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How to Upgrade Nonprofit Donors Using Suggested Donations

Use this guide to determine the best strategies for upgrading donors using suggested giving amounts.
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As a nonprofit fundraising professional, you’re likely always thinking of ways to encourage your donors to increase their donation amounts. Some donors upgrade their gifts without being asked, but most donors need some prompting. This is where suggested donations can play an important role in your fundraising strategy.

Offering suggested giving amounts can help donors choose the giving amount that works for them. In addition, donors usually end up giving even more when offered a choice of giving levels. In this guide, we’ll cover how to choose suggested donation amounts and leverage this strategy effectively throughout your fundraising campaigns and marketing outreach.

What are suggested donations?

Suggested donation amounts are the provided gift amount options that your organization offers to supporters. This makes it easier for your donors to choose how much to give to your nonprofit. Generally, these suggestions are presented to donors in several different ways: 

  • In your donation solicitation letter, where you ask for a specific amount
  • By allowing donors to select their own amount using customized options on your online giving form
  • By suggesting a giving method that will tend to yield a higher gift, such as requesting a planned or recurring gift

These suggestions make the giving process easier as donors don’t need to determine a gift amount on their own.

How to choose suggested donation amounts

There are a number of ways to choose suggested giving amounts that will help your donors come to a decision that makes the most sense for them.

You can determine your suggested giving amounts using one or a combination of these strategies:

  1. Ask based on the last gift the donor contributed. You can make this donation suggestion in an in-person or virtual meeting with donors. Suggest a slightly higher donation this time around to encourage donors to increase their support.
  2. Ask based on what different giving levels accomplish. This is an effective strategy to use on your online donation form. For example, you might explain that a $100 gift can purchase five new coding workbooks for your after-school program, and a $500 gift can buy a new laptop for a student.
  3. Ask based on a range of giving related to their current giving level. Offer donors a more flexible suggested giving range based on their previous gifts. Use your CRM to gather information about donors’ past gifts. Then, use this information when sending suggested giving amounts via personalized emails or letters to donors.

Strategies to upgrade giving using suggested donations

How to use gift arrays, ask strings, and default suggested donations

Most commonly, suggested giving amounts are featured on your organization’s donation page. They are the buttons supporters can choose with different gift options already highlighted. 

So, when you offer giving options at various price points, should you go from high to low or low to high? Or should you pre-select a “default” or “anchor” amount? Several different studies provide insight into why how you present giving price options can influence donors to give more (or less) generously.

Research by NextAfter confirmed that “People see your array as more than just an array. They also see how you present the array as a point of communication from you, much like how body language communicates in real life.”

Their control used a rising suggested amount approach in a string of options, starting with $50 on the left and ending with $250 on the right. On mobile, amounts were stacked on top of each other with the lower amount first.

This is an example of a test to determine effective suggested donations.

Then they reversed this order for the test.

This is an example of a test to determine effective suggested donations.

Arranging options from high to low yielded a 15.7% decrease in numbers of donations and an 11.3% decrease in average gift size, resulting in a 25.2% decrease in revenue.

The takeaway is the high-to-low arrangement subtly communicates that smaller gifts are not welcome. People interpret the first option as what is desirable and acceptable. If your donor wants to give $50 and sees you appreciate $50 gifts as well as increasing gift sizes, they might just decide to upgrade and send you $75. But if they see anything under $50 is chopped liver to you, they may think adding the incremental $25 won’t much matter because all you really notice is the big gifts.

Pre-selecting a default amount

With online ask strings, you can set a default—this is the amount that will be automatically set if the user were to make no changes. Evidence indicates defaults do increase giving.

Don’t start too small. If someone wants to give $10, they can type it into the “other” blank.

Nick Ellinger of Donor Voice is a guru on this strategy. He suggests the following as a guideline:

  • For current low/mid-level donors: Set suggested donations at 1x, 1.5x, and 2x their average amount and offer an “other” option.
  • For current higher-level donors: Set suggested donations at 1.5x – 1.75x, 2x – 2.25x, and 2.25x – 3x their average amount and offer an “other” option.

The “amount” used varies. It may be the highest previous contribution, the most recent contribution, or a cumulative annual giving total. What you choose will depend on how your organization fundraises. For example, if someone gives you $100 on Giving Tuesday and $400 in response to your year-end appeal, you may want to use $500 (cumulative total) as a baseline for what you ask for next year. But if they give you a $25 tribute gift and a $1,000 annual gift, choosing $1,025 would be far too high for a baseline.

Another route, especially for new prospects, is to take a look at your average gift size (online and offline) and make that your smallest gift level. You can do this for different segments of your database as well. This means you’ll need different response cards and donation landing pages.

Securing higher gift amounts using online gift forms

Your online giving platform should be able to customize gift options by suggesting donation amounts and/or defaults, setting custom gift strings targeted to different donor/prospect mailing segments, and arraying them on the page.

Your donation form should also remind your donor what their gift will accomplish. You can use your gift form to suggest donation amounts of varying sizes and describe how each gift size will help your cause. This aligns your appeal with tangible outcomes.

