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Going Deep on a Checkbox

Notes on online charity donations.


Yesterday I wrote a little bit about the experience of giving money via charitable websites, and I criticized not-for-profit websites that ask their users to “make a monthly donation”—

My expectation was to give a one-time gift. Many of the sites had “Make this a monthly donation” as an option. One or two even had that option pre-selected. “Make this a monthly donation” is the “YES! Keep me informed about great deals from brands I love” of the do-gooder world.It’s great for the charities but it requires a 12-times commitment from me. Also: I never saw any options to make a quarterly or annual donation. I never saw an option that said, “send me an email when it’s time to renew my donation.”

I also had some big fancy words about “creating new giving experiences.” I received some good feedback about how not-for-profits are often pretty bureaucratic and that some of the things I criticized had solid institutional reasoning behind them. I am absolutely sure they do! Organizations are complex.

Let’s take the “monthly donation” issue as a product challenge. You’re a not-for-profit and you need more money. People come to your site and give you money.

How could you actually get people to give you money every month? Because that would add up to more money over time, provide for a reliable stream of predictable revenue, and give you more opportunities to involve the donor and hopefully get them to give yet more money or to leave you money when they die, etc.

Michael Sippey has a three-question product-thinking framework that he discussed on our podcast, and I know of no simpler approach. So let’s apply it:

  • Q: What problem are we solving?
    People don’t give us money every month forever. They give it to us just once.
  • Q: Who are we solving it for?
    For our not-for-profit organization, so we can help more people.
  • Q: How are we going to measure success?
    By the number of people who give us more money.

Hmm. This is why frameworks are so useful. Because this looks right but feels wrong. Let’s try again:

  • Q: What problem are we solving?
    People like our work enough to give us money once, especially around the holidays, but they are not motivated to give us money every month.
  • Q: Who are we solving it for?
    For our donors. Because they want us to succeed in our mission and like the feeling of helping—but don’t know how important it is for them to give every month.
  • Q: How are we going to measure success?
    By the number of people who give us more money, but also by making sure we are in contact with these people throughout the year, gathering feedback and assessments, and by continually measuring the number of people who renew their memberships or increase the amount they give.

That is starting to feel more realistic. Because this payment form is obviously not about us, but about the user’s needs, goals, and motivations. (If this were real life it would be good to run this exercise fifty more times with lots of people giving input, talking through the kinds of users, what motivates people to give, what marketing has learned, and so forth—but here we are now.)

What is the goal? The goal is to get people to sign up for a monthly donation without scaring them away from their one-time donation. Right now the way people do that, across many forms, is they ask you to identify the amount of money you want to give, and then there’s a checkbox that reads: “Would you like to make this a monthly donation?” This is a good example:

The big problem I see here is that human brains don’t like multiples of 12. It’s awkward. When I fill out this form, I’m going, “I’ll give $100, I’m a good person.” But then the computer, in the form of that little checkbox, implies, “it would be a lot cooler if you gave $1,200.” Which is $1,100 more than I signed up for.

That’s kind of a big ask for one crappy checkbox. Some places understand that. The National Resources Defense Counsel, for example. They let you switch between “Give Monthly” and “One Time Gift” and it’s a different experience on each page. You even get different polar bears—one extra polar bear, in fact, if you give monthly.

This is an improvement and close to state of the art in the “give monthly” vs. “one-time-gift” user experience for not-for-profit sites. Because those are the tools that people have when they are building websites: Forms, checkboxes, backend payment processors, and the like. (And we’d go look at 20–30 more experiences, normally, but let’s stop here for the purpose of this being a newsletter post.)

Okay, so what do we do now?

  1. We can assign a designer to think hard about subscription forms, and to think of some new ways to motivate people to click on the “give monthly” checkbox or link. Then we could build to their specification and measure the results.
  2. We could scrap what is there and go with something off-the-shelf, and measure its performance.
  3. We could focus away from the website. For example, we could send out more email, or direct mail, or send people to malls with little kiosks and ask them to sign up.
  4. We could create a new digital experience around giving monthly, design, build, and launch our experience, and measure the results.

Numbers 1–3 are pretty well understood, but what would the fourth look like in practice? Well, you’d want to get people in a room and come up with ideas. I’ll pretend to be people in a room to give you a sense:

  • Offer other timeframes: You could offer people the opportunity to make the donation four times a year, or twice a year, or once a year. There could be all kinds of checkboxes or widgets that make this possible.
  • Offer account transformation after donation: After people gave you a one-time donation, you could pop up a page that says: “Thank you so much! Would you like to transform your $120 donation into a monthly gift? We will charge your credit card $10 a month instead of $120 right now. The more people who do this, the easier it is for us to plan our year, and it helps us help more people. You can opt out at any time.”
  • Split the one-time gift dynamically. If I want to offer $200 for a one-time gift, immediately change an element on the page to read: “It would be incredibly helpful for us if you broke this $200 gift into 12 monthly payments of $16.66 instead!” And make it one click to switch to monthly payments instead.
  • Create editorial/content modules: You could have a module of content right inside the donation form that quickly pages through a year in the life of a beneficiary of your charity. “Meet Michael,” it might read. “He’s a nine-year old boy who spent a year at St. Jerome’s Hospital.” And the slideshow, showing how Michael needed a special machine for treatment in January, some non-allergenic toys in February, a special bed in March, and onward through December. Page through those quickly an then at the end: “God has a plan for Michael. You can help us realize that plan by giving a small monthly gift.” Everyone will check the box because they’re crying so damn hard. Let them feel like they’re going to directly help a little boy.
  • Use digital tools to prove accountability. Slightly weird idea: You could email everyone who gives money an invite to a shared Google calendar that gives micro-updates right in the calendar. For example, “JobHelpers found 180 jobs for people last month. Next month: 200.” With a link to donations. Put planning meetings, open events, and the like on the calendar. Share meeting notes and plans in Google docs. Open Slack channels and invite people liberally.
  • Promise a better experience. Signing up for a monthly payment basically means that you can charge my credit card 12 times instead of once, and that you will punish me with relentless mailings on glossy paper. So get rid of the ambiguity. “Signing up for a monthly subscription means we can save money on marketing. We won’t send you more than a few emails a year—and you’ll be helping us every month.”

And so forth—ideally you’d capture 20–30 ideas like this, or more, involving lots of people along the way. I purposefully kept the ideas above to ones where there wouldn’t be unconquerable institutional pushback (because they’re mostly additive, not disruptive), and ones that could be pulled off with some elbow grease and a few thousand bucks. Progress is totally possible! And then you can measure what works, and keep applying what you learned until it stops working.

Paul Ford is a co-founder of Postlight

Story published on Jan 5, 2017.