Is Overhead All In Your Head? How Cognitive Psychology (and Font Colors) Can Drive Donations

Nick Hamlin, GlobalGiving’s Senior Business Intelligence Analyst, shares results of a recent experiment on the GlobalGIving website. (Photo courtesy of The Muse)

Nick Hamlin, GlobalGiving’s Senior Business Intelligence Analyst, shares results of a recent experiment on the GlobalGIving website. (Photo courtesy of The Muse)

No one likes worrying about the overhead costs associated with nonprofit work, and rightly so!  For years, overhead ratio has been of the only metrics that donors could use to compare philanthropic choices.  More recently, conversations like The Overhead Myth have pointed out that the world’s best businesses need operating capital to innovate and succeed, so why should nonprofits be any different?  Even though better measures of impact and effectiveness are increasingly available and accepted, a typical donor’s natural reaction when they see a percentage come up in a conversation about nonprofit fees is to interpret it as an overhead ratio. And most donors still don’t like overhead.

For us at GlobalGiving, this presents a challenge.  While we retain a 15% fee on donations through our website, our actual administrative overhead ratio is around 2%. Despite testing several different ways of demonstrating and explaining the difference between our fee and and our overhead, we still get lots of questions about our fees from users who assume that the two are the same. To help fix this, we recently asked ourselves: what if it’s not the explanation text that’s the problem, but how users are experiencing and processing the information it contains?

For inspiration, we turned to the world of cognitive psychology.  In his famous Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes how we all have two systems at work in our brains.  System 1 is our intuitive, quick-reacting, subconscious mind, while System 2 is analytical, logical, and methodical.  He mentions a 2007 study that tried to use the interaction between these two systems to improve scores on the “cognitive reflection test”.  This short quiz consists of questions that seem simple at first, but have a “wrinkle” that makes them more complex than they appear (try them yourself). Half the participants in the study took the test normally, while the other half took the test under a cognitive load, meaning the questions they received were written in a lighter font that made them slightly harder to read. The researchers found that the second group performed much better on the test, presumably because the cognitive load caused their analytical System 2 processes to take over from their more reactionary System 1 minds.  Once in this “more logical” frame of mind, they were much better equipped to tackle the tricky problems.

After reading about this study, I wondered if we could replicate the results on GlobalGiving to help donors process the explanation of our fee and the accompanying invitation to ‘add-on’ to their donation to cover this fee on behalf of their chosen nonprofit. Our hypothesis was that donors usually use System 1 when thinking about our add-on ask; they quickly assume that the 15% represents overhead and they’re less inclined to donate additional funds to cover it. But, if they engage their System 2 mindset that makes them process the text more analytically, hopefully they’ll find the explanation more convincing and be more likely to add-on. To find out if this would work, we planned a simple test in which a subset of users would be randomly chosen to see a slightly modified version of the add-on page during their checkout process.  This page would have exactly the same text, just shown in a slightly lighter font that, we’d hope, would trigger the cognitive load and drive extra add-on contributions.

Users in the control group saw this unmodified add-on prompt.

Users in the control group saw this unmodified add-on prompt.

The test group received this add-on prompt with a decreased font contrast to create cognitive load.

The test group received the second add-on prompt with a decreased font contrast to create cognitive load.

The plan made sense in theory, but we had to be careful as we put it into practice.  First, we needed to make sure that the random assignment process, made possible by our Optimizely A/B testing framework, was running correctly and that all the data we would need to analyze the results was logged properly in our database.  Even more importantly, we have an obligation to our nonprofit partners to make sure we’re doing everything possible to maximize the funds they can raise by offering a seamless website experience for donors.  If this experiment caused users in the treatment group to become less likely to complete their donation, we’d need to know right away so we could stop the test.

We set up a pilot study where we closely monitored whether the cognitive load caused by the change in font color would cause potential donors to leave the checkout process prematurely.  We also kept a close eye on post-donation survey feedback to see if anyone mentioned the changed font color.  Fortunately, there was no difference in donation rates or feedback during this initial test, and we felt comfortable continuing with the larger experiment, which ran two weeks at the end of July (just before the launch of our new website).  In the end, we collected results from about 700 eligible users.

