24 min Read
April 12, 2017

Fundraising Trends from 2016 you won’t want to miss

Big Duck

Daniel Buckley,  a Senior Strategist here at Big Duck, examined over a hundred of the top nonprofits’ websites, digital campaigns, and emails at the end of 2016 to determine the most interesting trends in online fundraising and their implications for 2017. In case you missed his webinar, we’ve transcribed it here.

“At Big Duck we tend to start working on the year-end season with our clients in September or August. Our philosophy is that it’s never too early to start planning for year end. We’ll also talk about tactics that are becoming more and more common, and specific ways to increase your fundraising. What we looked at—just so you don’t think that we pulled this out of thin air—during December of 2016 I spent time looking at 120 of the best nonprofits on the web.

Going to, this is an organization that maintains a lot of really great lists that are great resources to see what other organizations are doing. I went through the top 100 nonprofits on the web as well as the 20 best nonprofit websites, 2016 edition. In addition, I of course looked through a lot of email at year-end time. Like most of us, especially in a nonprofits space who are following a lot of different organizations in addition to donating to the organizations that we care about, I received a very high number of emails at the holiday season and learned a lot by looking through those.

So, why are we here? This question may feel fairly obvious to most of you, but it does deserve addressing. Of course, online fundraising is increasing every year at a decent pace. It’s still pretty far behind direct mail in terms of the percentage of funds that your program likely accounts for, but as direct mail slows down and starts to decrease, then online becomes more and more important, that trend is eventually going to reverse itself.

There is the factor, of course, that if we are focusing on year-end, we have to acknowledge that 29% of giving occurs in December, with 11% of giving occurring in the last three days of the year. This is a stat from Network for Good, and just to note, this is the 2015 stat. Network for Good has not yet released 2016 numbers, but I do expect that the numbers will be roughly similar. Also, we should note that these are online numbers, but we do know that offline can be following a similar track.

Talking about trends, a few to consider: The people want mobile. Now if any of you attended this webinar—the version of this webinar that I gave last year—you’ll remember that this something we talked about then. This is one of those things that every single year we’re going to be talking about—the increase in the influence of mobile. It only accounts right now for 17% of online giving, but as you can see here, the percentage just keeps on rising and rising.

Like in many cases, especially in the online world, the nonprofit world is lagging just behind e-commerce. E-commerce and the not-for-profit world is always a bit more advanced than nonprofit for a number of reasons. Just for a point of comparison, if Q4 of 2015, 17% of e-commerce happened on mobile devices and in Q4 of 2016 it was 21% on mobile devices. Nonprofits being a bit behind, part of the reason for that is that most likely, while many, many people will visit your website on a mobile device, the percentage of web traffic that have it on mobile versus desktop is a lot higher once they decide to give or take some action, a lot of people migrate to desktops.

That said, probably a good chunk of those people are migrating to desktops because they do not experience a good donation process on a mobile device. They get to a form, it does not feel friendly, so on a so forth. This is another argument for making the point to improve your mobile fundraising process. Improve the mobile presence for your organization so that you can get closer to the e-commerce end of the spectrum.

Also, we’re seeing over time more and more nonprofit organizations are investing in digital advertising. Of course, the most common form of digital advertising for a nonprofit organization is a Google ad where at the end ad which nonprofits received Google grants for. I believe that typically a Google grant for their SEM platform is $10,000 a month, so free money to the advertising online. Never a bad idea to go for.

On the social media space, it’s primarily Facebook that we are seeing organizations end up being on. Of course, there are other social media channels as well as search engines that there is digital advertising on. We do have Bing, which does have a good degree of web traffic as well as ads on Twitter and Instagram, however it’s really Google and Facebook where you’re seeing more money being raised, though organizations are using digital advertising for really the range of communications that you can imagine an organization having including advocacy and simple awareness raising.

Also, I would like to note that the cost per dollar raised for the nonprofit industry as a whole, there’s a lot of estimates on there that vary greatly, but I did find one estimate that was as low as four cents spent for one dollar raised, which I find difficult to believe, but it does indicate if there is that estimate out there, there probably are a lot of nonprofit organizations that are doing quite well with their digital advertising.

