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4 Reasons Donors Don’t Give to You that You Can Fix with Better Copywriting

Published by Nathan Hill

4 Reasons Donors Don't Give to You that You Can Fix with Copywriting image
 
Amy Harrison pictureGenerating traffic is only half the battle. Amy Harrison of
Write with Influence shares how you can write persuasive marketing copy that will help you get a donor from “No” to “Yes, I’ll give!”

Good copywriting is essential to optimizing conversions on all of your digital marketing campaigns. So today, we’re bringing you an excerpt from Amy Harrison’s 2018 NIO Summit session on “Getting Past No.”

If you’d like, you can actually, watch the entire session in the video below.

And if you want to be there next time for more high-quality, field-tested wisdom like this to optimize your digital fundraising success, sign up for the next Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit!

 

Copywriting: The Marketing Amplifier

People don’t do things because it’s the right thing to do. And they don’t do things just because they’re told to.

You’ve got to persuade them — and copywriting is the language of persuasion.

The rest of this post will look at 4 reasons why your ideal donor often says “no” to donating that can be overcome with better copywriting.

Here we go…

Why is your ideal donor saying “No”?

When you sit down to write copy, you’re probably thinking, “Why should the donor give to my organization?”

But that’s not the right place to start. It’s better to ask, “Why are they not donating?”

This starting question makes you more inquisitive and more critical of your copy. It helps you to eliminate the barriers that stop your donors from giving.

Here are the four most common barriers donors have to giving to you.

They can’t see your offer.

The first reason donors don’t give is because they can’t see the offer clearly. It may sound crazy, but the truth is there are a lot of funny things we do that hide our offer from the donor.

Often we try to be too clever with our words, passionate in our tone, or too emotive in our message. Donors get lost in it and don’t see what you’re asking them to do.

Don’t try to be mysterious or clever in your copy. Tell your donor what’s going on in simple language.

Take this email experiment for example. In the control email subject line, we’re trying to arouse the donor’s curiosity.

Email Subject Line - Control

But in the second email line, we get a little more direct and tell the donor what’s inside the email.

Email Subject Line - Treatment

It’s about the best stuff we’ve read this week. There’s still mystery, but the donor now knows what kind of mystery it is.

The second email saw a 26% increase in traffic.

The Danger of Ambiguity

Another way organizations inadvertently hide their offer is by being ambiguous, or as Amy puts it, “easy oasy.”

“Easy oasy” is the feeling you get when you read fundraising copy and it’s as if the nonprofit really doesn’t have an opinion on whether or not the donor gives. They could donate, or they could go do something else. “I’m easy oasy.”

Easy Oasy Copywriting example

Whatever. Give if you like. Don’t give if you don’t like. Either way, we’re fine. We’re “easy oasy”!

But do you see what happened in this experiment when ambiguity was removed, and the call to action was clearly articulated?

There was a 78% increase in conversions over the “easy oasy” control. Don’t hide your offer in ambiguity.

They have beliefs that make them say “No.”

People use false beliefs all the time to put off doing something. False beliefs include…

“This is impossible. My gift won’t do anything.”

“There’s no real urgent need, so I’ll give later.”

That’s why you’ve got to use your copy to address those false beliefs and show them why they’re wrong.

This is demonstrated in the results of an experiment we conducted with a public policy group that was gathering signatures for a petition.

The objective of the landing page was to thank the petition signer and persuade them to top it all off with a donation to the cause.

Donation Page Headline Control

In the control, the offer is clear, but it doesn’t emphasize just how much the donor’s gift will mean for the cause.

The donor may very well be thinking, “Great, I signed a petition. But what good will this do?”

So in the treatment, we ramped up the idea of what an individual donation can do right now. Instead of a basic “Thank you for joining the fight” headline, the treatment said “Thank you! Your signature at a time like this is critical for three reasons…”

Donation Page Headline Treatment

The new donation page that emphasized how critical the donor’s participation is produced a 125.6% increase in revenue compared to the control.

So tackle the false beliefs your donor might have straight on –and remove them one by one.

They don’t think what you do is important enough.

When a donor hesitates to give because they don’t think your work is important enough, it’s usually because the copy does not articulate the impact of what you do well enough. There are a few levels of showing impact in your copy.

Here’s an example of an organization that provides food to families in areas where disaster has stuck. First, they can show what their organization can do with the gift. For example, a donation of $35 can provide enough food to sustain a hungry family for a month.

Second, there’s the impact level of what the family is able to do when this basic need is met. Having this need met means the family doesn’t have to split up to find food. They can be together, comfort each other, and ensure each other are safe.

And lastly, there’s the final level of impact that shows the ultimate outcome for this family. The donor is providing peace of mind, less stress, and one less difficulty to sort out as they figure out what’s next.

All of this, for $35. And that sounds a whole lot better than just buying some cheap groceries.

Your copy needs to remind donors of the impact their gift can make using examples of each level of impact.

This increases desire in your donor to give.

They don’t trust you.

We live in a broken world with many nonprofits that mishandle donor gifts or simply aren’t able to make a significant impact with the funds they’re given.

Understandably, many donors don’t blindly trust the claims of organizations or businesses for that matter.

To get around this barrier, write copy that shows how you’re different than all those other organizations without calling them out or criticizing them.

Identify potential frustrations your donors might have with other organizations (that shall remain nameless) and show them why they can trust you to be different. We call this exclusivity, and you can read more about it in our research study on nonprofit value proposition.

One frustration many donors have is that organizations can be impersonal and corporate-like.

So in the experiment below, we took a standard email appeal and stripped away all the corporate branding and imagery. You can see in the test email that without all the corporate brand elements, the email looks more personal, like it came from a friend.

Email Template Example

Friends don’t use logos when they send emails. They just type.

The more personal email saw an 80.3% increase in traffic by addressing a common donor frustration.

You don’t have to go head to head with “competitors” and explain why your organization is better. You just have to identify frustrations and then show how your organization is uniquely equipped to serve your cause well.

There’s so much more! But I can’t fit it all into a single blog post.

Every speaker session from the 2018 Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit is available to you watch for free. These 16 speakers have tips and ideas related to search, analytics, data, copywriting, recurring giving, advertising, and much more.