For instance, you might explain that a $50 donation can provide pencils, notebooks, and other supplies for local students who attend your after-school tutoring program, while a $500 donation can lead to the purchase of a new laptop for a student. 

If you can find an impact that will spark empathy and compassion, donors will give more.

Using social proof to choose suggested donations

When you’re sending a direct mail appeal, one of the ways to establish an “anchor” amount instead of a button default is to circle an amount on the remit form or let folks know “most people give X. ” The latter triggers the persuasion principle of social proof. Research suggests that people tend to be followers who look to others to let them know what is expected. People tend to default to the norm.

The smaller the community within which you establish the norm, the more powerful your message. Try to allude to a particular community of like-minded folks to whom your donor relates, as in “most ACLU supporters give” or “most church members give” or “most families give.”

One study by Jen Shang and Rachel Croson informed callers to a public broadcasting pledge drive that a previous donor had given $75, $180, or $300. Citing a $300 donation increased renewing members’ donations by an average of 29%. When informed that someone gave a larger donation than their previous one, their gift increased by more than $12. When told that someone gave a smaller donation than their previous gift, their gift decreased by $24.

Securing higher gift amounts using self-selection

On the flip side, some studies show that self-selection can be just as impactful for increasing donation amounts as some suggested donation amount strategies.

So, rather than suggesting a specific amount, should you let the donor make their own choice? This can work in very specific scenarios, such as when you’re sending a request to a group of major donors who are already predisposed to give in higher amounts.

NextAfter conducted an A/B/C test with one of their nonprofit clients with a lower ask string vs. a higher ask string vs. simply letting donors choose to make “a generous gift.” Take a look at what the test looked like:

This is an example of an A/B/C test to assess the impact of suggested donations.

This is an example of a test of the effectiveness of suggested donation amounts.

The email allowing donors to choose their own gift size produced a 43.1% increase in donor conversion and generated a higher average gift than the ask strings control. This shows that there are exceptions to everything, and you’ll only know what works for you if you run similar tests with your organization’s audience.

One thing to add is that, in this experiment, it’s possible the ask strings presented were both simply too low. As Nick Ellinger of Donor Voice and The Science of Ask Strings puts it: “The goal of setting ask string defaults is to guess as close as possible to the maximum amount that a person would be willing to give. When your guess is below that, you may leave money on the table; ask more and the models show you will potentially see a lower response rate. Thus, letting someone choose their own gift may help them pick the right gift for them.”

Suggesting monthly giving

Pre-selecting monthly giving on your donation page can increase conversions of monthly donations by up to 35%. Another strategy is to present a pop-up box just as donors are about to submit their one-time gift that prompts them to consider upgrading to a recurring gift.

Generally, the monthly giving ask strings are slightly lower than one-time gift suggestions. For example, while one-time gift suggestions may be $50, $100, and $250, your suggested monthly donation amounts may be $10, $15, and $20. These lower recurring gifts actually drastically exceed those one-time gifts over the course of the year. 

Suggesting gifts of stock

Many organizations fail to suggest stock gifts. Consequently, donors fail to consider this as a giving option. It turns out it’s a terrific upgrade strategy because gifts of stock can cost a donor less than a gift of cash. Here’s how it works:

  • A donor buys stock 10 years ago for $100.
  • Today, that stock has appreciated to $1,000.
  • Were they to sell the stock, they’d have a $900 capital gain.
  • Depending on their income bracket, they’ll owe 15% of 20% of this gain in capital gains taxes–or $135 to $180–if they sell the stock.
  • If they donate the stock, they’ll avoid the tax and your nonprofit will receive the full $1,000 full market value of the security.

Sometimes donors who consider giving a bit less (say a $750 gift) will upgrade when they realize the philanthropic power of their gift of stock.

As you can see, offering a variety of suggested donation amounts to donors helps them come to a decision more easily and can encourage them to increase their giving. This allows them to make an even greater impact on your mission. Use these giving suggestions throughout your email, direct mail, online, and in-person outreach for maximum impact.

Looking for more resources on how to optimize your outreach and fundraising strategies? Review these additional Bloomerang resources:

  • Donor Database: The Buyer’s Ultimate Guide for 2022. To help you understand donors’ past giving amounts, you’ll need a robust donor database, complete with comprehensive donor profiles. Use this guide to help choose the right donor database for your nonprofit.
  • Donor Stewardship: Expert Tips to Build Strong Relationships. Effective donor stewardship helps get supporters more comfortable with the idea of contributing larger donations. This guide offers tips for building strong, genuine relationships with donors and motivating them to increase their support.
  • The Ultimate Donor Engagement Guide + Top Strategies. It’s important to keep track of donor engagement metrics to assess what types of suggested donations donors will be receptive to. Use this guide to help create a more strategic donor engagement approach.

Create an effective donation form with suggested donation amounts with Bloomerang's help.

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    What a thorough and great summary of data and examples. Great job Claire!
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