Much has been written about how businesses and the economy are suffering during the coronavirus pandemic, but one sector has been particularly hard hit: charities. And because many charities exist to help the needy, especially those who fall through the cracks between other social support mechanisms, this has a disastrous knock-on effect; when charities themselves fall through the cracks, many more people suffer as a result.

For a lot of charities, the timing of the pandemic also couldn't be worse. In the summer they rely on fundraising events to generate the income that sustains them all year round, whether these are events they organise themselves — selling tickets to fundraising concerts or dinners for instance — or mass public events that other people use to raise money on charities' behalf. In 2019 the London Marathon raised over £60m in donations; for some charities, the cancellation of that event alone creates an existential crisis.

Only 3.4% of UK charitable giving in 2019 happened online

Blackbaud Institute Charitable Giving Report

As a result, many have turned to online fundraising, one of the few avenues still open to them while the rest of the world is under quarantine. But the shortfall is still vast: for one thing, charitable giving tends to contract during major economic shocks like this one; for another, only 3.4% of UK charitable giving in 2019 happened online to begin with. And while small charities — the ones with fewer reserves to draw on during the crisis — often do better on this measure, sometimes getting as much as 15% of income from online donations, even that still leaves a budget gap that seems insurmountable.

There's no secret solution to all these problems, unfortunately. But if you're a charity who's struggling, there are still ways you can significantly increase your online donations income — we know, because just before the crisis hit, we launched a new donations portal for Starlight Children’s Foundation.

Its first full month in operation was this past March, just as the Coronavirus pandemic was hitting Europe.

Even in that tumultuous environment Starlight took more donations than they had in any other March in the last three years. More than twice as many as the next best March, in fact, and more than any month in 2019.

So here are four things we learned in building the Starlight donations portal. If you're trying to increase your own online donations, we hope some of these tips will come in handy.

1. Make it yours.

This might seem obvious, but if you can possibly take donations on your own website, you should. Third party sites like JustGiving and Virgin Money have their benefits, but navigating away from your website to another is always going to lose some users along the way. What's more, to gain any kind of control over the branding or appearance of pages on those third party sites, you need to pay a fee, often a recurring one, in addition to any commissions they charge on payments.

Because our donations portal sits on a subdomain of the main Starlight website and shares their branding, it doesn't feel like you've gone to another site — so users can feel confident that their donation is going straight to the charity itself.

Better yet, it is! Though Starlight pay card processing fees to their payment provider, all the income goes directly to them without any ongoing commissions or fees to us or to anyone else. And unlike a third-party donations platform, information about who's donating also gets logged in Starlight's CRM system to cross-reference with previous activity and allow for future follow-ups.

2. Be transparent about how much you want.

A simple "Amount" box that users have to fill in carries a lot of emotional baggage. Users don't want to risk giving so little they won’t make a difference, nor do they want to give a large amount if a more modest one would help. Faced with a blank box, some people will simply hem and haw for so long they decide not to bother.

Instead you can exploit the Default Effect and anchor their expectations to a concrete amount. Even pre-populating the amount box with a suggested amount — say £20 — is better than nothing, because it takes some of the guesswork out of it for those hem-and-hawers. But £20 might be more than some people wanted to give, or conversely seem so low to some people that they might conclude you don't actually need the help all that much.

So an even better solution is to provide a range of suggested options, like a slider that goes from £10 to £100. This gives people an idea of how much other people must also be donating, and how their donation will compare — and even if your suggested amount is still £20, having the £100 on there for comparison might nudge a few people to give a little more.


The user can select between pre-determined amounts which change with frequency

3. Be transparent about how much you need.

It's also important to show people where their donation is going. A vague mission statement — or even a specific ask like "help cover our running costs during the coronavirus pandemic" — will never have the same visceral impact as showing exactly what someone's money can buy. Instead, you should tell users that £20 might help cover one specific running cost, and £50 another.

With Starlight we made sure every donation was attached to a concrete result, whether the amount was big or small, one-off or monthly, in response to a specific campaign or just a contribution to the charity's general fund. Each ask comes with a text summary saying what they money will pay for, and accompanying picture. They're also totally customisable — Starlight can tweak the details at any time, as well as adding as many new amounts as they like.

4. Use human nature to your advantage.

People are predictable in many ways. There's nothing wrong with building your donation process with those predictable behaviours in mind.

Think about "keeping up with the Joneses", for example. If everyone else is doing something, you want to do it too; social psychology is full of experiments that prove this again and again. In building their new donation flow, Starlight reviewed past donation data to decide what amounts their donors were most likely to give, and labelled the most common choice accordingly. Not only did users on the new site try to keep up with the Joneses, they tried to one-up them; in the first month, 50% of users actually gave more than the previously most common amount.

Likewise, you can use the "foot in the door" phenomenon to suggest bigger donations once people have already agreed to a small one. The Starlight payment page asks donors if they want to top up the amount they've already chosen by £5. That's it: no other gimmicks. But to someone already donating £30, an extra £5 seems like a minor increase, and just asking the question often makes users think, well, why not? On Starlight, nearly 10% of donors added the £5 top-up.

None of these are particularly original ideas, and you may already have heard about the power of defaults or some of the other concepts. You may even be utilising some already. But our experience with Starlight has shown that doing them all together, in an elegant and customisable way, can make a significant difference.

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