COVID-19 Marketing Strategy

Online Philanthropic Giving Increased 21% in 2020

By Sean Carton \ March 16, 2021

COVID had an immense impact on how much we spent, consumed, and gave in 2020. 

We’re all doing a lot more online these days. E-commerce spending nearly doubled in 2020, with spending reaching over $860 billion according to estimates by Digital Commerce 360. Besides buying a lot more stuff online, we’ve also been consuming a lot more online content, almost double what we watched in 2019 according to DoubleVerify’s estimates. And while numbers for all of 2020 aren’t in yet, Restaurant Insider reports that online takeout orders increased 840% from February to April 2020 for the entire US and a whopping 3,868% in large suburbs!

But lest you think that quarantine turned us all into binge-spending couch potatoes stuffing our faces with a non-stop stream of food deliveries, 2020 also brought a big increase in online donations. According to Blackbaud, online philanthropic giving increased 21% in 2020 compared to 2019, continuing an ongoing trend that has seen online contributions increase 32% over the past three years. All-in-all, online donations totaled almost $59 billion in 2020.

That’s a lot of clicks on the ol’ “give” button. But it could be more if fundraisers spent just a little more time paying attention to the usability of their websites.

Usability Basics

If you’re not familiar with the term, “usability” usually refers to all the things that make it easy to get what we want from websites, whether “what we want” is to buy something, find a new recipe, look up an unfamiliar word, or find something to watch during our downtime. 

While the aesthetics of the site do matter when it comes to whether or not people want to use the site, how the information on the site is organized, what navigation features it offers, the steps it requires users to take when accomplishing tasks like finding and purchasing products, how content on the pages is structured, and even how it handles unexpected problems and user errors are all parts that contribute to — or detract from — website usability.

While discussions about usability can sometimes descend into a morass of jargon, impenetrable abbreviations, or technical terms, the concept of usability isn’t all that complicated. In fact, if you’ve ever tried to buy something on a site where hitting the “back” button dumped you out of your shopping cart or struggled to use an “advanced” search to find what you’re looking for, you probably know plenty about usability (or rather non-usability) from your own experience. 

Usable websites just work, allowing you to spend your time accomplishing what you came to accomplish rather than struggling with an interface that seems determined to keep you from accomplishing anything. 

In fact, we’re a lot more likely to notice bad usability than pay attention to good usability because good design just works. As Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things points out, “Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible.”

How Poor Usability Can Kill Donations

Poor usability isn’t just irritating to your users. Bad usability can cost you a lot of money.

As a fundraising professional, you know you have a tough “sale” to make when it comes to soliciting donations. After all, unlike companies selling goods and services, your organization is asking people to give you money without the expectation that they’re going to get anything in return. Sure, giving might make them feel good about themselves or you may even hope that they feel like their gift is, in one sense or another, contributing to something tangible, but the link between forking over their hard-earned cash and what they receive is tenuous at best.

Because they’re not performing a simple transaction of money for goods or services they need to have a strong emotional connection to your organization if they’re going to give. In fact, much of what you do is working to build that emotional connection. You know that once they make that connection, once they become loyal to your cause, they’re likely to give.

But poor usability can get in the way of that connection. In fact, not only can it get in the way, it actively influences users not to give and, worse yet, it can actively turn them against your organization, turning them into people who are likely to turn others away.

In a study of how usability impacts customer loyalty, usability researcher Jeff Sauro looked at the correlation between consumer Net Promoter Score (NPS) and usability on a variety of consumer websites. What he found was pretty shocking, discovering that usability contributed to about one-third of the negative changes in customer loyalty. His explanation for these findings? It comes down to consumers interpreting their experience on the websites they visit as a kind of “stand-in” for what they’d expect from any interaction they might have with the organization behind the website. In short, if a site was easy to use people assumed the organization would be one they’d want to do business and recommend to others. “Over time,” Sauro concludes, “if people think your product is usable then they are more likely to use it, more likely to recommend it and you are more likely to sell it.”

While “loyalty” is a factor that has a long-term impact on donations, converting people from people who intend to give in to people who actually give is much more short-term, at least the first time they decide to give you their credit card information. And usability can have an immediate effect on converting visitors into donors. 

In their paper “Comparing the Effects of Usability on Customer Conversion and Retention at E-Commerce Websites,”  researchers from the National University of Singapore and Mahidol University found a direct link between usability and people actually making a purchase while on a website (conversion) and their intent to purchase again. “Usability,” they found, “ [explains] over 70% of variance of intentions for planned purchase as well as future purchase.”

While these two studies linking usability with both customer loyalty and purchase behavior focused on e-commerce sites, it’s not hard to see the link between usability and giving. After all, if people aren’t likely to buy something from a site they have trouble using, how likely are they to give money to a site that has usability issues? It turns out that they’re about 47% less likely to make a donation when encountering usability issues.

