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The Psychology of User Behavior for Nonprofits


By Will Schmidt

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

Take a minute to think about the specific goals you and your staff have set for your nonprofit. Maybe you want to drive donations to a crowdfunding campaign, recruit new peer-to-peer fundraisers, or increase monthly recurring donors.

While each goal is different, they’re united by a desired outcome—you want a user to take action and support your organization. The question is how you’re supposed to encourage this type of user behavior.

According to Terry Breschi, former product design manager at Classy, one answer is to create an environment that makes people want to take action. To his mind, you need to employ a twofold approach to do this.

First, you must create, implement, and tell a coherent narrative and then you must build empathy with your users’ perspective. Below, Terry walks us through how this fits together and how you can start applying behavior design to your organization.

A Story Is More Than Just Words

You need to present a coherent narrative if you want to tell a story that influences someone’s behavior. The operative word here is coherent—it can’t be disjointed.

Often, I see pages that have no flow to them. In those cases, it doesn’t matter what images you use or where the buttons are on your page. If people can’t understand what’s going on, they’re going somewhere else.”

Terry Breschi

Former Product Design Manager

Your narrative is bigger than any one section on your website or Classy page. It’s all of them working together. From adding a headline image of your nonprofit’s logo, all the way through powerful impact block copy, your entire page needs to show:

  • The problem you’re solving
  • How you’re solving it
  • How people can help
  • The specific impact that supporters can have

“All the specific design elements on your page, their layout, or the hierarchy of information should be built in the name of communicating the answers to these questions.”

Terry Breschi

Former Product Design Manager

Microsoft published a popular report that states humans only have an eight-second attention span. As you answer these questions, that means it’s also crucial you snare someone’s attention before they lose interest and move on.

“People are inundated all the time with new things to watch, try, or sample. In the design world, we say we live in an economy of attention. If you can grab attention, educate, or entertain people you’re winning half the battle.”

Terry Breschi

Former Product Design Manager

A strong narrative will take you far, but it isn’t the end of your work. You have to sustain the momentum it generates by building empathy with your users.

Your Users Are Human Beings…

When you take the time to empathize with your users and understand their perspective, you can secure a stronger understanding of their mindsets, needs, and lived experiences, and use that information to create a user experience that naturally guides them down a certain path.

One of the best ways to get this ball rolling, according to Terry, is to pretend the people landing on your pages have never heard of your nonprofit. Imagine yourself in their position, then ask questions like:

  • Where could they enter your page from?
  • Where might they exit your page to?
  • What immediately draws their attention?
  • Is there anything that may distract their attention?
  • Are there calls to action that they can click?
  • Is your narrative clear, coherent, and actionable?

Outside of these questions, another tactic that can inform your design is to speak directly with your users. After all, these are people—not numbers, profiles, or personas. Go beyond your own speculation and discover who they are, what they like, and how they interact with your page.

…So Speak With Them

It may seem intimidating or overwhelming to reach out to your users in an effort to build empathy with them. However, Terry assures us it’s a relatively straightforward process that requires no coding or design experience at all.

For example, let’s say you need to come up with a way to increase your monthly recurring donors. You can easily build a crowdfunding campaign on Classy that presents the problem your organization solves, how you aim to solve it, and ways people can get involved through recurring donations.

After that, publish the campaign but don’t share it with your entire audience. Instead, share it only with a select few people. Think of it as a soft launch. Further, it’s important you have a relationship with these individuals—maybe they’ve donated a few times, or volunteered at your events.

Be upfront and clear that you’re running a test on recurring giving donations, and you specifically want to hear their feedback. At the same time, don’t divulge too much information about the details of your test so as not to bias their opinions.

Then, give them the campaign link and see what happens:

  • What are their initial reactions?
  • Did they gloss over any sections meant to grab their attention?
  • Did they sign up as a recurring donor?
  • Do they have any feedback, positive or negative?

Whatever the result, you’ve taken the time to get inside the head of your user and empathize with their perspective. Not only can this help you design a page that encourages your users to take action, but it also builds trust and loyalty among your supporters.

An Example in Action

Recently, Classy did a monthly recurring giving optimization test that stands as a real-world example of this put together. Specifically, we tested two prototype models for the process of making a monthly gift.

The first was a radio button that people could click to make their donation a monthly gift. However, when Terry sent this out for user testing he noticed a lot of people clicked the button simply because it was on the page.

Those people likely didn’t realize what they signed up for. And while getting these monthly recurring gifts might be good for your conversion rates on paper, it also has larger implications for your organization.

If someone opts into a monthly gift without knowing what they’re signing up for, they could feel duped. That, in turn, could cause a negative reaction to, or experience with, your nonprofit. The second prototype we used was much clearer with regard to what people were signing up for.

What was really cool about changing the location of those buttons and surfacing the monthly giving option was that it gave people a choice. That’s empowering. Give someone the ability to make an impact the way they want instead of forcing them down a path they might not want to be on.”

Terry Breschi

Former Product Design Manager

Pro Tip
Terry follows the Google Design sprint model to tackle big challenges like this and get immediate feedback before releasing products to the public. To help your organization create, test, get feedback, and launch, he recommends the book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days.

Remember, this entire process is interactive, so work hard to not get too caught up in your organization’s own goals. Don’t forget that your users are humans with distinct opinions, perspectives, and habits. The more you can build empathy for them, the stronger your overall narrative will become.

How to Design a Stunning Campaign Page on Classy

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