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Best Practices Are Hurting Your Fundraising

Published by Tim Kachuriak

Sometimes we think an idea will work well based on past experiences or certain laws of design we’ve learned along the way. However, we’ve discovered that fundraising best practices are not enough. We need to test our ideas using a rigorous scientific methodology in order to know what works.

In my time as a marketer, I’ve been obsessed with a concept that marketers often use as the primary analogy for marketing: The Donor Funnel. The Donor Funnel is the crux of my existence. The idea is that we put different forms of traffic into our website, and try to move our potential donors from interest to involvement to investment.

The Donor Funnel

This funnel analogy is useful because all marketing should influence a decision. It should move people to take action.

The problem with this funnel analogy is that it distorts reality. People aren’t falling into the funnel. In fact, most people aren’t traveling through the funnel at all. People are falling out! We know this because the average donor conversion rate is 1-4%. This means that we fail to get people to donate at least 96% of the time.

The funnel implies that gravity is pulling our leads downward, propelling potential donors through the giving process. But that’s not reality.

Instead, the donation pathway is more like a mountain.

It’s not a Donor Funnel. It’s a Donor Mountain.

Our goal as fundraisers is to get our donors to the top of the mountain. The top of that mountain represents that macro decision, which is the ultimate goal of our fundraising experience.

The Donor MountainThe problem we face is that the donor starts at the bottom of the mountain, at base camp. In order to get them to the mountain peak – where they can actually see the impact their gift has – there’s a series of cliffs that they have to traverse. These small cliffs are the micro decisions the donor encounters on the way to the macro decision of donating.

For example, if I send you an email with the goal of getting someone to make an online donation, what is the first micro decision you need to make?

First, you have to ask, “Should I open?”

After opening, you have to decide, “Should I read?”

Then, “Should I click?”

Every step along this journey has the potential for a donor to say “yes” or “no.” If they say yes, they move one step closer to conversion. If the donor says “no” at any point, you’ve lost them.

So let’s look at how small changes can lead to great conversion – more people making it to the top of the mountain.

[experiment id=”187″]

How One Small Change Lifted Click-through and Revenue

Experiment #187

Before the George W. Bush Presidential Center officially opened, we ran an acquisition campaign to try to recruit founding members. Part of this effort involved the use of rented lists with an offer to make a charitable donation. The results were decent, but we wanted to find a way to attract additional traffic and, conversely, additional donors.

As a result, we ran a small test to increase the exclusivity of the offer in the mind of the reader.


George Bush Email – Control

TreatmentGeorge Bush Experiment- Treatment

Can you tell what changed? All we altered was one sentence at the bottom of the email.

The call-to-actions we tested were:

“Stand with President and Mrs. Bush by making a tax-deductible online contribution now.”


“Become a Charter Member of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.”

This small change presented an appealing and exclusive value proposition to the reader. A donor could give to any nonprofit organization and get a tax-deduction. But this was an exclusive opportunity to become a charter member of something that appealed to them.

The treatment produced a 139% increase in click through rate and a 42% increase in revenue.

Why don’t Best Practices work?

If we followed “best-practice” guidelines, we would have never seen this kind of lift. Most best-practices say that only 18% of people read to the end of an email. If this was a universal truth, this test shouldn’t have had any impact.

So what can we conclude from this?

Testing and optimization is the only way to truly know what works in online fundraising.

We don’t have to be the experts anymore. We can allow our donors to be the experts. They’re the ones who will tell us what works when we take our ideas to the market and put them to the test.

Published by Tim Kachuriak

Tim Kachuriak is Chief Innovation and Optimization Officer of NextAfter.