So what did we find? 49.4% of our control group chose to contribute towards the fee, compared to 56.8% of users who saw the lighter font.  This sounds like there’s reason to believe users were engaging their System 2 brains and processing the request for an additional donation. But, it would be premature to declare success without additional analysis.  Specifically, we wanted to make sure there wasn’t another explanation for the difference in add-on rates.

For example, it’s possible that users who were new to GlobalGiving would be less familiar with our fee and therefore less likely to want to add-on to their donation to offset it.  Similarly, donors contributing during a matching campaign might be especially inclined to make sure that the most money possible went to their favorite organization and, as a result, would add-on more often.  So, in our analysis, we statistically controlled for these factors, along with the size and geographic origin of each donation, to get our most pure estimate of the effect of the cognitive load.

The final result was a 7.8 percentage point increase in add-on rates with a P-value of 0.046. This means that we have only a 4.6% chance of seeing results at least as large as these purely by chance.  If we take this increase and estimate what might happen if we made the change on the whole site, we expect we’d see around another $27,000 in additional funding created for our project partners over the course of a year.  That may not sound like much in the context of the $35M+ that will be donated through the site in 2015, but it’s not a bad return for our partners for just changing a font color!

These are exciting results that suggest the possibility of a new way of thinking about how we present our fee, and there’s still plenty of work to be done.  Longer runtimes and larger sample sizes would give us even more confidence in our results and let us explore other potentially important factors, like seasonal effects.  Thinking about how we might integrate these results into our new website also presents opportunities for follow-up experimentation as we continue to Listen, Act, Learn, and Repeat on behalf of our nonprofit partners around the world.


Special thanks to my classmates Vincent Chio and Wei Shi in the UC Berkeley Masters of Information and Data Science program for their help with this analysis and to Kevin Conroy for his support throughout the project.

GlobalGiving Powers Philanthropy Behind The Sustainable Development Goals

SDG_SocialSharePostOn September 25, 2015, GlobalGiving announced a new initiative, GlobalGiving for Global Goals, in support of nonprofits around the world that are contributing toward the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their work in their communities. As world leaders have come together to commit to 17 Global Goals to end extreme poverty, fight inequality & injustice, and fix climate change during UN Week in New York, GlobalGiving is mobilizing individual donors, corporations, and philanthropists to take action around these goals.

The Millennium Development Goals, the predecessors to the SDGs, shaped the international development agenda over the past three decades. Since 1990, more than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, cutting the rate of poverty in half worldwide. But there is still much work to be done, and this time, the new SDGs aim to foster a more inclusive effort by governments, the private sector, and civil society to finish the job. GlobalGiving is supporting thousands of vetted nonprofit organizations around the world that have long been working to address the issues laid out by the SDG agenda.


The new GlobalGiving Global Goals initiative features sustainable development projects that address each of the 17  Goals. GlobalGiving has vetted each of the featured nonprofits, and they are among GlobalGiving’s highest-ranked organizations; those that are committed to learning and effectiveness.

“We believe that locally-driven organizations committed to listening to their communities are in a powerful position to make lasting change in regard to poverty, climate change, and inequality. The launch of the SDGs is a great opportunity to raise the profile of those local changemakers, whose voices are vital in this conversation, and also to help individual and institutional donors identify opportunities to make meaningful contributions toward the goals,” said John Hecklinger, Chief Program Officer at GlobalGiving.


It is not only individuals who are interested in new ways to make strides toward the SDGs. Private companies, grantmakers, and other philanthropic organisations are also working with GlobalGiving to channel funding toward local projects addressing the goals. The SDG Philanthropy Platform aims to build a means for philanthropy to engage with, and participate more effectively in the Post-2015 Agenda, and amplify the voice and action of grant makers and grantees in determining and achieving international targets and strategies. GlobalGiving is proud to partner with the SDG Philanthropy Platform to help philanthropists support effective development outcomes around the globe. Visit for more information.

Learn how you can get involved with the GlobalGiving Global Goals at

CHIME FOR CHANGE: Takeaways from a successful girls and women campaign

Picture2In the world of philanthropy, the conversation around girls and women continues to pick up steam. Recent articles by Bill Gates and the NoVo Foundation highlight the importance of empowering girls and women, and here at GlobalGiving we’ve seen a spike in corporate interest in the topic.