About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan is the Optimization Evangelist for NextAfter. He spends every day working to help nonprofit organizations discover how testing and optimization can transform their marketing and fundraising, leading to greater impact and organizational growth. He is also a giant Star Wars nerd.


Set yourself up for online fundraising success this year-end with a free year-end fundraising course.LEARN MORE »

A Thanksgiving Lesson on Donation Page Optimization

Published by Nathan Hill

Thanksgiving Optimization Blog image

The centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal is the turkey. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably Googled “how to cook a turkey” in hopes of finding a step-by-step guide on how to cook the best turkey you’ve ever eaten in your life.

With searches like this, you find all sorts of ideas and opinions that often give you conflicting information. And how are you supposed to know which “best practice” is right for you?

  • Ways to Cook a TurkeyShould I bake the turkey?
  • Should I brine the turkey?
  • Should I smoke the turkey?
  • Should I deep fry the whole thing?

After 10 minutes of being overwhelmed with articles like “25 Ways to Cook a Turkey” (yes, there are apparently 25 different ways), we’re left planning to cook the turkey the same way as always – like mom used to make it.

But what if there is truly a best way to cook your Thanksgiving turkey? How could we go about proving that one way is better than another?

The answer is optimization. Not only can it help you cook a better turkey, but it can also prove what works to convert more donors and raise more money on your donation page.

My Thanksgiving Hypothesis

To get started, I need a hypothesis. A hypothesis should be an idea you have about your donation page, email, advertisement, or turkey that could help improve performance. My hypothesis is this:

Hypothesis: A deep-fried turkey will be more enjoyable than an oven-baked turkey.

After defining my hypothesis, I need to convert it into a research question – something we can actually measure and answer with data. If you’re optimizing your donation page, you might look at total conversions. With a turkey, you might measure how many people say “Mmmm…”

But an “Mmmm…” could mean a lot of different things. So let’s go with something more concrete: the number of post-turkey-dinner-naps.

Research Question: Which turkey will cause more people to take a post-turkey-dinner nap? 

Next, I need to define my treatments. Which turkey cooking methods (or designs, copy, form fields, etc.) am I actually testing? In this case, I have my control and one treatment:

Control: Oven-Baked Turkey

Oven Baked Turkey

Treatment: Deep Fried Turkey

Deep Fried Turkey

Running A Valid Thanksgiving Test

Before I get ready to run my test, I need to make sure that I’ve considered any environmental factors that could skew my results.

If you’re trying to test too many variables at once (design changes, form fields, copy changes, etc), you’re going to have a hard time knowing what variable affected your results.

In this case, my results could be skewed by someone eating more mashed potatoes than anyone else. Or maybe having one too many glasses of wine. In the same way, if I change both the headline and the design of my donation form, how will I know which change caused more conversions?

To ensure I get a valid learning, I need to make sure that all turkey-eaters have the same Thanksgiving spread. My personal go-to dishes include:

  • Thanksgiving MealMashed potatoes (with brown gravy)
  • Real cranberry sauce (not the gelatin kind…)
  • Stuffing (more savory than sweet)
  • Green bean casserole (not because I like it, but because it’s tradition)
  • And pumpkin pie (made with Libby’s pumpkin)

You’ll also want to make sure you’re collecting your data properly. Be sure to define what constitutes a nap before hand. Is it 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour?

On a donation page test, you’ll want to make sure your analytics tools are properly tracking donations for your various treatments, and that nothing is skewing your data.

Once you’ve considered and eliminated all validity threats, you’re ready to run your test.

Cook the turkeys. Set the table. Feast.

Determining the Champion Turkey

As the results come in, you’ll want to make sure they’re valid. You’ll need to have a large enough sample size (people eating your turkey, or visiting your donation page) and a statistical level of confidence of 95% or greater. If this is too much for you to calculate on a holiday, we have a free experiment validator tool you can use.

After plugging in your results, you may realize that your sample size is too low. In that case, you’ll want to grow your email file for next year so you can invite more people to your Thanksgiving meal. We have a resource for that as well called 6 Ways to Grow Your Email File.

Campaign Donation Page TemplateAnd if you wake up from your Thanksgiving coma realizing that you could use these same optimization principles on your donation page to grow your fundraising exponentially…we have just the tool to help you get started.

Inspire more generosity this year-end season by crafting a high-converting year-end campaign donation page. Download your free copy of the Campaign Donation Page guide with 21 ideas that you can test.

About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan is the Optimization Evangelist for NextAfter. He spends every day working to help nonprofit organizations discover how testing and optimization can transform their marketing and fundraising, leading to greater impact and organizational growth. He is also a giant Star Wars nerd.


Set yourself up for online fundraising success this year-end with a free year-end fundraising course.LEARN MORE »

Nonprofit Storytelling Science with David JP Phillips

Published by Nathan Hill

David JP Phillips - Optimization Insider

David JP Phillips, made famous by an incredible Ted Talk called How to Avoid Death by Powerpoint, was one of the most raved about speakers from the 2018 Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit.

After his talk, he sat down with Brady Josephson to talk about nonprofit storytelling and the science behind what makes an effective story.

You can hear David JP Phillips’s insights into nonprofit storytelling science in this episode of The Optimization Insider.

The Optimization Insider with David JP Phillips

About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan is the Optimization Evangelist for NextAfter. He spends every day working to help nonprofit organizations discover how testing and optimization can transform their marketing and fundraising, leading to greater impact and organizational growth. He is also a giant Star Wars nerd.


Set yourself up for online fundraising success this year-end with a free year-end fundraising course.LEARN MORE »

19 General Donation Page Ideas to Test

Published by Nathan Hill

Your general donation page (or main/primary donation page) is the cornerstone page of your online fundraising program. If someone organically visits your website with the intention of giving, they’re going to land here.

Visitors to your general donation page tend to have the highest motivation of any other online traffic source. With this level of motivation, you would assume a general donation page would have a 99% conversion rate. But in reality, we consider pages that have a 30% conversion rate to be successful.

This disparity leads us to a core question that I’ll try to shed some light on in this post:

“Why would a highly motivated donor who visits your donation page abandon the process before making a donation?”

What Does Google Have to Say About General Donation Pages?

