Maximising Online Donations (because something is better than nothing)

By Small Studio

Every two months the team at Small Studio picks an online user experience problem and sets out to fix it. Our first UX Fix focuses on maximising donations for not-for-profit organisations.


Our Fix will be for the fictional organisation Places for the Displaced. It organises and builds housing and infrastructure for people fleeing conflict.

If there’s one thing not-for-profit organisations constantly need it’s more money. They operate in one of the most competitive sectors, with high stakes and limited resources. NGOs have to innovate or miss out on the all-important cash.

Step One: Pick something to fix and define broad measures of success

We can’t spend forever on this UX Fix (we have bills to pay!) so this has to have a narrow focus, meaning our measures of success must be specific. If you’re familiar with the book Mastering the Rockerfeller Habits, you could call these ‘Critical Numbers’, and after this process we will have a handful of numbers to work with.

For the purpose of this exercise we’ve identified one measure of success:

Increase in donation revenue through the organisation website

Let’s break it down into more manageable sets of requirements.

  1. Increase in one-off donation revenue though the organisation website
  2. an increase in the number of donations being given an increase in the dollar amount of each donation an increase of recurring donations

These are still broad requirements, but we can sharpen them up with the help of some data we’re about to gather.

Step Two: Gather the Website Data

Our fictional organisation Places for the Displaced has had a website for a number of years, with Google Analytics running for most of that time. The organisation’s Accounts department gave us monthly breakdowns of the last financial year’s donations from the website. If this were real, we’d get Ecommerce Tracking up and running lickety split!

Here’s what our fake data tells us:

  • Most people were starting their journey to the Donation Confirmation page from the Donation landing page (and most of the traffic to that page came from organic search clicks).
  • The Donation landing page had an undesirable bounce rate of 76%
  • The number of users dropped significantly for each step of the donation process (which involved three pages and a visit to a third-party hosted payment gateway). Only 10% of users completed all of the steps to donate!
  • On the home page, most people were clicking through to pages which outlined the organisation’s projects and celebrity endorsements, few (5% of visitors to the page) were clicking on the ‘Donate’ button which was visible in the main menu
  • The most popular one-off donation amount was $20
  • One-off donations made up 80% of online revenue, leaving 20% in recurring donations.

We can interpret that data in one sentence:

We’re not convincing users enough to donate, and we’re making it too hard for those users who are on board to do it.

Step 3: Get those Critical Numbers: Applying the Website Data’s Insights for more specific Measures of Success

Now we know what we want to achieve, and we know how a bit about how users are behaving on our site. Here’s the list of Measures of Success again, with more specific requirements:

  1. Increase in one-off donation revenue though the organisation website
  2. an increase in the number of donations being given
  3. Reduce the bounce rate on the Donation landing page to less than 40% Increase the number of users completing the donation steps from 10% to 30%
  4. an increase in the dollar amount of each donation
  5. Increase the most popular donation amount to $50
  6. an increase of recurring donations
  7. Increase recurring donations from 20% to 30%

Step 4: Set Project Mantras

In order to make sure this UX Fix stays on track, we need to keep checking that we’re addressing the problem. Ben Hunt-Davis’s phrase ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ framed the English rowing team’s preparations for their Olympic win in 2000. We can apply the same principle here. By assigning tasks to each of our our Critical Numbers, we can turn those tasks into Project Mantras. We can then refer to these to ensure that any decision we make is the right decision:

  1. Increase in one-off donation revenue though the organisation website
  2. an increase in the number of donations being given
  3. Reduce the bounce rate on the Donation landing page to less than 40% — convince the user that giving a donation is worthwhile Increase the number of users completing the donation steps from 10% to 30% — streamline the donation process
  4. an increase in the dollar amount of each donation
  5. Increase the most popular donation amount to $50 — convince the user that the more they give, the more impact they have
  6. an increase of recurring donations
  7. Increase recurring donations from 20% to 30% — convince the user that recurring donations are better for the organisation and the user

All of these measures of success can be distilled into two project mantras:

Will it convince the user?
Will it streamline the process?

Step 5: Focus on Demographics to get the tone right and convert Visitors into Users

We’ve already looked at the bare bones website data, and know a few critical things about how users get to the site and where they drop off. That data, along with our Project Mantras, will help us a lot in how we design the user interface, but it’s not enough to improve the user experience. We need some hypothetical demographic data:

The majority of website Users are left-leaning, generous, moderately tech-savvy (they have personal Facebook accounts they use now and then) and live in the inner suburbs. Many catch public transport to work and 5% of them love Taylor Swift but don’t tell anybody about it.

These Users need to be converted from small spenders to bigger spenders, and should be encouraged to interact with the Places for the Displaced beyond the occasional website visit. (If this sounds a little cold, it needn’t be — you can get more out of a User and be nice about it. Plus, this is for charity, right?)

