Do you ever wonder how some nonprofits accomplish so much?

How they get so many wealthy donors to attend their events?

Or always get shared on social media?

Or reach so many clients?

Between funding cuts, the rising costs of doing business, and the ongoing race for donors, it’s practically universal that nonprofits have to do more with less. Of course, this challenge often results in a scramble that results in working more hours.

Rather than working more effectively, we just work more.

How is it that some organizations accomplish so much and make it look so easy?

There’s no silver bullet, but the one thing that sets the highest-performing nonprofits apart from all the others is that they test and optimize all sorts of activities. Rather than start with an assumption that they know what actions/copy/design/etc. produces the best results, they actually begin from the supposition that they don’t. And they test their way towards that understanding.

This process of assessing how well different options perform is known as A/B testing.

It simply means that you test two options — Option A vs. Option B. You give similar but separate groups one of the options and compare the results. The enormous benefit of A/B testing comes from the fact that you can apply this approach to innumerable areas.

Designing and running A/B tests can help you:

  • Save yourself and your employees’ time

  • Produce better work more quickly

  • Raise more money with less effort

  • Focus your time on the most valuable activities

We’re going to look at the ways A/B testing can be applied to donation pages, email subject lines, signup incentives, and offline activities.


A/B Testing Donation Pages

One of the most important areas any nonprofit can focus their attention on is the online donation page. Done poorly, you’ll leave a tremendous amount of potential funding on the table. Done well, you can raise significantly more money.

Too often nonprofits simply stick with whichever donation page design their web team set up initially. And too often those teams don’t have a deep enough understanding of donor behavior to design fully effective pages.

Hopefully your donation page doesn't look anything like this!

Hopefully your donation page doesn't look anything like this!

There are a large number of design considerations to take into account for your donation page. Here are 4 of the 10 considerations outlined by web designer, Brad Frost:

1. Break big tasks into smaller steps

2. Articulate impact

3. Use button styling for input

4. Cutout the noise

A sample donation interaction by Brad Frost.

A sample donation interaction by Brad Frost.

If you haven’t tested the impact of various changes yet, investing a small amount of resources to optimize this page is one of the wisest decisions any nonprofit can make. Just as there are guiding principles, there is also a lot to learn from the many bad nonprofit online donation examples.

A/B testing various design improvements allows you to maximize the value of each donation by ensuring it happens, is completed with ease, and strengthens the donor’s relationship with your nonprofit.

So the question really becomes why wouldn't you be doing this?

A/B Testing Email

If you’re emailing as part of a fundraising campaign, open rates and click-through-rates are key indicators of how well your campaign will do.

If you can raise more money from each email, you reduce the overall amount of effort required to raise an equal amount of money. In essence, you’re directly driving down your organization’s cost-per-dollar-raised.

In today’s competitive funding climate, this is more important than ever.

Email providers like Mailchimp allow you to A/B test different copy and images for email campaigns. You just set up the various options you’d like to test and they’ll send them out to subsets of your email list, analyze the results, and then automatically send the most effective version to the remaining people on your list.

All you have to do is set up the best options you can think of and sit back knowing you’re doing your best work automatically.

Screenshot of Mailchimp's A/B testing setup for emails.

Screenshot of Mailchimp's A/B testing setup for emails.

Regardless of the actual dollar amount you’re raising, if you’re able to raise 85% more money from your email campaigns through simple A/B tests (like the Obama campaign did), then you can stop spending precious time and resources running underperforming campaigns.

You really can raise more money in less time.

A/B Testing Signup Incentives

Long-term, there is nothing more powerful for your nonprofit’s fundraising potential than a high-quality email list. This has been shown time and time again.

But with everybody vying for supporters, it has grown increasingly difficult for nonprofits to capture prospects’ email addresses. The days of posting a signup form and sitting back while people share their contact information are over.

That’s why it is more important than ever for nonprofits to develop incentives that encourage signups and to test which ones convert at the highest rates.

One option is to use Optimizely, a well-respected service that allows you to test which wording and design work most effectively for your purposes. (Even this year’s presidential candidates are using it).

The key to designing effective incentives is to ensure they:

1. Align with your mission

2. Reflect your prospects’ interests

3. Build a relationship with your supporters; and

4. Provide a high-quality avenue for differentiating your organization.

And before you feel like you need to rush out and develop a variety of ebook options or film exclusive videos, remember you can start A/B testing the resources your nonprofit already has.

For example, arts organizations can offer various levels of ticket discounts. Human services can give an inside look into their work by offering access to their strategic plan.

Look around and see what you already have available to offer. Test what works best, but there’s a good chance you’re already sitting on something new supporters would love to share their email for.

A/B Testing Offline Activities

Of course, testing is not just about technology and fundraising. There are important (and highly overlooked) programmatic applications of A/B testing as well.

This issue can really be summed up by looking at the scale at which evaluation typically occurs in the sector. Predominantly, nonprofits look at how well entire programs perform. This happens in an almost all-or-nothing sense. Did the program reach its goals? Or not?

But the hidden potential of A/B testing at nonprofits is that the overarching goal gets broken down into a number of smaller tests which, when optimized, increase the likelihood of the overall goal being achieved.

Plus, the offline applications of A/B testing tend to be more familiar with nonprofit professionals than the more web-based uses we discussed above.

For instance, you could utilize two types of intake forms to determine which one leads to higher client satisfaction results (ie., designing one to first ask about positive traits and one to first ask about basic demographics).

You could also rearrange the order of a program’s curriculum to determine if it has an impact on how well participants retain and apply the content.

People often assume that paper-based outreach materials cannot be optimized for better results. This is not the case though.

In order to see which materials work better, simply design two options and be sure to include separate contact information for each. This will allow you to track how many people join your program (regardless of what it is) through each means. As you expand the program, you’d want to utilize the more effective materials more widely.

For fundraising events, you could even test whether people are more likely to make a donation if you provide iPads or paper forms at each table.

There are, of course, many many more options. And hopefully your brain is already buzzing with areas you want to test out a few new approaches.

Using A/B Tests at Your Nonprofit

Smart nonprofits are constantly running A/B tests to understand what copy, design, images, interactions, and internal processes work best for their clients and donors. Of course, some will unearth great new approaches and some will show very little difference.

The applications of A/B testing really are endless, and they should be. From high tech to low-fi, simple A/B tests can make a huge impact.

If you want to raise money or serve more people more effectively, A/B tests must be a part of your toolbox.

We're covering A/B tests and much more in The Future of Fundraising.