Increase Online Donations In Four Steps

by Scott Paley

Here are 4 website improvements that, combined with a smart digital marketing plan, almost guarantee you an increase in online donations.

Most nonprofit websites aren’t as effective as they could be.

But there’s a good reason.

As Joan likes to say, nonprofits are messy. It’s in the DNA.

Frankly, when you have too many a lot of very passionate cooks in the kitchen; when you’re working on something very important with unmovable timelines; when every dollar you spend on a website is a dollar that doesn’t go directly to your programs… well… that leads to messy.

Add in the fact that few nonprofits have serious in-house digital expertise, and that mess translates to your website. Which impacts its effectiveness. Which means fewer donations, less advocacy, fewer people helped, less influence.

So how do you pull yourself out of this catch-22?

Here are four improvements your nonprofit can make to its website (along with examples) that, combined with a smart digital marketing plan, almost guarantee you better online results and an increase in online donations.


Ultimately, the goal of your website (usually) is to motivate people to take an action. It could be to take advantage of services, to put pressure on politicians, to make a donation, etc.

Take a look at your website and ask yourself these two questions.

  • What is the focus? Is it the structure of the organization? Or the actions visitors can take?
  • Who is the website is meant for? Service recipients? Donors? Other supporters? Board members? Is it clear and obvious?

If you were in need of services, does the website make it crystal clear how to do that? Does it trigger an emotional response that allows me to immediately understand, without having to think about it at all, why I should sign up to get services?

Or, if you wanted to support this mission, would you immediately understand why THIS is the organization you should support and why?

Does the site give people a strong feeling they can make a difference? Does it engender trust?

The website should be presented from the visitor’s point of view. What does he or she care about? Why is he or she there in the first place? It’s probably not to read an overview of “we do this” and “we do that.”

To increase online donations, your aim must be to help them see how their self-interest aligns with the goals of your organization. Don’t make it about you. Make it about them.


Peers’ website puts the focus squarely on those it helps – independent workers in need of portable benefits. It takes the point of view of the site visitor and is much less about Peers as an organization.


There’s nothing that does a better job of inspiring and engaging than great storytelling. But why?

It’s just how human brains are wired. People take actions based on emotion, and then justify those actions based on logic.

This is especially true with preconceived notions – a process called “motivated reasoning” – where your brain acts like a high-priced lawyer, successfully and unconsciously convincing yourself that the objective facts support your beliefs. Motivated reasoning is the reason why people are willing to fight tooth and nail to support their beliefs, even in the face of countering facts.

This insight can be used to your advantage on your website. In your messaging, think about what will push emotional buttons? What will trigger feelings like sympathy, outrage, loyalty, tribalism, caring, authority (pro or con), or humor? What language and visuals can you employ?

Studies clearly show that people are much more likely to donate when presented with a personal story rather than big group statistics. People identify with other people, not with abstractions. Make your stories individual, specific, and personal. Tell them well. Make them interesting, not wonky. 

Stories of your beneficiaries sets up emotional empathy. Stories about your supporters inspire action.

Example: Million Mom March

We saw this effect play out in a large way with gun control advocacy organization Million Mom March, our client, who was struggling with fundraising. So we created a “Tapestry of Woven Words” – a forum where people could express their thoughts and feelings. A high percentage of postings came from people who had lost a family member to gun violence.

On the same page we created the “Registry of Protected Children.” As people read the heartrending personal stories on the tapestry, they were given an opportunity to make a donation in the name of a specific child.

Did this increase online donations? Without question.

In fact, this proved to be the most successful and viral fundraising tactic on the site.


One of the oldest tricks salespeople know is that if you can get somebody to take an action, ANY action, you are much more likely to get them to take a second, bigger action.

This insight can be very useful for nonprofit websites. Getting site visitors to take simple actions like signing a petition, taking a poll, or subscribing to an email list is much simpler than getting them to make a donation, a much bigger commitment.

But once somebody has taken the smaller step they have taken the first step onto your “ladder of engagement.” It’s a lot easier to get somebody to take the second step than the first. 

So don’t go right for the big ask.

If you want to increase online donations, date before getting married.


vsGoliath (our client) is the advocacy initiative of Bend the Arc. The website focuses on the very specific actions people can take in the name of social justice issues like immigration reform, workers’ and voting rights, LGBT equality, and progressive taxation.

Because these actions are typically very simple, like “sign a petition”, they tend to do very well and get shared widely on social media. This allows vsGoliath to build a list of supporters they can tap into later for bigger movement-building. 


There’s always a temptation to cram in more options, more stories, more actions.

Nonprofits are particularly susceptible to this. It’s a consequence of having too many cooks in the web design kitchen.

Why limit what the visitor can do? Because when you give more than just a few options you run into the paradox of choice where people freeze and make no choice at all (or, rather, choose to leave your website entirely.)

This isn’t just about websites. A Columbia University study found that when it comes to company 401(k) retirement programs, the more fund options employees get, the less likely they are to sign up. This happens even when they would get extra matching funds from their employer!

Each additional action you offer on your website dilutes all the others. So clear prioritization is key. Remember, the more choices you give, the less valuable each choice is, relatively speaking. If your priority is to increase online donations, that needs to be your focus.

Also, remember that in general, people don’t read long text on websites – they scan. Instead of writing long blocks of text, use compelling headers, sub-headers, bullet lists, and images to make your point.


One’s homepage does a great job of focusing site visitors on just a few key action paths.

It’s certainly OK to have more than one. But you must prioritize the most important few and minimize the rest.


Now it’s your turn.

In the comments below, please call out nonprofit websites that you think are doing all four things really well. In a future post, I’ll put together a list of the top websites. Hopefully they can be an inspiration to all of us!

13 thoughts on “Increase Online Donations In Four Steps”

  1. We just launched a new website, I’d like to think it meets the criteria. The site is for a general audience and the focus is to sign up for our e-newsletter and view adoptable pets.

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t see a “donate” button on One’s website. How are they funded??

  3. Definitely a nice looking site! I’m only able to take a quick glance right now, but overall it’s good. A few thoughts:
    1) It’s not immediately clear to me that this is a nonprofit. Maybe it’s a men’s clothing store. I think somewhere in the top section there needs to be a statement that you help Baltimore-area men transitioning into the workforce. Think of way to explain how somebody can help in just a few words.
    2) Do you have stories of those you’ve helped? If you tell a compelling personal story right up front, you probably have me hooked. Then ask me to do something to help you.
    3) You ask for money almost immediately. If I’m new to the site, the only thing I know at this point is that this has something to do with men’s clothes. Why should I support you? Then it explains you had a fire (so sorry!) but still, are you a clothing store? Why should I give you money to rebuild?
    I hope this helps! By the way, I’m also in the Baltimore area. 🙂 Let me know if you’d like to speak further. You can contact me through the Abstract Edge website at

  4. From their website:
    “ONE is not a grant-making organization and we do not solicit funding from the public or receive government funds. ONE is funded almost entirely by foundations, individual philanthropists and corporations.”
    I used them as an example of “less is more” in order to spur action (in this case, not necessarily donation.)

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