If there is one thing that is almost entirely unique to the world of nonprofit websites (compared to the for-profit companies I have assisted for the past 10 years), it is the part of the donation form (or response device) we call the gift array.

This is also referred to as an ask array, an ask ladder, or suggested gift amounts. This assembling of giving options (or buttons, depending on the site) seems to be a common staple on just about everybody’s main online donation form.

In the for-profit world, we really only see this in buying gift cards. And though a gift is about to happen, the situation is different as it is expected that there will be some sort of product/service that comes with that.

So here’s my question: has anyone really asked why we put them there in the first place? Why not just let them tell us what they want to give? Chances are, we put them there because someone once said that they inspire people to be more generous, or to give when they wouldn’t have. And actually, that may well have been true for a given situation and time.

Does this gift array, and its presentation, really have any impact on generosity RIGHT NOW?  Is it OK that people are just defaulting to gift arrays? And is it OK that they are starting with a higher amount rather than a lower amount?

At NextAfter, we’re in the middle of conducting a field study on how organizations respond to certain giving situations, and part of that study involved us making a massive amount of anonymous donations on main donation pages across just about every different nonprofit vertical. And what we noticed is that a) organizations are all about using the classic gift array and b) a LOT of organizations like to start with HIGHER amounts first in the eye-path.

Here is an example (left to right)

website donation form

Or a mobile example (top to bottom)

Mobile donation form

I mean really, why would you start with a higher amount? What is the logic?

“Well, it’s going to encourage people to give more,” someone thought, “because higher amounts are presented first as their options…and by emphasizing giving more we will convince them to give more!”

Is that how we really think of our donors?

The real question we need to ask is this: what effect does the gift array’s presentation truly have on individuals who are contemplating that gift? Does it really affect them?

Obviously some people will not care and make their donations regardless. But if there is a large enough group of people that DO care, I wouldn’t want to lose them at this donation opportunity (and possibly forever) because of my array presentation.

So we put it to the test. One of our partners, CaringBridge, offers free personal, protected websites for people to easily share updates and receive support and encouragement from their community during a health journey. Here is what their gift array on most of their donation pages looks like:


The control (original) uses a rising suggested amount approach (start with the lowest ($50) on the left (assuming visitors in this case naturally read left to right) and then end with the highest ($250). On mobile, it stacks on top of each other with the lower amount first.

We put this approach to the test by switching the $50 and $250 options, so that people reading left to right would see the HIGHER option FIRST. And the same in mobile… higher amount first stacked.


donation gift array


So what was the result?

The treatment’s high-to-low emphasis approach achieved a whopping 15.7% DECREASE in gifts, AND a 11.3% DECREASE in Average Gift size, resulting in a total 25.2% statistically significant DECREASE in giving revenue.

So, by showing the larger amount first, many visitors were LESS likely to donate, and LESS likely to give in larger amounts. And that was the ONLY change. Nothing else.

But why?

“We have found that people give to not-for-profits not as faceless organizations but humanize them as people…”  -Josh McQueen

It is possible that people see your array as more than just an array.  They also see the way in which you present the array as a point of communication from you, much like how body language communicates in real life. If this is the case, then let’s examine what this high-to-low approach subtly communicates to someone:

  • Lower amounts are less acceptable.
  • “Sure, we’ll TAKE your donation, but we might not appear as happy about it, or, we really don’t prefer the lower amounts… that’s why they’re last… duh.”

This would explain the drop in completed gifts altogether.  Some people (to the tune of 15.7%) probably felt that their small gift wouldn’t be appreciated, simply because it was at the bottom of the list. It would be no different if the gift array started at $500 and moved its way up the ladder to $5,000.

“Anything less than $500 isn’t significant,” the array says. Even though any gift is better than zero, that is not communicated here. When one starts backwards, from high to low, the lower gifts are devalued psychologically.

But wait… shouldn’t the average gift amount have at least gone up??? After all, we are emphasizing larger gifts, so even if we lose some donations, the larger gifts should have made up for it. That’s the fundraiser’s mindset, not the donor’s. To that stereotypical fundraiser, it’s moneyball, statistics, number crunching… winning the game. To the actual person giving the gift, it’s something entirely different.

Let’s think about the donor that wants to give $50. When the array is presented high to low, then $50 ALREADY looks bad. If the donor upgrades to $60… $75…what difference does that make? According to the high-to-low array, the organization doesn’t really notice. They notice the big gifts, so there is no additional benefit to the giver to give a little more because it seems like the organization doesn’t want it or care. BUT… what about the array that goes from low to high?

So back to the $50 giver. The first option they see is the lowest – $50. And they are thinking… “you know, I really appreciate this organization so much… how about I give a little more?” And all the sudden that increase in giving becomes an UPGRADE.

Now the donor feels like their slight donation increase just morphed into a mid-tier gift, instead of being an “unappreciated low tier gift” despite the increase in amount, because it rose above what appears to be what the organization deems as desirable (meaning, we as humans interpret their first option as what is considered desirable and acceptable, similar to how we interpret a body that leans into a conversation as interested).


“Users [of digital experiences] will infer a psychology whether or not the designers intended this. For this reason, I believe designers must embed appropriate psychological cues.”  -Dr. B.J. Fogg

Your donation page carries a conversation with the person whether you like it or not. People read into this stuff!

It is our responsibility to make sure our digital experiences communicate how we truly feel about our donors: deep appreciation. And if we truly don’t want to accept someone’s lower donation amount and only want donors willing to give a minimum large amount, then we get what we deserve.

Read the original experiment write up from NextAfter here.