CC-BY-NC Andy Cross

Giving shouldn’t suck

Written in collaboration with Ellen Chisa, Jesse Taggert, Yennie Lee, and Christina Xu.

Why is it that supporting a charity is so often a painful experience? Shouldn’t putting your hard-earned money towards a cause you believe in be pleasant, or at least neutral?

Why is dropping hundreds of dollars for an iPhone so much more delightful than spending half that amount of money to rescue animals or develop vaccines or relocate refugees?

Part 1: What giving feels like

Fact: In 2014, Apple earned more revenue than Americans donated to charity*.

Fact: In 2013, the average American household donated less than 4% of their income to charity**.

Nikki’s story: Donor Relations

During my yearlong giving experiment, I donated $1000 to the Humane Society of America on a friend’s recommendation. I really like animals (I’ve lived with cats, rabbits, rats, and the world’s most patient dog), so I felt pretty good about supporting the cause.

A few days after I sent in my donation I got a phone call. It was in the middle of the day, which was a little inconvenient. I happened to be working from home that day, so I picked up. The caller introduced herself as part of donor relations for the Humane Society. “I just wanted to personally thank you for your donation and ask if you have any questions.” Despite the terrible timing and lack of a clear agenda, I was pretty impressed.

The next week, I got a glossy mailer from the Humane Society urging me to donate. I was incensed — hitting me up for money a week after I’d given $1,000 felt insensitive and downright greedy. How much money did they think I had?

I started to get phone calls, asking me to join in conference calls about “animal rights issues” (it was never clear to me just what these calls were actually about). The paper mail kept pouring in, week after week. To this day, I regularly receive thick pamphlets and letters begging me for money. After months of junk mail, I swore that I’d never donate another dollar to the Humane Society.

Ellen’s story: Canvassers

I’d just finished an emotionally intense meeting, and decided to get a cup of coffee before leaving to calm down. I could see a couple canvassers across the street by the cafe. I didn’t really want to talk to them, but I overheard the girl saying she hadn’t managed to get anyone to donate and was feeling really discouraged. I hated not being good at something, and I didn’t want her to feel that way too. So instead of walking quickly by, I listened when she tried to open a conversation.

She was canvassing for the HRC (Human Rights Campaign). I’m a supporter of gay rights, but I didn’t have enough information to decide if this was the right organization to show support through. I thought that I could let her practice, have a nice conversation, and go home and contribute after doing more research. At the end of the pitch, I immediately went to my go to line: “I work at Microsoft and our contributions are matched — I’d rather do it through the system when I get to work.”

Showcasing my ignorance, she pointed out “well since we do political activism, we can’t be a 501(c)3.” Caught off guard, I stammered “err, oh” and she jumped in with “so will you make a recurring contribution?” I said no, feeling guilty. Why wasn’t I better informed? How was I supposed to know that political things weren’t eligible? I felt even more guilty about having started this conversation to begin with — was this more frustrating for her than if I had just walked by? As this spun through my mind she finally settled on “Well, will you at least give a one time gift today?”

I felt trapped. I felt bad for wasting her time, confused about why Microsoft’s matching wouldn’t work, and generally overwhelmed. So I said yes.

She had me fill out a really lengthy form — I tried to explain that she couldn’t possibly need all the information. My phone number? Why would anyone need that? She insisted that if I didn’t give all the information it messed up their data reporting, could be an issue with the credit card processing, and would get her in a lot of trouble with her supervisor. I relented.

The HRC started calling me the next week or so, asking for more contributions. I tried to ask to be taken off the calling list, but it always ended in long debates about when they could call again. I started screening the calls. For each number that I’d stop answering, they find a new one, with a new area code, and call from there! Even now, years later, they call. They really can’t take the hint.

At this point, I really wish I’d never given that donation.

Yennie’s story: Fees

My last few hours as a gainful employee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were spent in a giving spree — one where I stretched my pocket and forced myself to make contributions to non-profit organizations I held near and dear to my heart. I vowed to make as many donations as I could afford, after diligently balancing my monthly budget to calculate how much I could contribute. It was exhilarating and extremely validating to know that this would be my last activity at the organization.

As I was finalizing the last details of my contribution to my high school, diligently filling out the necessary fields for my billing address and double-checking my credit card number, then pressing the “Give” button, I was suddenly prompted to increase by contribution by 10%, to cover the processing fees of the donation. My euphoria was immediately deflated.

Here I was, making a substantial contribution to my high school, after carefully calculating the largest possible contribution I could make, only to be prompted after I went through all the motions, to make an incremental increase in my giving to cover operational costs. I understood why this was important, and eventually relented, but the experience left such an unsavory taste in my mouth. And, what’s worse, there wasn’t anything “round” about my contribution. In fact, my credit card was charged to the cent, and it just felt so lame.

