we can learn from rolling up our sleeves, flexing our optimization muscles, and running experiments. In fact, a culture of experimentation is one of the surest ways to increase your organization’s chances at year-over-year success by moving beyond guesswork to a place of measurable growth.

Learn more about setting up an a/b test in this Nonprofit A/B Testing Guide »

Published by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill is Vice President, NextAfter Institute.