We’ve learned a lot from running campaigns on this topic, like the highly successful CHIME FOR CHANGE campaign, founded by Gucci and partners Salma Hayek Pinault & Beyonce Knowles-Carter. Here are five things that have made this cause marketing effort stand out.

 1. Relevant Theme                                     

When Gucci and its partners launched CHIME FOR CHANGE, there was a clear connection between the business and the campaign’s focus on education, health, and justice for girls and women. They chose to support a cause their customers and ambassadors can easily connect with and join, which increases any campaign’s chance for success.

Key Takeaway: It should go without saying that the cause a company decides to champion should be relevant to its business. Marketing an unfocused idea that leaves the public wondering “Why?”  can be a costly distraction that won’t do much to benefit your cause, so double and triple check that the focus is intuitive to your audience and relevant to your business.

2. Global Reach, Local Impact

When CHIME  first launched with Catapult, and subsequently partnered with GlobalGiving, Gucci and its partners were looking for locally-driven projects they could impact through the campaign. Focusing on their chosen themes of education, health, and justice for girls and women, we’re using our expertise in crowdfunding and international vetting to source local projects from around the world to be featured on the CHIME FOR CHANGE website. Through its efforts to date, the campaign has raised more than $7 million to fund more than 420 projects run by 144 nonprofit partners in 88 countries. 

Key Takeaway: It may seem daunting to go global and local at the same time — from reputational risk to tax law, there’s a lot to consider. Luckily, there are organizations that have expertise in navigating the international nonprofit sphere and measuring local impact. They do it so you don’t have to and so your company isn’t left behind in the race to be both global and local with giving.  

3. Share Stories of Impact

Telling stories has been central to the CHIME FOR CHANGE campaign. From Erin Helfert’s triumph in gaining a conviction in her rape case in Moroccan court to Razia Jaweed’s journey in learning to speak features stories of women who have been empowered to make changes in their lives and communities. Managing Editor Mariane Pearl explains: “Their stories are shaping a different story for mankind, a new narrative built from the heart and made of hope.”

Key Takeaway: With so many great causes around the world worth supporting, we all wish we could just say “Please help!” and that would be enough to mobilize the world. But let’s be honest: in the fight for the global consciousness, persistent humanitarian issues don’t have it easy. Using stories can help you draw emotional connections with your audience, making your cause feel more personal and real. For tips on how to tell a great story, visit

4. Help Me Help You

On the CHIME website, users aren’t in danger of clicking themselves into a confused frenzy trying to figure out how they can be a part of the cause. The first thing you see on the homepage is a Take Action link that, when clicked, prompts you to either #CHIMEIN on Facebook or Twitter or donate to support a project. Powered by GlobalGiving’s API services, anyone can easily donate to featured projects such as “Help Young Women Rebuild Nepal” or “Healing for Sexual Violence Survivors in Colombia.”

Key Takeaway: “This story really hit home for me. How can I help?”  If there’s one question any cause marketing manager can expect from the public, it’s this. Just take a look at the comments section of this recent New York Times piece. Readers were touched by the compelling story of a mother separated from her son and wanted to know how to take action. Don’t make your audience do the heavy lifting. You’ve already inspired them to want to help your cause, so all that’s left is to give them an easy way to do it. 

5. Demand the Spotlight, and Keep it Alive

CHIME FOR CHANGE certainly didn’t waste time waiting for the spotlight to fall on their campaign. Team CHIME has been busy since the start using a variety of mediums to reach different target audiences.  Just last week it was announced that CHIME has partnered with Global Citizen to present the September 2015 Global Citizen Festival in Central Park.  As a result, a tremendous amount of attention is being paid to the issues surrounding girls and women worldwide. How do they do it?

  • Earning the support of leading celebrity women like co-founders Salma Hayek and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
  • Launching global events like the Sound of Change Live Concert Event, which featured performers like Florence and the Machine, Ellie Goulding and John Legend, and the upcoming Global Citizen Festival®
  • Features on the world stage at prestigious gatherings like TEDWomen and International Women’s Day.
  • Harnessing the power of technology to drive change by launching Twitter campaigns like #CHIMEHACK and recent #CHIMEHACK 2.