The next trend is that we are less engaged. This is one of the big reasons why you’re seeing more investment in digital advertising. Now, there has been a trend for a number of years now that the level of engagement on social media networks is decreasing. Now, I did see one report that implies that that trend may be plateauing, but it’s something to put serious attention to and to really consider. If it’s difficult to reach people, investing more in order to make sure you’re reaching people is going to be a necessity eventually.

Also, one of the effects of this trend is that for a while a lot of nonprofit fundraisers were putting more and more attention into social media, which was detracting the attention that they were putting into other channels. With engagement going down, nonprofits are again shifting more of their attention in online fundraising to email which has remained by far the biggest fundraising channel for nonprofits online.

Another trend which we still keep on seeing year after year is that Giving Tuesday continues to be a high performer. Just about every year people talk about, “Is this going to be the year that Giving Tuesday stops seeing such incredible growth and starts plateauing?” Every year we find out that that’s not the case. The lowest year over year increase Giving Tuesday has seen since it was founded was actually a 36% increase, which as all of you know with nonprofit fundraisers is pretty damn high. In 2016, we saw a 44% increase, so Giving Tuesday is definitely not going anywhere and really still seems to be increasing by leaps and bounds.

This chart that you see right here is online raised by dates of funds raised for a long-time client of Big Duck. As you can see here, Giving Tuesday was actually by far the biggest day for fund raising for them for this entire campaign. It’s well above even the December 31st level. Of course, not every organization is going to see this, and this was the first year that this organization conducted a Giving Tuesday campaign. That was certainly a factor, but more and more we are seeing with every organization that we work with—that Giving Tuesday tends to be the biggest day for gifts. An average gift tends to be a little bit lower, making it generally not the usually the biggest day for funds raised, but the biggest day for individual gifts.

That brings me to the end of the major trends that I wanted to highlight. I’ll move in now to some specific tactics that you might use. Some of us take advantage of these trends and others are simply tactics that we’ve noticed have been increasing, which implies, of course, that nonprofits are seeing success with that. The first tactic I’ll go into really reflects another trend that is a factor in most of the tactics that we’ll review. That’s that the nonprofit industry as a whole took a big step forward in 2016 towards more aggressive and disruptive online fundraising practices.

Now, while that sounds bad, the point is that the more that you disrupt someone’s online experience and bring their attention to a fundraising app, the more funds you’re going to raise. There’s simply no way around that. Disrupting that experience gets you more dollars, just like asking more raises more.

The first tactic that I want to highlight is lightbox has got a lot bigger this year. This example of a full screenshot of NRDC’s website shows you that this lightbox took up really about 75% of my screen. You can still see the website on either side of it. I saw more and more lightboxes that looked like this, which fills up my entire screen. You’ll notice that you can see my website tabs, so you know that I keep way too many tabs open on my computer which slows me down. One way that you can see that this is a lightbox is that if you look in the upper right corner, up on the American Diabetes Association lightbox, you’ll see a small gray X. That shows you that this is a java script lightbox that popped up when I went to this webpage. It takes up your entire screen. It makes it so that there is no scrolling to other information, and really pushes you to make that gift.

Another way that organizations are doing this is that they’re simply redirecting traffic either to their homepage or throughout their entire site to a fundraising ask. This is a Mozilla landing page that was live during December that features the first step of a donation form. The only way that you can tell that this is not a lightbox, so it’s the only way the you can tell that this is different from the American Diabetes Association example, is that in that top right corner you see a link that says, “Continue to” It’s not an X that you close a window and still remain on the same page, they’ve actually redirected.

This is really a technicality, but just one with a highlight that there is two different ways that organizations are really trapping you when you first go to their site and really pushing all of your attention onto that fundraising ask. Part of a number of the organizations that conducted these kinds of redirects actually simply put the entire donation form as their landing page. You really can’t be more upfront than that about what you want your supporters to be doing.