The first place most people go to solve these kinds of problems is a Google search. Let’s see what “donation page ideas” are out there…

General Donation Page Ideas Google Search

Now, the first page results look something like this:

  • 12 Donation Pages That Don’t Suck
  • 10 Great Nonprofit Donation Pages
  • 28 Nonprofit Donation Page Best Practices
  • Donation Pages – Best Practices 2017
  • Etc…

There are a few common threads in each of these articles.

First, each article broadly assumes that there is one donation page to rule them all.

Second, there is no supporting data to back up why any of these “best practices” are better than anyone else’s best guess. Blindly applying these “best practices” is about as reliable as flipping a coin.

Third, these articles primarily address superficial design choices. None of them get at our core question of “Why would a motivated donor abandon the general donation page?”

The answer to this question is the most important distinction between a general donation page and any of the other types of donation pages.

Get Out of the Way!

A highly motivated donor wants to do one thing: donate. So anything we put between them and the donation button is friction that could knock them off the path.

So you’re saying I should just have a page with a super simple form and nothing else?

Well, not quite. Because there’s flip-side. As human beings that are constantly calculating risk, these highly motivated donors are also second-guessing their choice and looking for reasons they should turn back.

To combat this, we have to give our donors reasons to keep going and to complete their donation. We call this the value proposition.

So I need a simple page, with a clear value proposition about why they should give?

Yes! But the way you craft you value proposition on a general donation page is very nuanced. My friend and colleague Jon Powell likens it to the message in a fortune cookie. 

Fortune Cookie

Imagine you opened a fortune cookie, and your message read: “Tomorrow, you’re going to wake up with a brand-new car in your driveway.”

That fortune wouldn’t be believable, unless you happen to be heading to the car dealership after you finish your meal. It’s too specific to be believed.

Now, imagine your fortune read: “You’re about to eat a fortune cookie.”

That fortune is broad enough to apply to everyone reading it, but it’s not really a fortune. It’s just a statement of fact that tells you basically nothing.

What the heck do fortune cookies have to do with a general donation page?

Great question. And it’s one I asked of Jon when he first told me this analogy.

Don’t Make It Too Specific

The people visiting your general donation page have a high motivation, but the specific motivation can vary significantly. If your message (or fortune) is too specific to a particular campaign or initiative, it’s not going to apply to the vast majority of people considering donating.

They’ll come to your page, read your overly specific copy, and say “Oh, this isn’t for me.”

Don’t Be Too Broad

If your copy just says “Give a gift today” or has too vague of a value proposition (i.e. “A gift today will make a big impact.”), then you’re going to lose the donation. You have to provide real value statements about what a gift is going to accomplish.

How Do I Find the Sweet Spot?

Let’s go back to the fortune cookie. Here’s a great example of a fortune.

Good Fortune Example

As you can see in the caption, the original reader saw the application of the fortune because their wife was pregnant. The short stranger would be their new born baby.

But this same fortune could apply to anyone who might be considering getting a dog or a cat. It could be that someone meets a new friend who is simply shorter than they are. Honestly, you could make up a ton of different scenarios that work.

Your general donation page copy needs to work in the same way. It needs to be broad enough to appeal to the majority, and it needs to be specific enough to be believable.

19 Donation Page Ideas to Keep In Mind

Getting the copy right is the hardest part. And it’s something you’ll have to test to make sure you’ve hit the sweet spot.

If you want some quick wins that we’ve tested and proven over and over again, I’ve got a few tips for you too. (And yes, they’re all backed with data and research. I’ve linked up supporting experiments.)

  1. Intro Copy – It’s tempting to keep this vague, but your intro copy should make it clear immediately that a donation is a worthwhile investment. (150% Increase in Donations)
  2. Body Copy – We don’t want to get in the way of our highly motivated donor. So keep your body copy concise. (23.1% Increase in Donations)
  3. Videos – Don’t use a video or other multimedia content to explain your value proposition. Text conveys the message more effectively. (560% Increase in Donation with text-only)
  4. Transition Copy – Use a short statement to transition from the body copy to the donation form. (166.4% Increase in Donations)
  5. Header Exit Links – Keep your header simple. Don’t include any navigation links that would take someone away from the page. (195% Increase in Donations)
  6. Side Exit Links – It’s common to put links in the right column to other pages, but you should avoid this. Don’t distract your motivated donor with reasons to leave. (20% Decrease in Donations with Additional Links)
  7. Header Donate Button – Sometimes we’ll see a donate button in the header that jumps the donor immediately to the form. Don’t use these as they skip your donor right past your carefully crafted value proposition. (28.2% Decrease in Donations)
  8. Text-formatting – Make sure you text is easy to read. It needs to significantly contrast the background. (67.6% Decrease in Donations with Hard-to-Read Text)
  9. Suggested Gift Array – If you have a gift array, make sure you use big rectangle buttons rather than the tiny little circle buttons. (22.9% Increase in Donations)
  10. Multiple Choice Array – Gift arrays aren’t a guaranteed revenue booster. Make sure you test them. If you have a relatively high average gift size, an open field might be more effective. (125.9% Increase in Donations with Open-Field and High Average Gift)
  11. Up-sell Copy – No one wants to be up-sold. Using up-sell copy can make your donor think “They just want more money” and could give them a reason to abandon the gift. (34.5% Decrease in Donations with Up-sell Copy)
  12. Recurring Gift Selection – Don’t default to a recurring gift. This can feel deceptive, and no one wants to feel like they’re being deceived, especially when it comes to money. (56.7% Increase in Revenue when Single-Gift Defaulted)
  13. Input Fields – Keep it simple. Avoid asking for more than you really need. And arrange your essential fields to shorten the length of the page, rather than stacking them all vertically. (39.4% Increase in Donations)
  14. Phone Field – Keep the phone number field optional. A required phone field often decreases conversion rates. (42.6% Decrease in Donations when Required)
  15. Alternate Payment Methods – Test in to using alternate payment methods. PayPal almost always creates a decrease because it takes the user away from your page. And methods like Apple Pay may not make a difference in conversion at all. (65.3% Decrease in Donations with PayPal present)
  16. Verification Pages – Your donor should be able to complete their donation all on one page. If you have additional review or verification pages, your donor may think they’ve given after page 1 and leave before they’re finished. (121.5% Increase in Donations when Eliminated)
  17. In-line Reviews – Reviews are a great idea to establish credibility, but they don’t always help when they’re place in line with the rest of your copy. Make sure you test them, and try placing them in the right column. (48.5% Decrease in Donations when Used In-Line)
  18. Credit Card Input Section – Make sure your donors know your form is secure. Simply placing a box around the payment fields and adding a padlock icon reinforces this message, and can lift conversions. (14.4% Increase in Donations)
  19. Text Below the CTA Button – Add a little bit of copy right below your final “Make My Donation” button that reinforces the value of the gift. (31.3% Increase in Donations)

That’s a lot of donation page ideas. Do you have a template?