These experiences are unfortunately typical. Organizations aggressively chase donors, leveraging dark patterns and psychological vulnerability to extract monetary support. Consider a few of the behaviors that we see in the case studies above:

  • Manipulating social customs and empathy to start, and then control, conversations with strangers. Preventing people from ending conversations by forcing them to break social norms and act in a rude/aggressive manner if they want to walk away.
  • Forcing absolute control over the donation process, often including practices such as writing down credit card and personal contact information for unknown individuals (canvassers), submitting credit card information over insecure connections, and mandatory collection of home and email addresses.
  • Expressing disappointment with the donations offered, aimed at causing donors to feel guilt or shame about the “stinginess” of their contribution.
  • Harassment after a donation has been made, even when the donor asks for contact to stop.

When individual people treat us this way, we do not trust, respect, or like them. Why should we expect this kind of behavior from organizations that are ostensibly making our world a better place?

Hypothesis: We have hit a local maximum for acquiring donors. There are other approaches to fundraising that we have not yet explored that are as good, or better, than current methods.

In other words, we have become as good as it is possible to be at bullying people into donating money.

Hypothesis: The methods that we use to engage donors actively discourage engagement. People continue to donate despite, not because of, the way they are treated.

Hypothesis: Leveraging positive emotions such as hope and delight is a more ethical and effective way to engage people with a cause.

The graph on the left looks like an obvious maximum, but it’s clearly not the highest point when you zoom out (shown on the right). CC-BY-SA Curtis Poe

Part 2: Some thoughts about design

My definition of design is deciding how a thing should be.

William Van Hecke

User Experience Design (UXD or UED or XD) is the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product. User experience design encompasses traditional human–computer interaction (HCI) design, and extends it by addressing all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users.


UX Design lies at the intersection of psychology, social sciences (such as sociology), fine arts and visual communication, and engineering. The goal is simple: create systems that are both easy and desirable to use. This is done by understanding the people and context that you’re creating for, and using that understanding to sculpt solutions.

Every interaction an organization and an individual have is designed — but that doesn’t mean that it has been designed thoughtfully. A well designed experience creates emotional attachments to brands; over time people develop relationships that motivate them to contribute to organizations they care about.

Cards Against Humanity made $71,145 by selling nothing for $5 on Black Friday. If a savvy for-profit can sell literally nothing, a charitable organization can sell the promise of a better future.

Some useful principles

Talking about design in the abstract is a useful introduction to the field, but it’s hard to take action on. Here are a few basic principles that don’t require a design degree to start using:

  1. Identity
    Humans participate in and belong to communities. Social psychology theory gives us two ways to categorize community attachments: bond-based (“I am friends with these people”) and identity-based (“This group as a whole represents my values and interests”). Identity-based attachments are more scalable, especially by organizations, and they also reinforce individuals’ personal identity (“I am the kind of person who ___”). This kind of attachment generates loyalty and inspires action. Give people ways to identify with your cause and they’re much more likely to help you.
  2. Social capital
    Social capital is just as useful a currency as fiat, and can often be spent in places where money can’t. Organizations can build their social capital by showing respect and engaging in acts of reciprocity. They can also grant social capital by allowing people to affiliate with their brand (of course, this does depend on the strength of the organization’s brand). People like things that make us look and feel like good citizens. Treat donors like collaborators — you do have a shared goal — and share the spotlight when you succeed.
  3. Choice
    Making decisions is hard work, and it’s easy to feel that we just don’t have enough information to make the right choice (especially when we’re presented with a large number of options). There are almost no completely unique organizations — anyone who is considering donating to a given organization has plenty of alternatives. Reduce complexity and show respect for the taxing decision making process that many donors go through.
  4. Nudging instead of forcing
    Our current approach to donors is all about twisting arms. This may work in the short-term, but it spends a lot of social capital and doesn’t build sustainable long-term relationships. Give people a way to back out, and think about it later. Donors are like cats — expressing interest and then letting them come to you is a much better way to make sure they like you the next time they see you. Be subtle but persistent, and give people time and space to change their opinions about you. Brand building is a long game!

Hypothesis: You don’t need to be a for-profit organization to build a strong, compelling brand that people want to be associated with.

Nonprofits can be well-loved, inspiring, globally recognized brands.

The payoff

What if people wore t-shirts with the logos of charitable organizations on them, because it made them look hip?

CC-BY-NC Armistead Booker

What if people gave to a charity because their friends couldn’t stop talking about how great it was?

What if they wanted to give? What if it was an act of love and joy and hope instead of an act of obligation?

Part 3: Taking action

Where do we go from here? How do we build compelling, and effective, donor experiences?

Fortunately, a lot of the problems with our current donor engagement models stem from not really putting effort into making the donor experience pleasant. We’ve been so focused on pumping every last dollar out of the people we’ve cornered that we have largely abandoned customer empathy.

