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Best Practices Are Hurting Your Fundraising 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, over the course of 1000 experiments, we’ve discovered that best practices are not enough. We need to test our ideas using a rigorous scientific methodology in order to know what truly works to improve donor experiences and grow revenue online.

In my time as a marketer, I’ve been obsessed with a concept that is often used 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.

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 between 1 and 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 the 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 the mountain represents the macro decision making a donation, 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 greater conversion – more people making it to the top of the mountain.

How One Small Change Lifted Click-through and Revenue

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 email 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 convert additional donors.

We decided to run an experiment to try and increase the exclusivity of the offer in the mind of the reader.


George Bush Email – ControlTreatment

George 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.

You can view all the details of this experiment here.

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. In fact, we can’t be the experts. The only people who can tell us exactly what works are our donors. In order to listen to them, we have to take our best hypotheses, put them to the test, and look at real data to inform our decision making.

Where do you start?

One of the hardest parts of optimization is simply determining where to start. Do I test the button colors on my donation page? Do I try testing a new headline? Do I blow my whole email up and start from scratch?

There are two significant factors that I’d recommend testing around first: value proposition and friction. Value proposition is one of the most influential factors in helping a donor understand why they should give to your organization or make a purchase. And friction is everything that stands in your donor’s way, slowing them down, and distracting them from the ultimate goal.

We’ve got a quick PDF guide to help you determine where to start optimizing called The Nonprofit Optimization Guide. You’ll see just how big a of a difference small improvements to your value proposition can make. And you’ll see several examples of how to reduce friction on your pages to increase donations and revenue.

And if you’re really serious about learning to test, optimize, innovate, and grow your online fundraising – consider joining the next Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit.

Happy optimizing!

About Tim

Tim Headshot - Square - 400x400.jpgTim Kachuriak is the founder and Chief Innovation & Optimization Officer for NextAfter, a research and consulting firm that works with nonprofits to help them grow their online fundraising.

During his career, Tim has consulted major nonprofits including Wycliffe Bible Translators, Focus on the Family, Moody Radio, Family Life, The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and more. He frequently speaks at conferences including Social Media for Nonprofits, Association of Fundraising Professionals, DMA Nonprofit Federation, and more.

Tim is also the co-founder of Human Coalition and sits on the board of Open Doors, the Halcyon Movement, and SMU Digital Accelerator.

 Social Media

 Tim’s Twitter – @DigitalDonor

NextAfter Twitter – @NextAfter_

NextAfter Website – www.nextafter.com