Optimizing Irrational Decisions – How conversion optimization helped a nonprofit increase donations by 274%

Atul Tandon, a veteran nonprofit marketer who has been instrumental in taking World Vision from a $350 Million dollar organization to over $1 Billion in annual revenue, once said, “Donating is an irrational decision.” And he’s right.  If you think about it, when you donate, you give money to an organization and receive no material benefit in return. In fact, in most cases the benefit usually goes to someone else. 

But there is a benefit to the donor. That benefit, however, is much more difficult to define, and it depends on who the donor is and what’s motivating them to give. Some give out of a sense or duty or responsibility. This is typical of the older generations of donors, while younger donors need to be inspired in order to give. They need to know that they will be making a difference.

These nuances make nonprofit marketing very challenging, but also very rewarding. The products that must be sold are things like ideas, vision, belief, purpose, and meaning.  This is why messaging is so critical to nonprofit marketers.

Donating Shouldn’t Feel Like Buying

The psychology of giving a gift online is the exact opposite of the psychology of ordering a product online. When you order a product, you are willing to jump through a series of hoops, because at the end of the day, you are going to get your book from Amazon.

When you buy something online, the benefit comes after the transaction. Making a donation online is the exact opposite – the benefit comes before the transaction. You give because you have been blessed, inspired, compelled with a vision of how you can change the world.

Because the benefit is intangible and comes to the donor before they actually give the gift, there is a very small window of opportunity before the donor gets distracted, frustrated, or even annoyed by a long, drawn-out “check out” process.

Speaking of check-out process, that is exactly what an online donation should NOT feel like. When you give a gift online, you are not checking out – you are responding to an appeal for support.

It’s All About Communicating a Strong Value Proposition

Most conversion rate optimizers agree that the strength of your value proposition has tremendous impact on conversion. When visitors clearly understand the value that your product or service will provide, and why you are the best choice to meet their needs, they will be more likely to buy.

The same is true for nonprofits. The more effectively you communicate the impact that a donation will have, the greater your conversion rate will be. But with nonprofits, there is another dynamic at work. A donation doesn’t have a price – you can donate whatever amount you “feel” is appropriate to meet the communicated need. So, in theory, the greater the value proposition, the greater the donation amount.

How The Heritage Foundation Increased donations by 274%

In a recent experiment with The Heritage Foundation, a DC-based nonprofit think tank, we aimed to discover just how influential the value proposition is at increasing average donation amount. We did so by testing a treatment landing page (focusing heavily on the value prop) against the original donation landing page.

In doing so, we created probably one of the ugliest landing pages I have every seen. It took a lot of courage to present it to my client.  When I did, I think he threw up in his mouth a little.

The page had a very simplistic single column, long-form design, and the donation form was buried at the bottum of the page. After many adult beverages, and perhaps my best sales pitch ever, I finally convinced the client to proceed with the test (he is a brave, brave man!)

The results shocked us:  274% increase in revenue!

Here’s what the original landing page (control) looked like:


Click to view a larger version of the control landing page.

Here’s what the treatment looked like: 


Click to view a larger version of the treatment landing page.

As you can see, the treatment is laser-focused at communicating the impact of the donation (the value prop) and building momentum for the actual conversion goal = the donation itself. The focus on value naturally affected the layout and structure of the treatment.

Main take-aways

The main thing, we learned from this experiment, is that communicating a strong value proposition may prove to be even more powerful at influencing average donation amount than conversion rate.  The average donation went up by 189% with this new treatment, while the conversion rate went up 74%.  These two factors combined to create the 274% lift in revenue.

What we have concluded is that when you convey a strong value proposition, and you communicate that value proposition with a tremendous force throughout the landing page, not only do people say “yes” more often, they say “yes” on a much higher level – they don’t just donate, the donate more dollars.

About the Author: Tim Kachuriak is Chief Innovation and Optimization Officer of NEXT AFTER, a fundraising think tank that helps nonprofits optimize the donation funnel through applied research.  You can read more case studies and articles about nonprofit online fundraising optimization on Tim’s blog at www.DigitalDonor.com

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