General Donation Page GuideWhat a convenient question!

We’ve outlined 19 elements on a printable poster that you can download for free, print out, and keep by your desk. We don’t like to call it a template because we’re always learning new things that can affect the performance of your page.

And more importantly, you should always test new ideas to see exactly what effect they have on your donors.

Use this free guide as inspiration the next time you’re dreaming up a test on your general donation page. Fill out the form below to get your free copy of the General Donation Page guide.


About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan is the Optimization Evangelist for NextAfter. He spends every day working to help nonprofit organizations discover how testing and optimization can transform their marketing and fundraising, leading to greater impact and organizational growth. He is also a giant Star Wars nerd.


Set yourself up for online fundraising success this year-end with a free year-end fundraising course.LEARN MORE »

What Does GDPR Do to Online Fundraising?

Published by Nathan Hill

GDPRThe hot topic of the day is GDPR. So I’ve been trying to do my fair share of research on what it means for nonprofits over the past month (yes, I’ve been procrastinating on getting up to speed).

Through my searching and conversations, the one consistent theme I’ve found is this:

No one wants to definitively say anything about the effect that GDPR has on nonprofits.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s an insane number of articles and pages that dive right into the weeds of the legal jargon. But the people able to interpret what that means for the average marketer or fundraiser are few and far between.

While we’re certainly not a legal expert on the ins and outs of what GDPR means for your organization, we are experts at putting the regulations to the test and seeing what impact it could have.

So we identified the express consent rules that GDPR requires companies and organizations to abide by, and put them to the test on a major nonprofit’s email acquisition page.

Let’s see what happened…

Putting GDRP to the Test

Part of the GDPR requires that companies and organizations obtain consent from a user in order to send email. Seems straight forward.

You may be saying (like I did initially) “Oh, that sounds like CASL a couple years ago. No big deal.” CASL actually allows you to get away with “implicit consent,” meaning that if someone downloads an eBook, signs up for a course, signs a petition, etc. – they have given you implied consent to email them.

GDPR requires express consent.

Simply put, express consent requires clear language and a check box. So on your forms, you have to specifically ask something to the effect of “Do you want us to email you?”

*Disclaimer – there’s a lot more to GDPR compliance than just giving consent to send emails. Here’s a pretty good high-level summary of everything it requires.

The premise of our test is around express consent. We wondered “Will asking for express consent on an acquisition offer affect conversions?”

What Did the Test Look Like?

GDPR ControlThe control (or the original version) landing page offered a free digital guide to the constitution. It was pretty straight forward:

  • Clear headline
  • Easy to read, bulleted copy
  • Clear image of the offer
  • 5 star reviews in the right column
  • A form collecting first, last, and email address

There was also a little checkbox below where someone could opt-in to a specific email newsletter. It looked pretty similar to our email acquisition landing page guide.

For the treatment (or the new version we tested), we made one tiny change. We added another little checkbox with some text next to it saying:

“By requesting the resource, I understand that I will receive access to the Guide to the Constitution and occasional updates from [Organization].

If the user checked the box, we could email them later. If not, well…we can’t.

And the Winner Is?

GDPR TreatmentYour gut instinct is probably right on this one. The GDPR compliant language decreased acquisition rates by 15%.

If you want to know more about why this decrease occurred, check out this article on the 7 types of friction. The reason is probably a combination of decision friction, field number friction, and maybe a little bit of anxiety.

So there’s good news and bad news here. I’ll start with bad so we can end on an optimistic note… (I’m an optimist by nature)

The bad news – This kind of drop in acquisition leads to revenue loss as well. If you aren’t adding as many to your email file, you won’t have as large of a file to ask for donations to your cause. Plus, you lose out on instant revenue from your instant donation pages.

And if you don’t comply, you could potentially face some pretty insane fines. There’s a lot of debate on how compliant you need to be if you’re not in the EU, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The good news – The likely scenario is that you have a slightly higher quality email file as a result of express consent. We often see that as friction increases, quality increases because only users with a higher motivation will make it the end of the acquisition process.

Motivation vs Friction

Here’s a post from Jeff on how motivation and friction work hand in hand.

The other good news ­– GDPR is not the end of all hope for fundraising optimization and growth. In fact, optimization and testing could potentially help get us to a place where these requirements don’t really make a significant impact on acquisition rates. Or at least not as substantially as a 15% decrease.

Here are a couple hypotheses that we could test on this GDPR compliance language to try and mitigate the decrease in conversion:

  • Make it less legalese sounding“Yes, I’d like to receive the Guide to the Constitution and other updates from [Organization].”
  • Add exclusivity ­“Yes, please send me the Guide to the Constitution and other insider updates from [Organization] to keep me up-to-date on the most pressing issues.”
  • Decrease additional friction ­– Remove the second checkbox for the newsletter opt-in to see if simply the presence of a second checkbox was the key element of friction.

Certainly, there are many more hypotheses we could test. And we will.

If you want to see more details from this experiment, you can read the full GDPR compliance experiment write up.

Other GDPR Resources

Our friends at Litmus have put together a few helpful resources that might help you figure out what GDPR means for your organization. Take a look at these for some additional insights:

  1. GDPR: What Europe’s New Privacy Law Means for Email Marketers
  2. 5 Things You Must Know about Email Consent under GDPR
  3. GDPR Re-permission Campaigns: 6 Tips for Making Them a Success

And if you want to enter full legal counsel mode…you can read the full text of the GDPR regulations.

About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan is the Optimization Evangelist for NextAfter. He spends every day working to help nonprofit organizations discover how testing and optimization can transform their marketing and fundraising, leading to greater impact and organizational growth. He is also a giant Star Wars nerd.