I didn’t see this with a lot of organizations, but last year I only saw a single organization do that in 2015. That was Conservation International, which Big Duck produced their 2015 year-end campaign.

We saw this tactic used by a single organization, as I said, last year, Conservation International. This year we saw really a handful of organizations doing this. Last year we went through the same list to look at 120 different organizations, so it is noticeable that from one organization to a handful, that’s definitely a trend. This organization that we see right here is Corporate Accountability International, another Big Duck client.

Again, I mentioned that I conducted this webinar last year after the holiday season. For those of you who attended the last version of this webinar, you may remember that one of the biggest trends that we saw was that nonprofit websites were placing a relatively small banner all the way across the top of their pages. There was typically a banner that would stay at the top of the site when you would scroll down. Sometimes it would stay at the top of the site no matter where you went on the website. That really, really dropped off. Those banners were about the height of the green bar that you’re seeing here on the Kiva website. It really trended down, but the organizations that were still doing it took up a lot more space. Again, another reflection of nonprofit organizations getting a lot more aggressive.

Here we have the Audubon website. While this looks like it could be a takeover or a lightbox because it fills your entire screen with a fundraising ask, this is actually just the homepage of their website. It has scrollability and more content below that. The fact that they have taken up the entire screen with this graphic image that focuses you really on a specific ask or specific bit of information is definitely a trend that we’ve seen in websites as a whole and with nonprofit websites in particular. It’s not a year-end trend, but just a general website trend.

What I wanted to highlight here is just the sheer number of asks that the Audubon Society puts on their homepage. Even though they’ve taken up the entire screen, this first button that you see on the left-hand side includes language, “Dollar for dollar match,” so obviously drawing your attention to their year-end massive fundraising campaign and asking you to give. Over on the right there is a another button that simply says, “Donate now.” Of course, in between them, “Join” and “Renew” are both links to donation forms.

Below that we have the call out over the image highlighting the year-end campaign, giving you a bit more information and asking you to give. Still below that we have a full banner stretching across the bottom of the homepage, or at least the bottom of the first screen that you see with an ask to match my guest. That is a total of six individuals asks on a single page.

What we have here, is really a variation of the idea of the lightbox. This is a pull-out bar from the side of the screen, that when you landed on the homepage, scrolled out to get your attention with the movement as well as with the amount of space that it takes up. This is a tactic that I’m really not seeing a lot, but I saw it on the same two websites last year as I did this year, so it must be working pretty well. You can see the sidebar here on the Planned Parenthood website and the Brooklyn Academy of Music also uses this tactic. It’s an interesting take. It allows them to present the entire donation form in a way that still feels very engaging and attention-getting. That tab, you click on it to close it, but the tab remains on the side of the website throughout your experience there. They have these tabs on their site throughout the year, but during big campaigns they will be set to automatically open.

Going back to one of the trends that I highlighted is digital advertising. We are, of course, seeing more and more organizations advertising on Facebook, on Google, on Bing, and so forth. This is a tactic that eventually, within a few a years, I believe, the nonprofit industry as a whole is going to be investing in. Eventually all nonprofits, they’re going to find that this is going to be a necessary strategy for them to continue raising more funds and to continue acquiring new donors.

That said, I would not recommend that you simply jump into this and say, “I have to do as much as I can because there’s this trend of it being harder to reach more people.” I recommend with digital advertising—as I would with really any strategy or tactic—that you approach it with a crawl, walk, run, and fly approach. The crawl stage would be you have a Google grant and maybe you’re investing in a few Facebook boosted posts. Now, a boosted post is a form of advertising. It’s not the Google ad that you see showing up in your sidebar or within your newsfeed. It is a post that is actually published on the nonprofits Facebook page and then invested to increase its reach either with people who have viewed the page already or to similar people or the friends of the people who like the page.