Key Takeaway: Build it and they will come…right? Not so much.  During a time when the public is constantly bombarded with information, commanding the attention of your audience is crucial. Take a leaf out of CHIME’s book by trying different modes of communication to reach a broader audience.


To donate to a project through CHIME FOR CHANGE or learn more about the campaign’s work with girls and women, visit:

If you need help with your cause marketing campaign give GlobalGiving a call at 877.605.2314 or visit us at:

GlobalGiving’s Big Bet

Betting On Impact

How we’re using gamification, incentives, and behavioral economics for good.

We all want our donations to have the most impact possible. But how do we choose which nonprofits to support? And how does an organization like GlobalGiving, working with nonprofits in 165 countries, measure, compare, incentivize, and reward effective nonprofits doing everything from providing affordable housing in Nicaragua to restoring buffalo on Lakota land, to teaching organic farming to at-risk teens in Indonesia?)

Well, we’ve made a Big Bet about how we can do just that, and today marks a major milestone as we’re working to drive more money to more effective organizations. Starting today, the organizations on GlobalGiving that we believe are more effective—those nonprofits that are committed to learning—will be rewarded with more visibility and the chance for more funding through the crowdfunding community.

GG_Rewards_Logo_whiteWe’re using gamification, incentives, and behavioral economics to encourage organizations to listen to the people they serve, to act on what they hear by testing new ideas, and to learn faster and more efficiently. (We call this the Cycle of Progress: Listen, Act, Learn. Repeat.)

The Cycle of Progress: Listen, Act , Learn, Repeat

We’ve created a new ranking system, which we’re calling GG Rewards, that helps us identify which nonprofits are climbing the GG Rewards ladder as Partners, Leaders, and Superstars. We’ve developed this system in collaboration with our nonprofit partners, with researchers, and peers. We’ll continue to improve as we learn more in the coming months. (In case you’ve been following our progress, the GG Rewards system is a big improvement on the Effectiveness Dashboards and Partner Rewards rankings we’ve been experimenting with for several years.)

GG Rewards Status

When our partners log on to GlobalGiving today, they’ll see their GG Rewards Status, a list of benefits their status affords them, and then they’ll have immediate access to tools and resources that can help them log more Effectiveness and Engagement points that will help increase their scores. Nonprofits not only get points for reporting to their donors, but they can also earn points for interviewing stakeholders, collecting community stories, or collecting feedback from the people they intend to help, for example.

We know that 40% of our partners log into our system every week, and we have data that demonstrates that they’ll take actions to improve their ranking because it leads to more funding, so we’re making sure those actions will help the nonprofits not only become better fundraisers but also more effective at meeting the needs of their communities.

As nonprofits demonstrate their commitment to learning and improving, they’ll now have increased visibility on GlobalGiving, and we’re confident that Superstars will reap tangible rewards. Stay tuned as we roll out ways for donors to search for and find effective organizations!

Versions of this article have also been published by GuideStar and Markets for Good

Unveiling GlobalGiving 6.0… Little by Little by Little


Do we look a little… different to you?

Our team is hard at work re-designing the GlobalGiving website so that it’s faster, easier, and more fun for donors, nonprofits, companies, and everyone else around the globe. Especially for users on mobile devices! Today you’re seeing the first bit of it in place: the header and footer (with a few new pages in between.)

Rather than hiding away and working for years on a new design and launching it all at once hoping you’ll love it, we’re designing and launching GlobalGiving version 6.0 in sections. This helps us gather feedback as we go, allowing us to iterate to a much better design.

Thanks for bearing with us in the meantime, while the site looks slightly…er… Frankenstein-ish. (“Excuse me while I take this body copy from 2009 and pair it with a footer from 2015…”)  You can expect to see many more beautiful pages launching soon. In the next few months we’ll be rolling out new project pages and have a much better search experience for everyone, (especially you mobile web users!)

Please feel free to share any feedback you have, or any suggestions for how we can make GlobalGiving even better for you.