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A Look Inside Testing & Optimization at charity: water

Published by Riley Young

Our team caught an interesting experiment logged in WinstonKnows recently from our friends at charity: water. 

The experiment – ran on charity: water’s main donation page – tested a hero image and headline more focused on helping and supporting an individual child, versus a hero image focused on the general water crisis.

For context, here are the two test versions:

Megan Toscano, Director of Performance Marketing at charity: water, connected with me to provide more context to the test and further share her experience not only in testing & optimization for online fundraising, but her perspective having worked in the for-profit sector for much of her career prior.

This is our conversation:

Listen to the Interview

Interview Audio

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What Makes Chili Chili?

Riley L.: 

First and foremost, our event theme for NIO 2023 is game shows. And we’re asking a bunch of people fundraising feud questions. At the conference, we’re going to do “Fundraising Feud.” So, I’m curious, Megan, what do you think is the defining ingredient in chili? What, I guess, in other words, what makes chili chili?

Megan T.:

Oh no. I don’t cook. What’s the defining ingredient in chili? Tomato? That is going to be my final answer, but I know nothing.

Riley L.:

I’ll take it. That’s fair. So, we always have this debate in the office of like, is turkey chili chili or does it have to have a tomato base? I think it’s interesting you say that.

Megan T.:

That’s the first thing I think of. I think I’ve eaten chili maybe one or two times in my entire life.

Riley L.:


Megan T.:

Yeah. And I just am not a tomato person and that’s what I felt like I was eating. And so, that brings us to my answer, but.

Riley L.:

That’s awesome.

Megan T.:

Yeah, that’s funny.

How Did You Get Where You Are? How Did You End Up at charity: water?

Riley L.:

Well, that’s a great answer. So, tell me a little bit about your story. How did you get where you are in your career? How did you end up at Charity: water?

Megan T.:

My career aspirations have certainly shifted over time and caused me to pivot professionally. I completed my education with a BFA in photography, and started my career doing digital creative and production work – which is where I had assumed I would be for the remainder of my professional life.

But, my first full time job was at a wholesale luxury brand called orYANY, and though my primary responsibility there was to execute and deliver creative collateral to our vendors, I found myself taking on additional responsibilities that were of interest to me. During the time I was there, social media was just bubbling to the surface as a helpful marketing tool – and since we were a lean team, I spearheaded the social media strategy, leveraging creative to increase awareness of our brand and the interest of our vendors. 

Put simply, I fell in love with it. It came so natural to me, and I found myself innately curious on where social could be headed. 

Soon after, I ended up shifting careers – I started as an account manager at a small-sized agency called SOCIALFLY, and ended up staying there for five years, progressing from an Account Manager to the Associate Director of Digital.

My initial focus at the agency was content creation, but around the second year, we began media planning & execution for our clients via social platforms, and I was extremely intrigued by the merger of art and science. I spent years growing my knowledge of the paid digital landscape, through online resources, mentors, conferences, and more – with a focus on building beautiful, engaging imagery and video content that would generate optimal performance results for my clients, and mentoring my team to do the same. 

After five years at the agency, I decided it was best to go in-house to a brand, where I could use all of my working hours to focus on a singular mission and passion, and chose to head over to a fitness subscription brand called P.volve. I headed up the Digital Acquisition team at P.volve for around three years before I decided to head over to charity: water. 

Megan T.:

charity: water was an organization I had been following since I was 23; I actually did a couple of birthday fundraisers for charity: water previously, and I always lurked on the career page over the years, waiting to see if they would need somebody with my skill set. 

And lucky enough, at the same time that I started looking, they had an opening – they were beginning to build the marketing team internally. And so, I feel like it was just the right time, the right place, the right skill set. 

Megan T.:

I started at charity: water around the same time last year – November 22nd

What I’ve been focusing on for the last year has been building a stable foundation to help the organization scale from an acquisition perspective. This includes building processes for tracking, reporting, reviewing and optimizing our evergreen platforms, testing new pilot programs that could benefit the organization, and ensuring we are working alongside vendors who can help us achieve our goals. 

charity: water has always been a digitally-focused organization, and the digital landscape is very tumultuous right now – so we are trying our best to perform work that will allow us to better understand digital performance, while also exploring how we can diversify our media plan to DRTV, CTV, direct mail, and some offline opportunities that haven’t been piloted yet. 

Riley L.:

That makes sense. That’s a really cool story. That’s awesome. I love hearing about that kind of shift into the nonprofit world. I think that I can resonate with that a little bit too, just wanting to do something that has a bigger purpose and it’s really sweet.