The targeting options are a lot broader if you are doing typical Facebook ads that allow you to target people based on their likes, based on their behavior, based on demographic information. Boosted posts tend to perform very well. It’s a tactic that you can raise money in by just investing $50 even for a single boosted post. From there, if you’ve gained experience in the crawl stage, moving to walk would really be investing in a real campaign of year-end Facebook ads. That is a single step, but it’s a fairly big step because in Facebook advertising you have the ability to test content or conduct A/B tests between campaigns, which may be testing between different contents, it may be testing between the way that you’re targeting, but it provides you with the ability to improve your campaign as you go along, which implies that it needs a lot more attention.

You would launch two campaigns, which will run against each other. Measure it for a period of time. Once you’re confident that one of the versions performs significantly better, you either simply go with that, or you then pick that and test it against another variation in order to keep on improving. It’s something that requires a good amount of resources.

Moving from there to the run stage. Again, I would just recommend a single step from there, and that is investing in paid SEM marketing through Google. The reason why that is such a big jump, even though you may have already had a Google brand, is that—not surprisingly—the Google logarithm optimizes for paid ads. If you’re paying for the ad, they want you to perform better, so they’re going to make sure that you’re appearing higher in searches than a grant is going to appear. I have a theory, which has never been officially confirmed, was that part of the reason other than the tax deduction that Google gives out these very generous grants, is that then increases the traffic and use of their ads which then will drive up the cost for their ad.

Moving on from there to the fly stage, from paid SEM you can add a stand building ad on Facebook similarly to what I described with the year-end fundraising campaign. That can be an iterative process that you’re conducting A/B testing on throughout the year and also consider adding remarketing. Remarketing is when you go to a nonprofit website and then leave that site, you then see ads for that non-profit either on Google or on Facebook, whichever channel you decided to do remarketing for. Organizations we know more, of course, e-commerce companies do this, but organizations that are doing remarketing simply if you go to their website, or “for cart event,” meaning that the term comes from e-commerce that you’ve added an items to your cart, but you haven’t completed the order.

For a nonprofit that would translate to you went to their donation form but you didn’t complete your gift. That can be a very, very strong tactic especially because nonprofit donations forms generally only see a conversion rate of about 19 or 20%, so meaning only about 1 in 5 people who click on a link usually that explicitly says, “Donate,” or says, “Please give us a gift,” only 1 in 5 of those people actually leave a gift. Whatever happened to disrupt their experience or to change their mind, that is a very warm process.

Now, I bring my focus to email. I saw fewer new things happening with email this year, but one of the most prominent ones was in uptake and receipt style emails. This isn’t something that seems to have picked up in a really big way, but certainly made a jump. I believe last year I only saw one of these. This year I saw a handful. With these receipt style emails, it presents the giving as something that is expected and something that they are implying, “We are reminding you to do this thing that you said that you’d do.” There’s a strong implication that you’re supposed to be giving.

This is a very aggressive tactic, and you will see higher unsubscribe rates. If you use this tactic, you may even see a good number of people emailing to complain or even picking up the phone and calling you. Before investing in this tactic, you really have to consider how risk-averse your organization is. You have to know that while you are going to see the uptake in negative response, these emails tend to raise a lot of money. It’s a gamble and an investment, that you can say that they’re worth because of the funds raised, or argue that it’s not worth it because of the negative response.

I tend to side on that if it raises such a significantly more amount of money as I have seen them do, that it is worth it. Most people who may react negatively are going to forget about it eventually, especially if you’re only doing it once a year. Again, you have to consider the culture of your organization and how comfortable with more aggressive tactics your nonprofit is.

The other trend that I noticed on email, again, was not a huge trend, but a similar uptake. I saw it once or twice last year and I saw it a handful of times this year, are emails that are still html emails, but are coded to look like plain text emails. What this does is break up the flow of the campaign, inserting this more plain text, personal feeling email, which seems more like an email that somebody just typed up on Outlook or in Gmail and sent directly to you. It inserts that into its series of emails that are going to be the more typical, highly designed email templates than a nonprofit typically uses.

Now, I actually did an A/B test of this for a client of ours this past year, and that is this email that you’re looking at. It’s for PPMD, Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy. It’s an organization that works on Duchenne, a specific form of MS that tends to affect younger boys, also girls, but it affects youth. Typically, you only live until your early 20s. It’s a very heartbreaking cause, and one that Big Duck cares about a lot. I conducted an A/B test of this email against a very, very similar email on their standard, highly designed template.