Set yourself up for online fundraising success this year-end with a free year-end fundraising course.LEARN MORE »

Even tests can become fundraising lore — so always go back to the data

Published by Nathaniel Ward

Like all marketers, fundraisers often work on pure instinct. How we solicit gifts and cultivate donors is often guided by assumptions, organization-specific mythology, and industry “best practices” rather than an evidence-based approach.

It’s easy to get trapped by our own assumptions. We humans aren’t very good at discerning what’s true from what’s not, and we often cling to assumptions even in the face of contrary evidence.

But there is a solution. We can use data and testing to constantly check our assumptions about what works with donors and make sure that what we think we know is actually true. That’s one of my chief roles at The Heritage Foundation’s Fundraising Innovation Lab.

When tests become lore

Even marketing tests can themselves become the stuff of myth. A decade ago, Heritage ran a two-year test to a portion of our donors who self-identified as social conservatives. We had an assumption about donor behavior and checked it in the marketplace—great!

The firm conclusion repeated around the office was that our existing practices are most effective. Unfortunately, the results of the test were never properly documented, which led to questions about whether this conclusion was real or simply reflected confirmation bias.

I dove into the data to find out what really happened.

Confirming fundraising lore

After the 2004 election, pundits argued that social conservatives had delivered the election to President Bush. Heritage hypothesized that we could drive more giving from this group by tailoring the message and tone of the fundraising messages we sent them.

Our traditional fundraising message emphasized fiscal issues and the role of government. Could fundraising language focused on questions of morality, family, and the like appeal more to social conservatives?

To test this hypothesis, we identified 70,000 self-described social conservatives among our existing donors. Over the next two years, half this group of social conservatives (the control group) received traditional Heritage messaging in the mail and online, and the other half (the treatment group) a more social-conservative message. The social-conservative messages were crafted by an agency that had successfully raised funds from this audience before.

Donors in the treatment group, receiving social conservative messaging, gave 22% fewer gifts and 26% less revenue compared to those in the control. While a handful of appeals during the two-year test weren’t adjusted in tone, a potential validity threat, it’s reasonable to conclude that adjusting our message and tone caused our donors to give less money less often.

Lesson: brand matters

In simple terms, the conventional wisdom about the test was confirmed: our traditional language worked best. But what could explain this? Why wouldn’t talking to donors based on their interests boost fundraising?

One possibility is that our social conservative appeals simply weren’t very compelling. On the other hand, these messages were crafted by an agency who had done considerable work with similar audiences in the past.

Another compelling possibility: by adjusting our message and tone, we effectively went “off brand” with our social-conservative appeals. We had set an expectation among our members about the message and tone we would use, and the new approach violated that expectation. Our brand, in other words, exists in the mind of the donor.

Testing trumps guessing, and data trumps intuition

At the end of the day, what works in fundraising isn’t a matter of opinion or conventional wisdom. It’s a matter of fact. And testing in the marketplace is the best way to confirm whether our assumptions about what works are true.

Equally important, however, is recording your experiments to make sure the results are properly understood in the future. Given our predilection for confirmation bias, it’s easy for a test result to reinforce the conventional wisdom even if it doesn’t!

About the author:

Nathaniel Ward

Nathaniel Ward

Nathaniel is the Counselor for Fundraising Strategy and Innovation at The Heritage Foundation.


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We’re celebrating a huge milestone this week…we’ve officially logged 1000 experiments in our online fundraising research library. But the number itself is not what we’re most excited about.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredible to be able to say to someone that we’ve documented 1000 experiments that are decoding what works to inspire more donations and increase generosity.

Ultimately though, it’s the learnings those 1000 experiments represent that get us jumping up and down.

Before I go any further, let’s just all take a moment to celebrate, because you’re an essential part of this too (more on that in a minute).

1000 Experiments Confetti

All right. Now that we’ve gotten that out of our system, let’s look at the experiment that put us over the edge.

The 1000th Experiment

The 1000th online fundraising experiment was conducted with Boys Town – an organization working to change how the world cares for children, families, and communities by helping those suffering from abuse, addiction, abandonment and violence to reach their potential.

In this experiment, Boys Town was running a Facebook advertising campaign to try and acquire new email addresses and grow their file. They were offering a free 5-week email series to help parents learn how to handle toddler tantrums.

The original ad used copy that we would consider organizational-centric. By that, I mean that the copy was focused around organizational goals, rather than the goals of the end user.

Here’s the ad:

Boys Town Control Ad

We created a new Facebook ad to test. This time, the copy was more donor-centric. Rather than say things like “We’ve pulled together…”, the copy used words like “you” and “your.” The value presented was focused on what the recipient would get out of it – not the organization.

Here’s the treatment:

Boys Town Treatment Ad

The goal of this experiment was to drive more traffic to the landing page where someone could sign up for the email series. To validate this experiment, we looked at clicks.

After running the experiment for 2 weeks, we compared the difference. The treatment ad (the one with donor-centric copy) saw a 27.7% increase in clicks to the landing page. The treatment was a clear winner, but what did we learn?

Empathy, Marketing, and Online Fundraising Go Hand-in-Hand

Whenever we run an experiment like this, we’re always looking for the larger principle. Every single experiment that we add to our library helps define and refine a bigger picture of what makes donors give.

This experiment points towards the idea of empathetic marketing. Let’s define empathy really quick:

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. – Dictionary.com

When we try to understand and share the feelings of our donors and potential donors, we start to see our copy, our messaging, our advertising, and every other marketing and fundraising channel differently.

In this case, by putting ourselves in the shoes of the people seeing the ad for the free email series, we realized that there wasn’t much value being communicated about why this offer was important and relevant to the end user.

By tweaking our messaging to be more empathetic, we saw a significant improvement in our results.

Empathetic Marketing - Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll of Markempa was the first person to introduce me to the term empathetic marketing, and he gave a talk on it at the 2017 Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit.

If you want to dig deeper, you can watch his whole talk for free.

This idea of empathetic marketing applies well beyond advertising. Over the course of 1000 experiments, we’ve seen this concept play out on donation pages, email fundraising, and more.

Lessons We’ve Learned from 1000 Experiments

Empathy is at the heart of nearly every major learning and breakthrough that we’ve found throughout 1000 online fundraising experiments.

Everything from crafting a more effective value proposition, to designing a higher converting donation page, to lifting revenue from your email appeals all points back to this central idea of having empathy for your donors.