Question your assumptions

If you truly want to innovate, you have to be willing to turn a critical eye on your current practices. What assumptions does your donor engagement model make? What data do you have to confirm or deny those assumptions? Who are you excluding by making these assumptions?

Donors are people, not wallets

Whatever your cause is, there are people that care about it. What do you know about those people? How are they different from you? How are they different from each other?

What motivates them to give to your cause? What do they hope will happen? What do they want from you? Do they want to get more involved in your organization? If so, in what ways?

If you don’t know much about design, you can use IDEO’s free field guide to Human-Centered Design as a guide.

Make a good first impression

The YouTube channel Unbox Therapy has a cumulative total of more than 410M views, including an Apple Watch unboxing video that has more than 1M views. People like seeing products being opened for the first time, because package designers have put a lot of effort into making it an interesting and delightful experience. The unboxing is the first real impression that a product makes on a customer, and they want to make sure that it’s a good one.

What’s the “unboxing” moment for your organization? Is it delightful? Does it inspire excitement and wonder? Is it something that a donor would talk to their friends about?

Fit into donors’ lives

Some people want to give money and then be left alone until their next donation.

Others want to get deeply involved with the organizations they support, providing not just money but skilled service.

Neither is wrong. Let the donors tell you what they want, and provide easy paths for both kinds of involvement. Making it easy for donors to define what type of relationship they want to have shows respect and builds trust.

Emphasize your unique strengths

Successful products tell a clear story about what they do and what’s great about the way that they do it. Like it or not, charities are a product too. An organization that communicates a clear story about its mission, and how it uniquely fulfills that mission, is going to be more attractive than one that doesn’t.

On top of that, transparency is important to donors, who have become increasingly skeptical over the years. Organizations that don’t clearly disclose how they work, especially how they use the money they bring in, are considered suspicious. Just because an organization is trustworthy, responsible, and effective doesn’t mean that outsiders perceive it that way.

Appendix: A few good role models

It’s easier to criticize than set a good example. Here are some organizations that do a great job building relationships with donors.

Haiti Babi

I first encountered Haiti Babi while I was doing 12 Months of Giving. My coworker Kari (disclaimer: Kari cofounded the organization and is on their advisory board) convinced me to donate, so I sent $1000 dollars their way. They sent me a beautiful thank you card from one of the women in Haiti that my donation had helped employ. It was a nice personalized touch.

Later that year I bumped into Kari in the hall. She asked if I was going to their fundraising gala — and then surprised me by making a point of mentioning that it would be free for me. “You’ve already donated” she said, as though it was obvious that I should get a free ticket. As we talked further, she explained that she viewed the gala as a way to celebrate everything that Haiti Babi and its donors had achieved together (remember the paragraph about community identity?).

Every step of my donor experience with Haiti Babi felt designed to make me feel good. The website was beautiful, and explained in straightforward terms why the organization was trying to achieve and how I was contributing to that. The handwritten card was both pretty and a meaningful keepsake. The gala invitation was respectful and inclusive, an open hand welcoming me into a community.

Haiti Babi hasn’t sent me a single piece of solicitation since I donated to them.

I think about giving money to them them far more often (and seriously) than any of the dozen or so organizations who send me mail every month.

(It may be relevant to this story that Kari is an interaction designer.)

Charity: Water

Charity: Water’s branding is iconic, and their donor engagement is brilliant. They explicitly call out their no-overhead policy for handling donations and provide an interactive map of all of the wells that they’ve installed on the front page of their website — because their donors care about this information.

Even better, Charity: Water gives every visitor a direct path to community membership through their birthday campaigns. This allows people to get involved far beyond just giving their own money (something donors care about more and more) and allows them to directly affiliate themselves with the Charity: Water brand. The organization gets substantial visibility through the campaigns that their donors run on their behalf; it’s a win for both parties.

The entire experience is perfectly curated to feel effortless, shareable, and confidence-inspiring.

It’s not surprising that the organization’s founder has been profiled by Forbes, Inc., and Fast Company.

Still need more examples of great engagement?

  • The Obama campaign used social media to connect people and make it easier for volunteers to kickstart grassroots campaign efforts
  • Kickstarter reported in 2013 that 60% of the funding for projects came from repeat backers, and as of today more than a third of their users have supported multiple projects (the mean number of projects supported by a repeat backer is 5.5)
  • More than 30% of the money that Americans donate goes to religious organizations — churches do an excellent job of fostering community

* This statistic is for individual Americans. That is, actual people and not corporations, foundations, and so on.

** These statistics are based on itemized tax returns. It’s not clear exactly what effect this sampling method has on the average, but it’s more likely to have artificially boosted the average than to have lowered it.