Non-profits would collect much more from their websites if only they’d clearly state what they are about and how they use donations. Our new usability studies revealed considerable frustration as potential donors visited sites and tried to discern various organizations’ missions and goals — which are key factors in their decisions about whether to give money.

In 2008, non-profits got about 10% of their donations online, according to a survey by Target Analytics. Given the high growth rate for Internet donations, we estimate that they’ll constitute the majority of donations by 2020. If non-profit organizations get their sites into shape, that is.

Well-designed non-profit websites are particularly suited for attracting new donors and efficiently supporting small-scale impulse giving. Websites are less effective at sustaining long-term donor relationships. For encouraging customer (or donor) loyalty, e-mail newsletters remain the Internet tool of choice.

User Research

To discover how to design non-profit websites to encourage donations, we took our usual approach: we empirically observed actual user behavior as potential donors used a wide range of sites. In total, we tested 23 non-profit websites, chosen to cover a range of categories:

Type of Non-Profit Websites Tested

Animal Rights & Welfare

National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS)

Paws with a Cause

Diseases & Disorders

Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis

Nancy Davis Foundation for Multiple Sclerosis

Environmental Conservation

Environmental Defense Fund

The Conservation Fund

Food Banks & Food Distribution

New Hampshire Food Bank

Seacoast Family Food Pantry of NH

Human Services

American Red Cross

Habitat for Humanity

International Development

Action Against Hunger

Bread for the World Institute

Heifer International


Corcoran Gallery of Art

National Gallery of Art


Mission America Coalition

The Interfaith Foundation

Wildlife Conservation

Defenders of Wildlife

Wildlife Alliance

Youth Development

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

Boys & Girls Club of America

Youth Education Programs

Children’s Scholarship Fund

“I Have A Dream” Foundation

Most of the sites represented major national non-profits, but we also tested some smaller, local charities.

We tested two tasks:

  • Choosing a recipient: Participants used two non-profit sites within a given category and decided which of the organizations — which had roughly similar missions — was most deserving of a donation.
  • Making a donation: Using their own credit cards, participants made an online donation to the chosen charity. We reimbursed users for this expense after the study.

We recruited a broad sample of test participants, ranging in age from 20–61, with a roughly equal number of men and women. We included users with relatively little Internet experience (at least 1 year), as well as those with more experience (at least 3 years). Job titles spanned the alphabet, from attorney and bank assistant vice president to microbiologist, police office, small business owner, and teacher.

We screened out users who hadn’t made at least one donation to a non-profit or charity during the preceding year. While there’s a first time for everything, we wanted to test people who actually exhibit the behavior we were studying.

What Donors Want

We asked participants what information they want to see on non-profit websites before they decide whether to donate. Their answers fell into 4 broad categories, 2 of which were the most heavily requested:

  • The organization’s mission, goals, objectives, and work.
  • How it uses donations and contributions.

That is: What are you trying to achieve, and how will you spend my money?

Sadly, only 43% of the sites we studied answered the first question on their homepage. Further, only a ridiculously low 4% answered the second question on the homepage. Although organizations typically provided these answers somewhere within the site, users often had problems finding this crucial information.

As we’ve long known, what people say they want is one thing. How they actually behave when they’re on websites is another. Of the two, we put more credence in the latter. We therefore analyzed users’ decision-making processes as they decided which organizations to support.

In choosing between 2 charities, people referred to 5 categories of information. However, an organization’s mission, goals, objectives, and work was by far the most important. Indeed, it was 3.6 times as important as the runner-up issue, which was the organization’s presence in the user’s own community.

(Information about how organizations used donations did impact decision-making, but it was far down the list relative to its second-place ranking among things that people claimed that they’d be looking for.)

People want to know what a non-profit stands for, because they want to contribute to causes that share their ideals and values. Most people probably agree that, for example, it’s good to help impoverished residents of developing countries or patients suffering from nasty diseases. Many organizations claim to do these very things. The question in a potential donor’s mind is how the organization proposes to help. Often, sites we studied failed to answer this question clearly — and lost out on donations as a result.

What Kills Donations

In addition to observing what “closed the sale” for charities that attracted user contributions, we also analyzed the turn-off factors that caused charities to lose out, even after users had spent considerable time on their websites.

The donation-killers:

  • 47% were usability problems relating to page and site design, including unintuitive information architecture, cluttered pages, and confusing workflow.
    • 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.
  • 53% were content issues related to writing for the Web, including unclear or missing information and confusing terms.

Integrating Local Chapters with the National/International Site

Missing or confusing information aside, the worst user experience erosion in this study was caused by heinous integration of local chapters with the higher-level organization.

As mentioned above, users wanted information about a non-profit’s activities in their communities, but the experience of actually visiting local chapter websites was stunning. Typically, such sites looked completely different than the master sites, even violating such elementary brand guidelines as using a consistent color scheme.

As for forging an integrated user experience across organization levels, forget it. Most non-profits could substantially improve their overall Web presence by creating a unified look-and-feel and supporting other improvements for local sites.

Donation Process: OK

Once people had decided to make a donation — and found the donation button on sites that made doing so difficult — it was fairly easy for them to proceed through the workflow and donate.

Our testing did identify some small usability problems, but the only big problem was caused by sites that used third-party payment services, which stumped some users.

Most of the donation processes had good usability because they are essentially a scaled-back version of e-commerce checkout, with fewer complications. Designers know how to build good e-commerce checkouts, and users know how to deal with the expected components.

That said, fixing a process with even minor usability problems might increase donations by 10%. For a non-profit with a $10M budget and an average share of online donations, such minor tweaks could mean an extra $100,000 per year.

While improvements are still possible for the donation process itself, our usability research clearly showed that this isn’t the main difficulty that’s inhibiting the potential of online donations to quintuple over the next decade. Rather, the big problem is bad content usability. To improve fundraising, speak plainly and answer donors’ main questions, and money will flow your way.

Learn More

124-page report on Donation Usability with 58 design guidelines and 111 screenshots of sites that worked well or poorly in user testing is available for download.