Now, I saw that the two version performed pretty much exactly the same. When you’re doing A/B testing, more often than not, you’re not going to get statistically significant results that tell you you should have a high level of competence that one version of what you tested is better than the other. More often than not, you’ll get directional results that show you, “Oh, well this one performed kind of notably better, but not specifically significantly, so.” That is the reason why when you are testing something new, you generally want to test it a certain number of times. If you’re testing an A/B test of a webpage, you can simply leave that up until the results are statistically significant.

With email you only have that one shot for that one test. You generally want to test on even as many as five or six times before you determine which direction to go in. Just an example to give you to illustrate why that’s important: I’ve actually conducted a series of tests for one client a few years ago in which all of the results were statistically significant, but they were evenly split with two of the emails showing that version A was the best and the other two showing that version B was up with that. Even though you see statistically significant results, it may not mean that that really is always going to be the best tactic. You have to test multiple times over time to confirm that the trend that you’re seeing is real.

That is the end of my presentation. We left the functionality open for you to ask questions, so please do type in any questions if you have them. I see that one person has already asked one question and that is, “Have you seen any good examples from Giving Tuesday in which the national office and chapters or affiliates are participating in the campaign in a coordinated way?” Basically, to restate that, it’s asking if I’ve noticed any chapter-based organizations doing Giving Tuesday well?

That’s not something that I specifically looked for. It didn’t pop out at me, so unfortunately, no, I don’t. That’s a very good question, particularly because chapter-based organizations often have a lot of challenges coordinating not just their tactic campaigns, but even their overall brand and communication. There’s a definite trend within national chapter-based organizations towards tightening that reporting structure to give more authority to the national office. That may be something that you’re seeing less now. I would certainly be interested in seeing how well chapter-based organizations do this and prescribing to a national office and a couple of chapters to see how closely aligned they are. That’s a great question and I wished that I had a better answer for you.

I have one more question now. That is simply to explain what a lightbox is. A lightbox is when you go to a website, you see the page that you intended to land upon for a split second. Then the screen grays out to a certain degree and another window slides in, pops up, so on and so forth, with a specific ask or a specific piece of information. You then have the ability either to click and take the action requested or to select the ask or outside of the lightbox to close it and continue your website experience as you had intended it to be.

Now, if that still sounds confusing, the most common example that I’ve used that everybody seems to remember and understand is on Facebook. I believe this is still how the Facebook functionality works. If you’re say in a photo album or somebody posts a photo to your feed, and you click on the image to look at it larger, the screen will gray out, and the image will load in a separate window so you can look at it at a full size. That’s another example of a lightbox.

I’m not seeing any more questions, so I will move on. I wanted to just note at the very end just a few resources that hopefully can help you in your online fundraising as well as specifically for your year-end campaign. The first is that, of course, Big Duck is here for you. We conduct regular webinars and workshops many of which like this one are free. We also, of course, have limited availability for full campaign strategy and implementation. Meaning, if you don’t have the resources to conduct your own campaign, or at least at the level that you would like them to be, Big Duck is here to provide you with an optimized campaign that will meet really the standards that you’re looking for. I can say I’ll personally guarantee that.

We do also have the Big Duck log. Here I’ve included a collection of specific log codes that are focused on fundraising. I’d like to recommend you take a look at one of them. Of course, I wrote it, so I’ll promote myself. Sorry. Stop looking at how much you raised. That’s something that I feel very strongly about, the postings have gotten a pretty good response. The idea of being that many non-profit fundraisers get too distracted by the big numbers of how much they raised, and they’re not looking at the trends year over year. Take a look at that. Take a look at are other posts and anything that you find on our blog. Please feel free to tell us what you think. Make a comment or to reach out to let us know if there’s anything that we can help you with.

Thank you again for attending the webinar. I certainly hope that you found this useful and that you have left today with at least one new strategy to tactic that you intend to implement on your next campaign. Thank you.”