“Saving until you are broke” – digital fundraising infrastructure investments

Far too often, we see digital infrastructure as a cost rather than an investment. This leads us to choose the cheapest option, rather than the one that will give us the biggest return. This article was first written for Fundraising & Philanthropy Magazine Australia. 

In Norway, we have a saying; «saving until you are broke». This is what businesses do in hard times, – they cut costs in research and development for short term good – when they should be doing the opposite. Not investing in r&d now, means you won’t have anything to sell tomorrow. You might have saved money today, but you made yourself broke from it tomorrow.

It is my firm belief that when it comes to digital infrastructure, many charities are in fact saving until they are broke. By looking at forms, payment solutions and websites as costs rather than investments, we are choosing the cheap “cost efficient” options and effectively throwing that money out the window. We dramatically over-estimate how much hassle a donor is willing to go through to donate to us, and we dramatically under-estimate how much money we are missing out on.

Donors are there, on our sites willing to give. But our bad infrastructure turns them away at the door.

A look at the numbers

A couple of years back, I worked with two different but similar organisations for their Christmas appeals. They each had strong, compelling campaigns. They had more or less the same demographic, and used the same traffic generating measures. One of them, let’s call them Charity A, had an old landing page, with a long and complex form, that asked unnecessary questions like «what prompted you to make this gift?». It was not optimised for mobile. The other, Charity B, had a landing page with forms designed to optimise conversions, and optimised for mobile.

Charity A had 2,5 percent of mobile visitors donate.

Charity B had 8 percent of mobile visitors donate.

That gap – the difference between 2,5 and 8 percent – was a direct loss of £27.000. And that was from mobile users alone. On one campaign! Just try to picture how much that means if you count all users, on all campaigns, over years.

A second example: My former employer, the Norwegian Cancer Society saw a TEN time increase in the number of regular donors signing up online after a redesign. The average gift went up too. Do the math – ten times more donors, times more money per month, times average life time of a donor. That website investment paid for itself.

Why does this happen?

When considering a redesign, an improvement or a payment system, it is too easy to just look at the immediate cost. But buying cheap is sometimes the most expensive thing you can do.

We have trouble seeing the whole picture, since it is hard to calculate the alternative cost; how much we would lose by choosing the cheaper option.

If someone gave you the choice between systems, one costing £100 a month, the other costing £10 per month, the choice seems obvious.

But in reality, your £10 per month system might have a return of £15, and the more expensive £100 system might return you £1.000. By choosing the cheaper option, you are saving on costs – but losing on donations to a much higher degree than the money you’ve saved.

Secondly, «systems» have historically been handled by IT and database employees. Usability and donor knowledge is usually not what they are good at. This is why forms have labels like «address line 2» – because that’s what it says in the database. But donors don’t know what it means. The lack of actual fundraisers, usability experts and copywriters in these parts of our websites is to blame for the way they work.

Third, we don’t see infrastructure as something that should be constantly improved on. We’d never say «right, we have one DM now, let’s stick with it for the next five years» – why do we do that with websites?

What can we do

First of all, we must open our eyes to the fact that this is an issue. We have to expand our focus on the donor experience, to also include our websites. Why should our forms feel like an interrogation, and not like the nice, warm donor conversation you might have face to face?

We need to include fundraisers in our systems purchase, design and implementation processes. We need to make sure we have generalists in employment – that is, people who understand enough technical stuff and enough fundraising to be able to ask the most important question: why? Why do we need to ask our donor for this information? Why do we solve this form on a third party site? Why can’t we have it portable and included on every story page? Why do we use the ridiculous label «address line 2?». Usually, the answer is «because no-one ever asked that question».

And we have to stop seeing digital as a cost. It is an investment.

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