In addition to improving the yield from existing Users, donation revenue can grow by broadening the demographic of User base that can be converted to the cause. Rather than try and get everyone on board, we’ll focus on this type of Visitor (in order to turn them into a User):

The target conversion demographic is between 40 and 60, is sceptical about how charities spend their money, and is also reluctant to transact online. They see themselves as hard-working and contributing to society. They have higher disposable income than most. 45% of their children like Taylor Swift, and 17% know the words to ‘Shake it Off’.

With this in mind, our guiding principles in terms of the tone of the experience are:

  1. Be clear
  2. Don’t be overly emotive
  3. Appeal to the User’s sense of achievement
  4. Demonstrate the effectiveness of Places for the Displaced
  5. Don’t ask Taylor Swift to endorse the organisation, perhaps George Clooney is available

Step 5: Market Research

We’ve gathered all the data we need to clearly define what we want to achieve, and now it’s time to see what the competitors are doing.

For this UX Fix we researched five ‘competitor’ websites (are other NGOs really competitors?), and a few things leapt out at us:

  1. A number of websites’ donation processes are hampered by the CMS used — Organisations are required to work with existing eCommerce (shopping cart) software for donations
  2. Organisations seem to prefer set donation amounts
  3. While most strive to explain how donations are spent, only two offered breakdowns of where the money goes. Oftentimes there was a lot of text to try and convince the user of the value in donating
  4. There were no opportunities for the user to do anything but leave the page if they weren’t ready to donate

Step 6: Be open to Bonus Ideas and opportunities

A funny thing happens when you set about gathering requirements and data — in the back of your mind, connections are being made and ideas are percolating. Be open to those bonus ideas, and every now and then you can snatch one from the ether. When you get a good one, your UX project can leap from serviceable to amazing.

While we were conducting the market research an idea began to grow: What if we used the donation pages to focus on the User, and let them do something (anything!) based on what they were comfortable doing?

There are many places throughout the website to educate the user about Places for the Displaced’s programs. We can use the donation page to encourage rather than hector. We must still fulfill our initial requirements by addressing our Critical Numbers, but now we should be able to capture more from Users who may otherwise have gotten away. It’s a concept that we learned from Rework: Make use of your by-products.

The core of this Bonus Idea is to let the User have the opportunity to give time instead of money if they weren’t comfortable with slapping down the credit card. Essentially:

Something is better than nothing

The UX Fix

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

  1. Picked something to fix
  2. Gathered the data
  3. Set Measures of Success and attributed Critical Numbers to them
  4. Used our Critical Numbers to create Project Mantras
  5. Looked to our demographics to set the tone of the experience
  6. Conducted market research
  7. Found a Bonus Idea to try

Phew! After all of this we haven’t even started sketching yet!

The production component of our UX Fixes follows a fairly common process, so we’re not going to go into too much detail this time (maybe in our next Fix we’ll be more descriptive). Besides, I bet that by now you’re pretty keen to see something visual rather than read forever! Our production process is:

  1. Define the User journeys
  2. Wireframing
  3. Prototyping
  4. User testing
  5. Iteration and refinement
  6. Final build and deployment
  7. Checking site analytics to compare our critical numbers

Because this is a fictitious project, we’re only going to go so far along the production process. Below you’ll see the wireframes we’ve drawn up for the donation process from the Home page to the Confirmation page. As we completed this we considered the many ways this UX Fix could be extended, such as confirmation emails and responsive design. Perhaps you can contribute your own ideas and this Fix can grow for the benefit of non-profit organisations worldwide.

1: A small change with big impact — adding an obvious call to action outside of the main menu will make it easier for Users who have visited with donation in mind. Adding components on the home page increases the risk of too much noise, so copy should be minimal — Don’t take the opportunity to convince the User to donate, there are plenty of places elsehwere on the home page that serves that purpose.

2: A flyout main menu item lists each donation option, with the opportunity to tweak the micro-copy to better appeal to the target demographics.

3: It feels logical to give the user an early opportunity to simply enter a desired amount and go straight to checkout from the flyout menu. Why force an enthusiastic giver into taking another step?

4: Donation options are listed against each other much like comparison tables for software subscriptions. In this context Recurring Donations are pushed as the ‘premium’ option.

5: Language is very important when striking a balance between product differentiation and emotional impact.

6: While a real-world application of this requires a technical feasibility study, there is amazing potential to build a super-basic checkout for low-dollar value donations. The faster this process is, the more likely they will happen.

7: There are so many things a User can do even if they don’t feel like parting with cash now. Why not give them the chance to act then and there? It’s a win-win: The User still gets to feel good about contributing something, and the organisation has the chance to get back in touch with the User later on, when they may be more inclined to give money.

8: Never miss a chance to cheer on a User who’s completing a form — reinforce what the donation can achieve, it may give them the boost they need to fill in all of their billing details

Text: Paul Kotz Wireframes: Alex Mustakov Edited by Pepi Ronalds

Originally published at

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