Redesigned Sierra Club Website Streamlined Donor Process

August 26, 2014       Richard H. Levey      

One of the advantages a nonprofit has compared to other types of businesses is that people going to the organization’s website are primed to embrace the information. Because of this, making the donation process difficult or confusing is twice the sin.

Through testing, the Sierra Club has eliminated many of the online barriers potential donors faced when navigating its site. In doing so, the environmental organization has boosted membership levels, donation amounts, and even one-off gifts.

The Sierra Club began examining its online donation process this past fall, when it started working with M+R, a consultancy that specializes in nonprofits and instituted a series of website design tests.

“[Marketers are] constantly testing outbound messaging, [such as] email and direct mail, but not giving inbound [as in, landing pages] the same benefit of testing,” Michael Ward, principal at M+R, said during a session at the Direct Marketing Association’s 2014 New York Nonprofit Conference.

In the case of the Sierra Club, potential donors were met with a maze of options, some of which were confusing or irrelevant. A single click on a “subscribe or donate” button would direct members to a page where they were asked whether they wanted to become a member, renew their membership, make a monthly donation, or offer the organization a gift. And those options were a click or two away from a form that would actually allow people to hand over their money.

The Sierra Club started its site redesign process with some simple questions: Could it reduce the number of clicks it took for visitors to make a donation?

Small changes were tested individually, allowing the Sierra Club to evaluate each one’s impact on donations. The first test was basic: The site added a “donate” button, highlighted in orange, atop its home page. Shortly after implementing this change, the organization saw its average donation level drop by 15 percent.

But this wasn’t necessarily a failed test, as Vicky Barnett-Putnam, senior director, donor development & acquisition services for Sierra Club noted. While the average donation amount dropped, clickthroughs to the donation page increased by five percent. The next question asked was whether something could be done to better convert those clickers?

The organization found success when it modified the homepage button leading to the donation page to read “Join or Renew.” That simple modification boosted clickthrough rates by 35 percent, while average donation amounts jumped by 27 percent.

“We do have a certain number of people who go to the site to renew,” Barnett-Putnam said, adding that under the previous design, people who wanted to renew were landing on the site, encountering the “join or donate” button, and feeling unsure about whether they could renew through that option.

Wouldn’t a donation be just as good as a membership renewal? Not really: For lobbying organizations such as the Sierra Club, the difference between a donation and a membership renewal is more than semantic. Members get counted — in a good way — when the Sierra Club performs its lobbying functions. In these cases, individuals who make one-off donations aren’t counted as part of the Sierra Club’s constituents.

There will be those, however, who don’t want to be Sierra Club members: They simply want to make a donation. Barnett-Putnam estimated that approximately 10 percent of donors fall into this category. For them, the organization is testing yet another home page button — one reading “join/renew/donate.” Has it made a difference? In an early test, the organization has realized a 15 percent revenue bump among individuals who were shown a homepage with this variation.

Barnett-Putnam did offer a caution for entities testing new designs, especially those tied to sales or contributions: Use an analysis program that identifies exceptionally large donations, which a) may not reflect normal giving patterns and b) may skew average amount results toward one or another version. In one test, the Sierra Club split its “Join/Renew” button into two buttons. On first glance, the test appeared to pull in a much higher average donation.

It turned out that two donors who were exposed to the two-button version made very large donations — donations Barnett-Putnam was fairly sure wouldn’t be replicated. When those two donations were backed out of the results, the control version — the one with the linked Join/Renew button — pulled in 30 percent more revenue.