Should My Donation Page Default to Recurring Monthly Gifts? Ask Trump

On Tuesday, I gave a webinar with 4 tips to improve your online fundraising. Tip #3: “Thoughtfully set up recurring gifts.” Well, “thoughtfully” means two things: 1) with a lot of thought and 2) “with consideration for the needs of other people.” (Google’s English Dictionary). I meant both.

When the Trump’s campaign set up their donation pages with WinRed, they used deceptive design techniques to trick people into recurring and multiple gifts, says The New York Times. According to Harry Brignull, a user-experience designer quoted in the article, “the Trump team’s techniques were a classic of the ‘deceptive design’ genre. ‘It should be in textbooks of what you shouldn’t do,’ he said.”

In the webinar I suggested that organizations test out defaulting to recurring gifts to see how that works for them. One of my colleagues who has thoroughly studied the success of online fundraising efforts advised me against straight out recommending organizations default to recurring because it really depends on the donor base.

An intentional scheme to boost revenues by the Trump campaign…Facing a cash crunch and getting badly outspent by the Democrats, the [Trump] campaign had begun last September to set up recurring donations by default.

Goldmacher, S. (2021). “How Trump Steered Supporters Into Unwitting Donations.” The New York Times, April 4, Available here.

Would I say it worked for the Trump campaign? Uh, yeah. The Times says they raised $1.2 billion with WinRed, used it as an interest-free loan when cash ran low, and then refunded $122.7 million of it! That’s one way to do it, but NOT a way to earn trust and gain long term donors. The Times cites veterans, cancer patients and retirees who intended to give donations they could barely afford and unknowingly gave 6x that amount.

Are these accidental major donors pissed at Trump, though? Some are but others blame WinRed, the company that processed the contributions. This isn’t the same though as blaming a nonprofit online giving tool that you simply install from AppExchange. WinRed worked closely with the Trump campaign to “design [the forms] in the increasingly complex blizzard of text” (NYT).

Here’s the timeline of how a simple default checkbox became less clear.

March 2020: Yellow, prechecked recurring monthly donation box with bold text.

June: They literally call this one the “money bomb.” They added a “second prechecked box, to default donors into making an additional contribution.” (NYT).

September: The first yellow box changed to recurring weekly donation.

October: “Weekly” no longer in bold, and above that they added UP TO EIGHT LINES OF ALL CAPS BOLD TEXT. “Contributors had to wade through a fine-print disclaimer and manually uncheck a box to opt out” (NYT).

I went to you-know-who’s website today which suggested I become a “Founding Member.” The yellow box looks like it must have back in March.

This little yellow box isn’t horrible and defaulting to recurring donations doesn’t make you a monster. Just try to consider the needs of others when setting up your donation page. Think of people like Stacy Blatt whose $500 donation became $3,000 causing his rent and utility checks to bounce while he was dying of cancer (NYT). Basically, when you set up recurring donations don’t be a dick.

Speaking of cancer and dicks, here’s a really nice example of defaulting to recurring donations from Prostate Cancer UK. It says “month” three times, while giving clear examples of how your money will be used. When you toggle across each option the example changes. Well done.

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Jessie joined in 2018 to give introductory webinars to nonprofit customers. She now is a Senior Solution Developer supporting nonprofits and education customers at Salesforce. All opinions expressed on this blog are her own or those of the contributors. She's spent 17 years more or less in CRMs and databases, but didn't meet Salesforce until 2011. Jessie co-led the Seattle Salesforce Nonprofit User Group in 2015-2016. She wrote a sh*tty first draft of a novel and hopes to turn it into a screenplay!

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