I think you’ll see this trend if we look at some of the most significant learnings from these 1000 experiments:

Never Assume that Someone Understands Why They Should Give to You

The most significant factor in influencing some to click, sign-up, register, or donate is always the value proposition. If your donor doesn’t know why their gift matters, they’re not going to donate.

We’ve seen this play out in countless experiments, but let’s look at one that illustrates this very clearly…

In experiment #6623 with Illinois Policy Institute, their original donation page had virtually no copy on it. There was nothing to answer the donor’s fundamental question: Why should I give to you, rather than some other organization, or maybe not at all?

When our donation pages have no copy, we’re essentially assuming that the potential donor is already fully convinced that they should donate. But if your donation page conversion rate is anything less than 100%, this assumption can’t be true.

We tested this original donation page against a new one that clearly explained why a donor should give. The new page saw a 150% increase in donations.

Here’s a quick video breaking down the experiment:

Do you see how empathy comes into play on a donation page? We have to craft our page keeping in mind how the donor is perceiving it.

People Give to People, Not Email Machines

This is the golden rule we live by when it comes to email fundraising.

Just think about your own email habits. When you wake up in the morning and check your email on your phone, which emails do you actually want to open? The vast majority of the time, you’re going to open emails from real human beings that you know and trust.

Now, you might be saying, “Nathan, I live a healthy lifestyle and don’t immediately stare at my phone when I wake up.”

For that, I applaud you.

But the same concept applies when you get to work. Are you more inclined to open the email from your colleague, or the email that looks like it’s from a salesperson wanting you to buy a new tool or service?

People Give to PeopleThere are a ton of factors that go into the psychology of deciding which emails to open and which ones to delete. While we don’t have the time or space in this post to go into detail, Jeff Giddens held a webinar on humanizing your email appeals that’s really helpful in understanding how to break-through in the inbox, get your emails opened and read by motivated donors, and grow your revenue.

You can watch the whole webinar here.

If you don’t have time to watch the webinar, here are some tips to keep in mind next time you write a fundraising email. I’ve linked a blog post about each tip if you want to read more.

  • Build trust with your donors by using a personal sender name. Read more
  • Use personalization to help build a real relationship. Read more
  • Write enough copy to thoroughly explain your value proposition. Read more
  • Only use images if they’re going to strengthen the value of your appeal. Read more
  • Delete all of your fancy email templates. You wouldn’t send it to your friend, so don’t send it to your donor. Read more
  • Talk like a real human being, not a marketing robot. Read more

Are you seeing the trend? Email fundraising is about relationships. And healthy relationships require empathy.

No One Goes Online to Give. They Go Online to Get.

Some people really don’t like hearing this claim. Here’s what a fundraiser had to say when I made this claim in a Facebook ad:

Facebook comment

Obviously, people donate online. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have a job. So please hear me out before you rake me over the coals like this fundraiser….

The general reason people go online, particularly on Facebook, is to get something for themselves. This includes updates on family and friends, articles, blogs, news (fake and real), games, tools, resources, etc.

People don’t get on Facebook with the purpose of giving away their money.

As a result, using a channel like Facebook to try and convince someone to donate to your organization directly is most often going to be fruitless.

We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the user; we have to have empathy. Since a Facebook user is looking to get something, we can offer them something of value for free in exchange for an email address.

By doing so, we can get the user out of the Facebook timeline and create an opportunity to make a donation ask that won’t fall on deaf ears.

We’ve spent $3 million on Facebook advertising over the past 4 years, and conducted 300+ Facebook fundraising experiments to craft this donor acquisition strategy. And every single step is outlined in a free 11-session course called Turning Facebook Likes Into Donors.

This course so far has helped over 1800 fundraisers learn how to effectively acquire new revenue using Facebook and other similar channels. And none of this would be possible without the power of optimization, testing, and experimentation.

1000 Experiments is Great. But It’s Only a Starting Place.

NIO Summit Shirt“Adequacy is the enemy of excellence.” – Peter Drucker

We live by this quote at NextAfter. So much so that we put it on a t-shirt we gave away at the 2017 Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit (You should come to this, by the way).

1000 experiments is a great number, but we can’t stop here. There’s so much more to be learned. And in order to keep pressing forward and discovering what makes donors give, we need other fundraisers to embrace optimization.

The real power of 1000 experiments is not in the number itself. And it’s not just in the learnings. The power is in the people that it represents, day in and day out, who are testing and optimizing to discover what works.

And when nonprofits work hard to discover what works, the revenue growth that follows has the power to provide food to children around the world who are starving. It has the power to provide training and support to families that are trapped in a cycle of poverty. It has the power to provide health services and medication to people in desperate health crises.

Optimization has the power to change the world. And 1000 experiments is only the very beginning.

About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan is the Optimization Evangelist for NextAfter. He spends every day working to help nonprofit organizations discover how testing and optimization can transform their marketing and fundraising, leading to greater impact and organizational growth. He is also a giant Star Wars nerd.


Set yourself up for online fundraising success this year-end with a free year-end fundraising course.LEARN MORE »

5 Fundraising Habits to Stop in 2018

At the start of a new year, there’s a universal sense of resolve to look at our lives and consider what we’d like to do differently in the year to come. While it’s healthy to do this in our personal lives, it’s also essential to a healthy online fundraising program.

To help you hit the ground running with your online fundraising in 2018, I’ve outlined 5 unhealthy fundraising habits that you need to stop doing right now.

But a new year is also a time for new beginnings. So I’ve also included 5 proven tactics and strategies that you need start using this year if you haven’t already.

The Top 5 Fundraising Habits You Need to Stop 

1. Stop Using Heavily Designed Email Templates

Time and time again, our ongoing testing and research has shown that personal, humanized emails greatly outperform heavily designed email templates. People give to people, not email machines. So when an email looks like marketing that was sent to thousands of people, donors tend to ignore or delete it.

In experiment 7466, we saw a 19.7% increase in clicks by dropping the heavily designed email template:

How stripping out branding in an offer email affects clickthrough rate (Experiment #7466)

Control

Treatment #1

19.69% Increase to Clicks

2. Stop Using “Donate” Short-cut Buttons on Your Donation Pages

Not every donor visiting your donation page has actually decided to give. This seems like a generally understood idea, but most fundraisers create opportunities to short-cut donors right to the donation form.

