suggested donations

While some donors upgrade their giving without being asked, most donors wait to be asked – or at least to be offered a darn good reason to give more with suggested donations. In Part 1 of this three-part series – your “Donor Upgrade Roadmap” — we took a deep dive into monthly giving as a direct strategy for increasing your donor’s overall annual gift. In Part 2 we talked about DIY P2P fundraising as a way to leverage the value of existing donor’s support by asking them to reach out to their networks to generate even greater support.

Today we’ll discuss suggesting specific ask amounts. None of this “please give whatever you can” or “please consider increasing your gift.” That’s vague. And vague requests yield token gifts.

Research tells us donors will give more, on average, when they’re prompted with specific amounts. They’ll give even more when offered a choice of giving levels (download Sustainers in Focus by Blackbaud). But you have to do it the right way.

How to Choose Ask Amounts

There are a number of ways to choose ask amounts that will resonate with your donor and help them come to a favorable decision – one that (1) makes them feel good, and (2) maximizes the benefit to your charity.

These boil down to:

  1. Ask based on last gift
  2. Ask based on what giving at different levels accomplishes
  3. Ask based on a range of giving related to their current giving level

You can make specific asks in a number of different ways:

  1. Ask in your giving donation letter for a specific amount
  2. Allow donors to self-select their own amount
  3. Ask on your remit piece using ask strings
  4. Ask on your online gift form using customized options
  5. Ask using social proof
  6. Ask suggesting a form of giving that will tend to yield a higher gift

How to Upgrade Giving Using Specific Suggested Donations

I don’t consider a fundraising offer a real offer unless there’s an associated price tag. It’s simply asking too much of your donor to have them guess at what amount you want or need. Figure out what the program you’re asking for costs. Figure out what the prospect you’re asking has been giving. Try to make a reasonable match. I find it a bit lazy to make your donor do the work, and you’ll generally leave money on the table. Because without a specific ask as a prompt they’ll often be stopped dead in their tracks, causing them to put your appeal aside to ponder. End result? Sometimes the gift never arrives.

Most people like to know what things cost and what is expected. They become uncomfortable in a store or restaurant that doesn’t show prices. They’d rather at least be given a ballpark context, as in showing them a gift range chart or a budget for your program or simply an array of options from which to choose. That being said, sometimes you know your donors well enough to know they don’t like being asked for a specific amount.

How to Secure Higher Gift Amounts Using Self-Selection

Rather than suggesting a specific amount, should you let the donor made their own choice? As a general rule (see above), I’m against this. However, it can definitely work. Agitator editor Roger Craver writes: “The other day I was reviewing returns from an organization who chose to use no default asking amount for its large group of $1000+ donors who receive 4 appeals a year. As in ‘My gift in the amount of $____ is enclosed.’ The results from this self-selection gift amount were solid sticking to the $1000+ gift range.

Of course, without allowing self-selection they might have secured even higher gifts. It’s hard to know without testing. Interestingly, NextAfter did such a test online with one of their client charities. They did an A/B/C test with a lower ask string vs. a higher ask string vs. simply letting donors choose to make “a generous gift.”  

suggested donations

suggested donations

Frankly, I was shocked by the results. 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 goes against everything I’ve ever learned about effective fundraising, which simply shows you can’t take anything for granted. There are exceptions to everything, and you’ll only know what works for you if you try. And try again.

One thing I’ll 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 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 lower response rate. Thus, letting someone choose their own gift may help them pick the right gift for them.

How to Use Gift Arrays, Ask Strings or Defaults

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? The only definitive answer I can give you is that whatever you do, it probably makes a difference. Exactly what difference it will make for you is something you’ll need to test. A number of different studies provide insight into why how you array giving price options can influence folks to give more (or less) generously. Let’s take a look…

1. Arranging gift amounts from high to low resulted in downgrades.

Research by NextAfter confirmed that “People see your array as more than just an array. They also see the way in which 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 (assuming left to right readers) and ending with $250 on the right. On mobile, amounts were stacked on top of each other with the lower amount first.

suggested donations

Then they reversed this order for the test.