Megan T.:


What Would You Say is the Biggest Difference in Optimizing “Customer Journeys” in the Non-Profit vs. For-Profit Sectors?

Riley L.:

So, it sounds like you have a lot of experience in the for-profit world and then transitioning now into non-profit. What would you say when it comes to optimizing the customer journey and optimizing for conversion rates and stuff, what would you say is the biggest difference in the non-profit space versus where you were at previously?

Megan T.:

Yeah. I believe there are two significant differences that I would point out – and I don’t know if this is the case for all non-profits or not, because of course, this is my first full-time non-profit experience. The only other non-profit I’ve worked with is the Girl Scouts, which was back during my agency time. 

But, for charity: water specifically, we are very intentional about what we say, how we say it, how we visualize what we do here as a team. This is, of course, extremely different from the for-profit world, where I feel as if there isn’t intentionality as much as there is “do what you need to do to acquire customers – nothing’s off limits.” So, you are, as a marketer, playing in a much smaller sandbox for creative, audience, landing page testing and so-on. Considering this, you have to become a bit more clever, a bit more curious – you have to think a bit harder on what you can do and how you can do it in a way that best represents the organization. 

And the second difference, is the change in overall organizational reactiveness. In the for-profit world, especially at a Director level, especially at startups, I found most times that the senior level team was extremely reactive, and had this intense momentum to “go-go-go”.  Such a rush, such crazy working hours, decisions are made that you likely don’t agree to but have to abide by. And here at charity: water, at least, again, it’s this cornerstone of intentionality instead of reactiveness. We don’t often rush or react; we think; we make decisions and move forward at a stable pace.

Megan T.:

Which is very different to get accommodated to when you’ve spent years in for-profit where people are always pushing and pulling and calling. And so, it’s been a little bit of a pendulum swing for me to shift over.

Describe the Experiment, Why You Decided to Test This, and the Process to Develop a Test Like This?

Riley L.:

Yeah, that makes sense. So, on that same note of having a little bit more structure, I guess, you guys recently ran this experiment testing the hero image and copy on a donation form. It sounds like there might have been a lot of intentionality behind that test. So, do you want to just go into a little bit about the experiment itself, maybe why you decided to test it and what the process you went through was like to develop the experiment?

Megan T.:

Of course. 

To begin with, the landing page that we used for this test is what we refer to as The Spring Direct. The Spring Direct is our main paid media landing page. So, it’s not as if it’s used solely for one paid platform or for one audience or purpose. It has to feel cohesive with most of our advertisements cross-platform. 

Given this landing page is our “golden child” in many ways, we are always focused on testing elements of this page to increase All Donor conversion rate, 1x Donor conversion rate, Monthly Donor conversion rate, and so on. 

What we found through a lot of the more generic tests we’ve run on this page is that ultimately many were inconclusive. They performed really similarly to our original. And we got to the point where we were saying, “Well, maybe the biggest issue is that we’re being so general with the content itself.” 

And so that led us to the test we’re talking about now, which is, what’s the difference between a more generic message of asking for somebody’s support and having them commit to changing the world with us, versus centering the messaging around an individual that the potential supporter actually could or would be helping.

Megan T.:

At the same time, we had also been running a lot of advertisements focused on individuals’ stories, and we were seeing greater efficiency in click through rate and cost per acquisition. 

We focused the test on a singular component of the landing page, and the most prominent: the hero. The original landing page had a generic message alongside multiple images of various individuals. The test landing page had a message and hero image that centered on Adane and his story. So, you see Adane there sitting smiling, and we share how when his community received water, it entirely transformed his life, with the header being, “transform lives like Adane’s each and every month.” 

What Are Your Learnings From This Experiment and What Are the Next Steps?

Riley L.:

Yeah, that’s great. So, what would you say your learning from this experiment was and what are the next steps from this experiment that you guys plan to take?

Megan T.:

Our general question in running this test was, “Will an individually-focused narrative that better visualizes who you might impact with your gift increase conversion rate overall?”

And, to our happiness, it did. We observed a significant difference in our conversion rate when we looked at holistic and mobile performance, so the next step for us was to end the test, log the results, and have the Adane hero continue running 100%. 

In the future, we’d likely discuss how different individual narratives might compare to one another holistically, or perhaps by the audience, to continue testing the hero component of The Spring Direct. In addition, we’d likely discuss fuller flows of individual narratives – what if there was an ad about Adane before driving to the landing page with Adane’s image and messaging? 