The most common example of this is a page with a “Donate Now” button in the navigation that jumps the visitor right to the form. The problem here is that it lets the visitor bypass the reason why they should give, and decrease the likelihood of them actually donating.

In experiment 2107, we saw a 52.6% decrease in revenue when we used the short-cut button:

How creating a "shortcut" to the donation form affects conversion (Experiment #2107)

Control

Treatment #1

28.16% Decrease to Conversions

3. Stop Calling Your Donors “Friend”

The quickest way to let your donor know that you don’t actually know them is by starting your email with “Dear friend.” Nearly every email tool on the market today allows you to insert the recipients first name. And as it turns out, when we call our donors by name, our email performance improves.

In experiment 5707, we tested inserting the recipient’s first name and saw a 270% increase in clicks.

How first-name personalization affects email engagement (Experiment #5707)

Control

Treatment #1

270.07% Increase to Clicks

4. Stop Using Words That Every Other Organization Uses

If you were to go look at the donation pages of 10 different organizations, chances are that you would see several common phrases across all of them. Give hope. Stand with us. Join the fight.

Phrases like these are generic, and can apply to almost any cause. To improve donations, we need to communicate our message and the reason to donate in a way that is unique. The way that your organization solves a particular problem or fills a specific need is exclusive to you, and your copy should communicate this.

In experiment 5729, we saw a 134% increase in donations by using more exclusive value proposition copy:

How a radical redesign that reduces friction and increases the force of the value proposition affects donor conversion (Experiment #5729)

Control

Treatment #1

134.19% Increase to Conversions

5. Stop Using Donation Confirmation Pages

Once someone fills out your donation form and clicks the “Make my donation” button, that natural assumption is that they’ve completed their donation. Yet, many donation pages include a confirmation or verification page for a donor to review their gift before making it is final.

This extra step creates unnecessary confusion because most donors will click the “X” and assume their donation is complete – causing you to lose a donation without your donor ever knowing it.

In experiment 3712, we removed the verification page and saw a 175% increase in revenue:

How additional friction from a verification screen affects revenue (Experiment #3712)

Control

Treatment #1

175.62% Increase to Donations

The Top 5 Fundraising Strategies You Need to Start

1. Start Personalizing Your Emails

Personalization is more than just inserting a first name here and there. It’s about making the entire email feel personal to the recipient – as if you sat down and wrote an email specifically to them. This includes personal sender names, subject lines, and copy.

In experiment 4307, we saw a 137% increase in clicks by creating a more personal email:

How subject line personalization affects open rate (Experiment #4307)

Control

Treatment #1

137.19% Increase to Opens

2. Start Writing Emails Like a Human Being

It’s not always just the details of your email appeal that make a difference in donations. The tone of your email has a huge impact on the likelihood that someone will open, clicks, and respond. Use a tone that sounds like a human wrote it, rather than a brand or marketing machine.

In experiment 4171, we used a more personal tone and saw a 145% increase in donations:

How a personal tone affects donations in an email fundraising appeal (Experiment #4171)

Control

Treatment #1

145.5% Increase to Conversions

3. Start Writing More Copy for Your Donation Pages

Most fundraisers want to keep their donation pages short and sweet. Maybe this is because of the common notion that “people don’t read online.” Or maybe this is because some fundraisers just simply don’t know what to write.

Regardless of the reason why, testing says that using copy to thoroughly explain why someone should give to you will increase conversions and revenue.

In experiment 6623, we saw a perfect example of how more copy on a donation page increased donations by 150%:

How the addition of value proposition impacts donor conversion (Experiment #6623)

Control

Treatment #1

150.15% Increase to Conversions

4. Start Tracking Your Campaigns Properly

UTM MakerEvery time we start working with a new nonprofit partner, the first thing we do is look at all of the analytics and donor data to find where the greatest opportunities are. Yet, most organizations aren’t properly tracking their campaigns with consistency or accuracy.

Kevin Peters created this fancy little tool called UTM Maker that will make it super easy to track all of your campaigns back in to Google Analytics. Just enter your URL and a few pieces of info about your campaign, and it will generate a perfectly tracked link to make sure your analytics are clean.

5. Start Optimizing

Every learning in this entire blog post is a result of ongoing optimization. Every day, we’re testing new ideas and hypotheses across donation pages, email, advertising, articles, and more. And every new experiment leads to greater learnings and understandings of what works to raise more money online.

Make a commitment this year to start testing and optimizing your own online fundraising. And if you need help getting started, we’ve got a blog post that will walk through the steps of setting up your first experiment.

About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan is the Optimization Evangelist for NextAfter. He spends every day working to help nonprofit organizations discover how testing and optimization can transform their marketing and fundraising, leading to greater impact and organizational growth. He is also a giant Star Wars nerd.


Set yourself up for online fundraising success this year-end with a free year-end fundraising course.LEARN MORE »

How NBCF Utilized Mother’s Day to Extend their Reach and Build Their Brand

Published by Nathan Hill

National Breast Cancer Foundation – located in our hometown of Frisco, TX – was founded in 1991 by Janelle Hail. Janelle developed breast cancer in the 1980s, and during her journey with the disease, she discovered just how little information was available to her as a patient. This sparked a desire in her to help educate, support, and bring hope to women.

Today, NBCF reaches millions of women across the globe who are affected by breast cancer – helping to provide early detection, education, and support services.

National Breast Cancer Foundation LogoThe Problem

The biggest month of the year for the National Breast Cancer Foundation is October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this time period, it’s much easier to get people to talk about breast cancer and get people to donate to a breast cancer-related cause. This natural urgency and focus on the topic brings in a large amount of revenue for NBCF.

The problem is that it’s difficult to get the larger public to engage with the topic of breast cancer outside of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As a result, much of NBCF’s broad-based fundraising efforts outside of October focus on outreach, growing their email file, and building their brand.

They do this through hosting galas, online content marketing, free eBook offers, and more. But NBCF wanted to see if they could ignite the same sort of excitement and engagement they see during Breast Cancer Awareness Month at a different time of year.

