3 Signs You May Be Turning Off Donors and 3 Science-Backed Ways To Do The Opposite

by Emily Snoek


There are lots of ways to make mistakes in the design or execution of your nonprofit website. Other articles suggest that antiquated website design, not being mobile-friendly, and having confusing navigation are all ways to turn away potential supporters. We agree.

But science, and specifically the science of decision-making (or behavioral economics), has something to say about this too.

3 Assumptions You’re Making That Could Be Turning Off Donors

Here are some mistakes you might not know you’re making–that lots of other nonprofit websites are making too!

1. Assuming a rational argument for supporting your nonprofit is enough to engage visitors. It’s often not. People can be irrational. And this is particularly true when they’re thinking about charitable giving. All the data you have to support your nonprofit’s mission may not be enough to attract the average visitor to become a donor. But asking someone to support your cause in a way that makes them feel a certain way (sad, lucky, generous, etc.) targets how humans process most quick decisions and experiences, with System 1 Automatic thinking. Asking someone to analyze a rational argument for supporting your cause targets humans’ System 2 Reflective thinking. Research has shown people donate more when they’re thinking automatically, which means making only a rational argument can be a mistake.

2. Assuming everyone cares about your cause for the same reason you do. A one-size-fits-all communication strategy can fall short. Sure, you need a landing page for your nonprofit website. But can you personalize the experience for people landing on your website from an email link? Perhaps you could offer different stories for people interested in your cause for different reasons. For example, take a nonprofit that is focused on saving birds. Some people might be specifically interested in this nonprofit because they love birds, but some people might just like wildlife in general. If you knew who was who, you could tailor their website experience to their interests.

3. Assuming a professional tone of voice is a necessity. A professional tone of voice can feel very detached to website visitors. People don’t help organizations, they help people. If you only include a professional tone on your website, visitors may not get a good feel for the people who run your organization or the impact you make. Research by ideas42 demonstrated that communicating in a more personal tone of voice can increase donations.

3 Science-Backed Ways To Do The Opposite and Win Over New Supporters

Here are three tried and true insights from behavioral economics that show how you can use people’s tendencies toward irrationality to increase their support for your cause, all through your website.

1. Use the identifiable victim effect. Most donors respond more to stories than facts. Foundations and grantmakers want hard data, but your average donor doesn’t care that much. Sure, they want to be certain you’re successful and that their money is going to do good in the world, but you should use anecdotal stories to prove this to them. Dozens of research studies back this up. People donate more when they are shown one identifiable victim. Take a look at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s website to see how they leverage the identifiable victim effect to achieve their mission. The children’s individual stories, like Jordyn’s above, are sure to tug at your heartstrings.

2. Use pictures and color to your advantage. We’ve all heard it–a picture is worth 1,000 words. Pictures of an identifiable victim are worth maybe 100,000 words in the attention-grabbing game. But even if you don’t have an identifiable victim you can strategically use color and graphics to draw people’s eyes where you want them to go. One small thing you can do is make your Donate button stand out! NextAfter has done several studies that demonstrate the visibility of your “Donate” button has a huge impact on revenue. Why? Pictures and contrasting colors capture our System 1 Automatic thinking; our brains are experts at comprehending images.

3. Be real. Be personal. Is a well-respected celebrity supportive of your cause? Harness the authority bias to motivate visitors through their personal voice. Another concrete step you can take to attract new supporters is making your own team more real and personal! Consider adding photos to your “team” section, or at least personalizing your “contact us” page. Instead of having info@organization.com be your catch-all email inbox, make it a real person’s email address. What feels more personal to you? Getting an email from alice@organization.com or noreply@organization.com?

Many nonprofit websites make similar mistakes, most of which are based on mistaken assumptions that unfortunately repel visitors instead of attract them. Combat these assumptions at your own organization by using the above techniques that are informed by behavioral economics and backed by research. If you’d like more insight into how behavioral economics can be incorporated into your website design, contact us today.


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