In a test of giving behavior of 23 not-for-profit websites in 11 different categories, the Nielsen Norman group found a strong link between usability and giving. Conducting a series of usability tests focusing on these sites they found that usability issues were what they called “donation killers” in almost half of the cases they examined. “47% [of the factors that thwarted donations] were usability problems relating to page and site design, including unintuitive information architecture, cluttered pages, and confusing workflow,” they reported. Even worse, the report found, many people couldn’t even figure out how to donate: “Amazingly, on 17% of the sites, users couldn’t find where to make a donation. You’d imagine that donation-dependent sites would at least get that one design element right, but banner-blindness or over-formatting caused people to overlook some donation buttons.”

The ROI of Usability for Fundraisers

Your website’s usability has a direct impact on your organization’s ability to raise money. If seventeen percent of people visiting your site can’t even find a “donate” button when they’re looking for one, it doesn’t require an accounting degree to figure out how much in lost donations those 17% represent. 

Let’s take a university annual giving campaign, for example. Blackbaud found that in 2020 the average online donation in the Higher Education category was $387. If your alumni annual giving campaign attracted 10,000 visitors to your website who arrived with an intention to give, potentially 1700 of them who wanted to give wouldn’t be able to give if they couldn’t find the donation button, amounting to a loss of $657,900 in potentially lost donations. That’s one expensive “donate” button!

Of course, the reality of fundraising isn’t quite so straightforward. “Average” donation numbers don’t always tell the tale, especially if you’re running a short-term campaign to raise funds for an immediate need or your average donations aren’t quite as generous as Blackbaud’s numbers might indicate. But even if improving your site’s usability only results in 10% of your visitors giving who might not have otherwise given, it’s not hard to see why a small investment in improving the usability of your site can pay for itself fairly quickly.

But that’s just in the short term. The longer-term benefits of good usability are perhaps even bigger, if somewhat harder to quantify. If, as Sauro found, poor usability can result in one-third of your potential donors not only going somewhere else but then bad-mouthing your organization to their friends via social media, the impact of a difficult-to-use site starts to snowball. Even if your site is turning off a small fraction of visitors, the total amount of lifetime value lost can be staggering.

Tips for Improving Usability

1. First, listen to your users. Making your site more usable doesn’t always mean a complete overhaul. Sometimes it can mean making some tweaks to make the “donate” button more visible or making a few changes so that it’s easier for users to figure out how you’re going to use their donations. Sometimes it does mean redesigning your site. It’s hard to know unless you actually talk to the people using your site. Comments sent to your general “contact us” email are a good place to start, but it’s often fruitful to tap some of your volunteers to ask their opinion or even take over part of a regular advisory board meeting to talk about the site. If you want a somewhat more objective opinion, hiring an outside firm to conduct usability tests can be extremely helpful.

2. Look at your analytics. If you’re using an analytics package like Google Analytics to track your website traffic, take a look at where people are leaving the site (usually indicated by “Exit Pages”). Also pay attention to the pages with high “bounce rates,” or pages where people enter and leave without looking at the rest of the site. If people get to your “donate” page and leave right away there’s a good chance that something on that page is turning them off.

  • Simpler is almost always better. Avoid the temptation to make your users jump through too many hoops when they want to do something. As much as it might make your heart glad to collect tons of demographic and psychographic data from donors when they go to make a donation or maybe download a report, the more barriers you put in the way of people doing something, the less likely they are to actually do it. 
  • Communicate! Usability guru Jakob Nielsen lists “visibility of system status” as his “#1 usability heuristic,” and for good reason: nothing drives away users faster than not knowing what’s going on. People coming to your site should always know what’s going on, where they are, and how to deal with any problems they might encounter. Nobody wants to find out that their donation won’t go through because they didn’t fill out part of a form on a previous screen or discover that they’re going to need some piece of information if they’re halfway through the process. 
  • Don’t make your users become detectives. If people have to hunt for the information they need they’re likely to go somewhere else. Make it easy for people to understand what your organization is all about and what you’re going to use their donation for. Don’t overcomplicate things: while you may have long internal discussions with your colleagues about the finer points of fund allocation or spirited conversations with board members about fine-tuning your mission statement, remember that you’re in the weeds because it’s what you do every day. Someone responding to an appeal or figuring out where to allocate their family’s charitable budget as New Year’s Eve looms ever closer isn’t going to be so concerned about the fine points. They want to get in, get the info they need to justify their giving decision, make a donation, and get on with their lives.

Finally, don’t forget mobile users! According to the annual M+R Benchmarks Report, almost one-quarter of donations are now made via a mobile device. How does your site look on a mobile phone? If it’s not responsive (adapts its design to fit the size of the screen it’s displayed on) then you may be losing a quarter of your potential donors and, worse yet, undermining your brand.

Sean Carton
Chief Strategist
Sean Carton
Chief Strategist

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.