The Plan

National Breast Cancer Foundation - Post ExampleJennifer Ilgen and the marketing team at NBCF developed the Honoring Moms campaign. This campaign took place around Mother’s Day, and focused on recognizing and honoring mothers who had been touched by breast cancer.

To do this, NBCF launched a Facebook ad campaign to get people to submit photos and a description of mothers they knew who had been affected by breast cancer. Those who clicked through the ad would come to a landing page where they could share the story of a mother they wanted to honor.

Following this ad campaign, NBCF turned all of the submissions into social media graphics and posts that they shared on Facebook and Instagram. You can view the full album of posts on their Facebook page.

The Results

NBCF had two main goals with this campaign. The first was to create momentum and social media engagement with their cause outside of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Their second goal was to increase the size of their email file.

The campaign had an organic reach of 177,000 people. This does not include the reach of paid advertising. They also added 280 new emails to their file from people submitting posts to honor mothers.

National Breast Cancer Foundation - Post Example 2Now, it’s often hard to look at metrics like “reach” and immediately see what value it adds. For many organizations, big reach numbers are exciting, but they have no means to convert it into something of tangible value.

In the case of NBCF, they have developed a robust content marketing program that relies on Facebook advertising to acquire new names and emails. So outside of the brand awareness and trust that big organic reach numbers can create, it can also be used for retargeting and building lookalike audiences to fuel further acquisition campaigns.

The Learnings

We selected NBCF’s Honoring Moms campaign for a 2017 Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Award for several reasons.

First, many organization get trapped in cycles of doing the same things over and over again with their marketing. But NBCF was able to recognize new opportunity and creatively engage new audiences outside of their typical marketing cycle.

National Breast Cancer Foundation - Best Social CampaignSecondly, this campaign wasn’t just a new and creative way for NBCF to talk about themselves. Instead, it was an opportunity for them to lift up others and show genuine care for those who have been touched by breast cancer. When we build others up, it naturally creates greater trust and affinity towards our brand.

Finally, NBCF was able to craft a campaign that focused on an emotional and personal response, rather than resorting to something more clinical or medical focused. This allowed for a broader conversation with greater appeal, leading to larger exposure for the NBCF brand. This also means that the names acquired during this campaign will have a stronger and more personal connection to NBCF, which should in turn lead to a greater likelihood to give later on.

About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan is the Optimization Evangelist for NextAfter. He spends every day working to help nonprofit organizations discover how testing and optimization can transform their marketing and fundraising, leading to greater impact and organizational growth. He is also a giant Star Wars nerd.


Set yourself up for online fundraising success this year-end with a free year-end fundraising course.LEARN MORE »

How Canuck Place Children’s Hospice Acquired More Donations by Building a Blanket Fort

Published by Nathan Hill

Located in Vancouver, Canuck Place Children’s Hospice has been serving terminally ill children in British Columbia, CA for more than 20 years. They offer a wide range of services for children and their families including medical and nursing care, recreational therapy, and counseling. 55% of Canuck Place’s funding comes from donations, so donor acquisition efforts are crucial to their impact as an organization.

The Problem

Public perception of Canuck Place is consistently positive – it’s hard to come by someone who doesn’t think serving terminally ill children is a good cause. In fact, a portion of their funding comes from the Vancouver Canucks and the Province of British Columbia. With this sort of public support, you might guess that fundraising would come easy.

But according to Elizabeth Moffat, the digital communications coordinator at Canuck Place, the topic of terminally ill children tends to shut down conversations. This makes finding and acquiring new donors difficult. If no one wants to have the conversation, how can you ever ask them to give?

They needed a plan to re-orient the way people viewed the work of Canuck Place – taking the spotlight off of terminal illness, and shifting it towards something more positive.

The Plan

To solve this problem, Canuck Place – in partnership with Capulet –  launched the Best Day Ever campaign. The core of this campaign was a giant blanket fort that they constructed downtown Vancouver. They invited the public and media to join them as they shared stories of how previous donations to Canuck Place had provided children with their Best Day Ever.

Watch the video below to see the Best Day Ever blanket fort:

Surrounding this event, they spent an entire month sharing Best Day Ever stories through email, social media, and direct mail. They sent cards that were drawn by a child to current donors thanking them for their support. Over 200 recipients responded back with their own cards, wishing the children at Canuck Place their own “Best Day Ever.”

They also set up a “Birthday Stewardship Program” in which they collected the birthdays of existing donors and visitors to their blanket fort. They plan to use this data share stories and ask them to give back on their “Best Day Ever.”

All in all, Canuck Place launched an integrated multi-channel campaign to re-orient the public’s view of their work. This way, when people think of Canuck Place, they don’t just think of sick children – they think of the joy and life that these children are able to experience through the generosity of others.

The Results

As a result of this integrated campaign, Canuck Place doubled their web traffic in May 2017 compared to May 2016. They collected over 200 email addresses – a big success for this size of organization. And throughout this campaign, they had a goal of reaching $10,000 in donations.

At the end of May, they had surpassed their online donations goal with $14,500 in donations. 20% of those donations came from first time donors. They brought in an additional $31,000+ from direct mail, and approximately $3500 from donations from school groups and at the blanket fort itself.

According to Elizabeth Moffat, Canuck Place received numerous comments of support and gratitude along the way, confirming that they had achieved their goal of shifting the way people viewed Canuck Place.

The Learning

This isn’t one of those campaigns you can perfectly copy and paste over to your organization. It wouldn’t make sense for everyone to go build a blanket fort in their downtown area. But the underlying theme in the success of this campaign is how your message affects your donor’s motivation.

Canuck Place didn’t fundamentally change the work they were doing to serve children – they just changed the way they demonstrated it. They invited their donors and their community to experience the value that they bring to the lives of these children. And by allowing someone to experience your value proposition for themselves, you can begin to shift their motivation and increase the likelihood that they will support your organization financially.

That’s why we gave Canuck Place Children’s Hospice a 2017 Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Award. They were able to 1) identify that people weren’t connecting with their value proposition in an effective way; 2) refocus their message in a way that brought in droves of supporters; and 3) convert their new-found supporters into emails, donors, and revenue in order to grow their impact.

About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan is the Optimization Evangelist for NextAfter. He spends every day working to help nonprofit organizations discover how testing and optimization can transform their marketing and fundraising, leading to greater impact and organizational growth. He is also a giant Star Wars nerd.