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 – resulting in a 25.2% decrease in revenue. Whoa!

Their take-away is the high-to-low arrangement subtly communicates 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 gifts 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.

On the other hand…

2. Arranging amounts from low to high yielded greater revenue.

Research from psychology and marketing found that beginning with a higher price serves as an anchor that influences eventual choice. In one study researchers presented a beer menu to customers based on price in two ways: from low to high and from high to low. People read the prices of the beers from top to bottom.

suggested donations

Thanks to doing nothing more than presenting the choices in a certain order, the bar made an average of $0.24 more every time someone ordered a beer from the high-to-low menu. Why does this happen? The initial price they see becomes an anchor, and all subsequent prices are compared either favorably or unfavorably.

3. Pre-selecting a default amount

With online ask strings, there is the opportunity to set a default — that is, what radio button amount will be automatically set, if the user were to make no changes? Evidence indicates defaults do increase giving.

How to Select Amounts for Ask Strings

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 type (see The Science of Ask Strings) and he suggests the following as a guideline:

  • For current low/mid-level donors – 1 x amount; 1.5 x amount; 2 x amount; other.
  • For current higher-level donors – 1.5 – 1.75 x; 2 – 2.25 x; 2.25 – 3 x; other

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, and using common sense can help a lot. For example, if someone gives you $100 for #GivingTuesday and $400 in response to your year-end appeal, you may want to use $500 (cumulative total) as a baseline for asking next year. If they give you a $25 tribute gift and a $1000 annual gift, choosing $1,025 as a baseline will just look silly.

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

How to Secure Higher Gift Amounts Using Online Gift Forms

Whatever website or service you use to create online donation pages, you 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. As inferred from the NextAfter research cited above, “your donation page carries a conversation… whether you like it or not.”

Part of that conversation is reminding your donor what their gift will accomplish. You can use your gift form to suggest donation amounts of varying sizes using impact descriptions. This continues the compelling story that is the heart of an effective fundraising offer, and makes your appeal about specific outcomes rather than just money. If you can find an impact that will bring your donor joy, they’ll give more.

How to Use Social Proof

When you’re sending a mailed appeal, one of the ways to establish an “anchor” amount, in lieu of a radio button default, is to (1) circle an amount on the remit form, or (2) let folks know “most people give X. ” I prefer the latter, as it triggers the persuasion principle of social proof. Research suggests we tend to be followers who look to others to let us know what is expected. People tend to default to the norm.

It’s up to you to set the norms. The smaller the community within which the norm is placed, 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.” A test presented by M+R at the 2013 Blackbaud Conference found that adding “Most PETA supporters give at this level” to an ask string increased revenues by 25%. This, of course, only works for PETA — you’d want to swap in the name of your own organization and test for yourself.

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.

suggested donations

Social proof worked to upgrade giving both for new prospects and renewing donors. More amazing is the fact that gender seems to matter. In the PBS study there was a 34% increase in giving when the gender of the person who gave previously was matched to the gender of the prospective donor.

How Suggested Donations May Yield Upgrades

Monthly Giving

Pre-selecting monthly giving on your donation page can increase conversions of monthly donations by up to 35%. Another trick is to use a pop-up box, just as folks are about to submit their one-time gift, prompting them to consider upgrading to a recurring gift. Hubspot ran an experiment that increased recurring giving by 64%. Best of all, it didn’t keep any one-time donors from giving. It just increased the percentage of donors giving monthly – which we learned in Part 1 is a huge upgrading win. 

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:

  • Donor buys stock 10 years ago for $100.
  • Today, that stock has appreciated in value 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 – $180 – if they sell the stock.
  • If they give away the stock, they’ll avoid the tax and your charity will receive the full $1000 FMV of the security.

Net/net, their $1000 gift will cost them only $865 or $820. Sometimes donors who were thinking of giving a bit less (say a $750 gift) will upgrade when they realize the philanthropic power of their gift of stock.

For additional donor upgrade strategies, see Top 10 Ways to Upgrade Nonprofit Donors.

The Art & Science of Digital Donor Retention

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.