But, for now, we have a testing roadmap laid out with additional tests that are not focused on hero imagery and messaging, and so are progressing accordingly. 

What Advice Do You Have For Someone That’s New to Testing?

Riley L.:

Got you. Cool. So, it sounds like you guys have a lot of structure and planning behind your testing process, but for a lot of folks at smaller organizations or maybe they’re a one-man team, what advice would you give someone who’s maybe new to testing, new to experimentation, that just needs to get their feet wet?

Megan T.:

When people or teams are new to testing, I feel that the first mountain to climb is to loosen yourself and your team up to all the possibilities, even if you can’t make them happen right away. Allow yourselves to have fun thinking about ways that your organization can test. 

And once you have all of those ideas, buckle down and judge them based on (a) how impactful you perceive the outcome of the test will be, and (b) how big of a lift will it be to get the test live?

You have to be both intentional about what you’re testing, but rational about whether you have the resources necessary to run the test. For smaller teams with fewer resources and traffic to their landing page, try not to test everything at once. 

My other recommendation would be to look for guidance if testing is new for you – online courses, email newsletters, YouTube, mentorships, old and new colleagues – there are so many resources out there to learn and develop your skills as you begin. 

Do You Have Any Favorite Testing Resources?

Riley L.:

Yeah, that’s great. Do you have, just curious, do you have any favorite, I don’t know if you follow any newsletters or just resources or things regarding testing that you find helpful?

Megan T.:

The newsletter at has been a godsend, and they provide extremely helpful blueprints, talks, and articles that help get you in the mindset of planning and testing. 

It’s also great to take courses here or there, whether it’s through Udemy, Coursera, and other educational online communities to gain even more knowledge. And whenever you get stuck – search YouTube, or online forums, to see if you can seek out the knowledge you need. 

I also lean really heavily on mentors, and I also mentor people myself. So that’s been a really significant portion of my growth and my learning. You get an hour with your mentor per month, and get to understand what they’re doing in their organization. And that’s been a life changer for me, honestly, because it’s so different than just reading material passively. You get into the nitty gritty of what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

Riley L.:

Yeah, that’s great. How did you get connected with a mentor? Is that just someone you happened to know or how did that-

Megan T.:

When I was back at the agency, I was being mentored through She Runs It, which was a great experience. Now 10 years into my career, I’ve been lucky enough to have colleagues or bosses that have turned into mentors. I’ve made sure to keep in touch with them, and we have a relationship where it’s easy to text and ask “can we talk this month? can I call you to get your thoughts on this?” 

And I’ve been lucky enough that some of my past colleagues and bosses think about me the same way. It’s really about leaning into that relationship and continuing to grow it even if you aren’t working together every day. 

What Advice Would You Give Someone Who is New to Fundraising?

Riley L.:

Yeah, that’s great. Okay so more generally, what advice would you give someone who’s new to fundraising?

Megan T.:

Oh, my goodness. Well, to be blunt, I was new to fundraising 365 days ago. So, I am not the most qualified to answer this, but I will do my best. 

Megan T.:

I think my biggest advice goes right back into mentorship – have somebody or a team that can guide you if you’re new to fundraising. We have an amazing team here at charity: water, some of our team has been in the non-profit world for their entire careers. They’ve all helped me through the transition to non-profit – and I couldn’t be doing this without them. 

So, that would be my biggest guidance – find a mentor, lean on the people around you, take the time to educate yourself, and share your thoughts and perspectives with your team as you acclimate. 

I think otherwise, be patient with yourself, and be excited to get into the work – learning anything new is going to take time, but as long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you’re going to get to someplace good.

Want to Jumpstart Your A/B Testing Now?

This a/b testing guide for nonprofits will help you design an experiment from beginning to end – including identifying conversion goals, setting up tracking, crafting a hypothesis, and validating your results.

You can dig in here:

The Latest Experiments from the Lab

    Want to Run an Experiment Like This in Your Online Fundraising?

    In this free a/b testing guide you’ll get to walk through a/b testing methodologythink critically about how to optimize your online fundraising, and develop your own a/b test that you can run right away.

    The 8-step workbook will help you

    • Know what to test
    • Set up an a/b test
    • Discover a/b testing tools
    • And run and document your tests

    By the end of the workbook, you’ll be equipped to begin testing for your organization so that you can implement strategies that you know will reach more donors and raise more money.

    Become an A/B Testing Expert When You Get Your Free Copy of this 8-Step Workbook. Just Let Us Know Where to Send It.

    Published by Riley Young

    Riley Landenberger is Audience Engagement Manager at NextAfter.