The Ethics of Opt-Out Donation Increases
Early this month, the New York Times published an article on the Donald Trump campaign’s widespread use of an “opt-out” checkbox on its online donation form. The campaign wanted to raise money quickly and sign up more recurring donors who might not take the time to read the fine print and uncheck the box to opt out of future automatic contributions.
“As the election neared, the Trump team made that disclaimer increasingly opaque,” the Times reported. “It introduced a second prechecked box, known internally as a ‘money bomb,’ that doubled a person’s contribution. Eventually its solicitations featured lines of text in bold and capital letters that overwhelmed the opt-out language.”
That strategy ensnared hundreds of thousands of loyalists of the former president, many of whom were surprised and outraged by the mounting charges. “Banks and credit-card companies were inundated with fraud complaints from the president’s own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars,” according to the article.
Ultimately, the campaign refunded 10.7 percent of the money it raised on WinRed, its for-profit online donation platform.
The prechecked box on donation pages is not unprecedented in political fundraising. And while many nonprofit fundraisers may disapprove of the tactic, some charities have also used opt-out tactics to automatically increase the size of a donor’s recurring gift.
That’s the case at Plan International USA. Shanna Marzilli, the charity’s chief marketing officer, spoke to me in 2019 about the organization’s success increasing donation sizes this way.
A direct-marketing agency had suggested this tactic based on the success of other groups that had tried it, Marzilli said. Several times as the organization sought ways to cover increasing program costs, it sent notices to donors who made recurring contributions. The notices informed donors who gave by check or credit card that their contribution would soon begin increasing unless they took action to opt out (via email, a phone call, or returning a mailed form). Donors who sponsored one child with monthly gifts would see those increase by $2 a month. Others who supported multiple children or made recurring gifts to other programs may have seen those contributions increase by another amount.
Donors who contribute quarterly or annually were also informed of the increase. However, because of banking regulations, donors who made contributions directly from their bank accounts were asked to opt in to give more.
The opt-out automation helped the charity keep administrative costs down and boosted fundraising totals, Marzilli said. The charity repeated a similar campaign in 2019 but has not done so again since then, Marzilli said in an email last week. That 2019 effort was successful, both in terms of increasing donor contributions and retaining donors, she said. Some donors received the increase notice in both 2016 and 2019.
Marzilli wasn’t concerned about donors being caught off guard by donation increases. “Nothing Plan does is automatic,” she wrote in an email. The charity sends multiple notices in the months leading up to the date the increases go into effect, she said. Plan International USA has a loyal donor base and is regularly in touch with supporters, providing updates on children who are sponsored and other ways to engage with the organization.
While the strategy may net more money in the short term, fundraising experts are highly critical. They’re wary of its potential to turn off individual donors — and harm the nonprofit world’s reputation.
The AFP Donor Bill of Rights states that fundraisers must “obtain explicit consent by donors before altering the conditions of financial transactions.” When charities ask donors to opt out, they run the risk of alienating a donor, said Robbe Healey, a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ ethics committee.
“Opting out is a passive engagement with a donor, while opting in requires them to actively engage with you,” she said. Nonprofits that are serious about stewarding and cultivating donors “want them to engage with you, not just passively allow everything you’re suggesting.”
Opt-out tactics also bank on people not reading the fine print, said Harvey McKinnon, a fundraising consultant in Canada and the author of Hidden Gold, a book about wooing monthly donors.
“Organizations that do this may make more money, but they are going to tick off a lot of donors,” he says. “It’s basically something that will trick donors who aren’t paying attention, and people resent that.”
Read what other fundraising experts had to say about this opt-out tactic for increasing donations.
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