Behavioural design – An NFP case study

We’re not all as rational as we like to think we are. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, what if it was getting in the way of our goals? Like say, raising money for charity. Wouldn’t we want a way to solve this problem?

Josh Smith

By Josh Smith, 30 May 202212 minute read

What is behavioural design?

Humans make a lot of decisions. Many we believe to be conscious and rational when oftentimes this isn’t true. For good reason, through evolution and the many social and ideological factors that shape us, we have established hundreds of biases or shortcuts to help us make quicker and less taxing choices, even if they’re not necessarily good ones. 

Take the default effect – a tendency to generally accept the status quo. A European study found that despite a 90 percent preference by drivers to donate their organs, countries with an 'opt-out' default resulted in fewer than 15 percent of people becoming donors. By comparison, countries with an ‘opt-in’ default resulted in 90 percent becoming donors. Taking this further, countries could employ many other additional biases, such as social proof to reinforce the stated preference. E.g. Ninety percent of people choose to opt-in.

By acknowledging these biases common in our behaviour, we as behavioural designers can determine, through research, the positive outcome people are seeking to achieve (e.g. donating organs) and use these shortcuts and patterns to promote decision making that improves social and economic outcomes.

Why is behavioural design important?

Research can tell us who our customers are as well as what they are trying to achieve and why. Great design can be inventive and allow us to explore beautiful ways of facilitating an outcome. And, testing is an excellent tool for determining how well a solution is working. However, while psychology is employed through the UX process, none of these steps explicitly examines known and established human biases. Enter behavioural design. Behavioural design provides the process to examine known traps and implement ways to avoid them.  


The 3B’s model by Irrational Labs was established from over four decades of research in behavioural economics. In recognition of the many biases standing between a person and their desired outcomes, Irrational Labs created a framework that recognises and accommodates them. Using this model, we will identify (1) a behaviour we want to influence and (2) the associated blockers to it. Finally, (3) we will implement key benefits that can be used to overcome them. 

The behaviour(s) for this case study

  1. Moving from a one-off donation to regular giving
  2. Increasing regular donations for long-term donors

Stated alone, these behaviours might not seem purely in the best interest of the giver. However, this case study does not aim to demonstrate how we could manipulate people to become donors. Rather, it is based on Luminary’s research with NFPs that found people who have already decided to donate, are highly motivated by increasing their impact. Both behaviours, therefore, have the underlying goal to create or maintain this desired level of impact.

For a guide to ethical behaviour design, see Nir Eyal’s model on how to determine the morality of behaviour change or Astrid Groenewegen’s excellent resources on behavioural design ethics. It will be the goal of this case study to stay within the lines of influence and not stray into manipulation.

The blockers and benefits

From here on out, we will use wireframe user interface (UI) examples to demonstrate the potential blockers to behavioural change as well as the benefits we can create through design to overcome them. 

Luminary is a digital agency, established in 1999. We take on our clients’ big challenges and deliver beautiful, usable and performant products and experiences. Over the years, we’ve seen every change in digital imaginable, including the fundamental shift toward putting human behaviour at the centre of everything we do.  Behavioural design is one such way that we can do that. 

Case study

A large number of Luminary’s clients are NFPs, so we saw an opportunity to showcase how behavioural design could impact their donations. 

There are endless ways our money can be put to use. Thankfully, many choose to give some of that money to charity. As mentioned above, this case study is not interested in influencing this decision, rather it assumes this decision has already been made and that the donor has arrived at their chosen charity, ready to learn about their work and to give to a cause they care about. 

Here are some ways in which we can promote desired outcomes through behavioural design:

Blocker: We favour that which we can most easily recall

Bias: Availability heuristic

Donors will overemphasise and prioritise that which is most easily recalled, leading to blindness to all other forms of information. The content used to explain the cause, therefore, needs to be highly relevant and salient to avoid high bounce rates. 


Employ the same content that triggered the donor into action on the site itself and make it immediately available and actionable.


Blocker: Language implying a loss

Bias: Framing effect

The way in which information is ‘framed’, especially initially, heavily influences sentiment and behaviour. 


Because an individual’s choice is influenced more by how the information is worded than by the information itself, always frame toward gains when trying to drive positive behaviour.  


Blocker: Donation amounts are guesswork

Bias: Relativity 

Donors do not know the true value of any given donation, but they will take cues from any available information, including other things they pay for and what other charities say. It’s important to be cognisant of comparisons, both on and off your website, as relative to another option, a smaller dollar figure or similar ‘good enough’ outcome will become the barometer from which their decisions will be made.


Make sure your smallest dollar handle is in the ballpark of your competition, but beware of setting this too low (more on anchoring shortly). 

Blocker: The problem is too big and unrelatable

Bias: Compassion fade 

We have a tendency to behave more compassionately toward a small number of identifiable affected individuals than toward a large number of anonymous ones. 


Start stories with individuals and end with big stats.

Compassion fade

Blocker: Influence of numbers

Bias: Anchoring bias 

We anchor heavily to the first piece of information we receive, especially financial, resulting in biased judgements of the options that follow. Trying to convince users to increase their donations once this number is ingrained, will be very difficult.


Do not introduce low numbers, monetary or otherwise, before showing donation options. Once visible, make sure the default is not the lowest option and ensure that the highest option is substantially larger than the others. 

Where possible, use known user behaviour to personalise the donation figures. For example, a visitor landing from a known philanthropy website, should be anchored to a higher number than one arriving from a volunteering page.

Blocker: The goal seems too far away

Bias: Completion bias and goal gradients 

We are motivated by the change we can see, especially as it nears completion.


Show users an indication of how close you are to your goal. To explain the progress, always try to use concrete figures. A dollar figure is seen as more concrete than a percentage, but a percentage is better than vague terms, such as halfway. Swinging the language at the 50 percent mark, from the amount raised to the amount remaining also positively frames the goal and encourages completion.

  • Below 0-49% = We’ve raised 29 percent towards our goal of $10,000
  • Above 50-100% = Were 17 percent from completing our goal of $10,000

If the goal is large, break it down into smaller pieces and apply the same raised vs completion logic.

  • Chunks (month, quarter, appeal term)
  • Give your progress bar or completion percentage a head start, by overemphasising early contributions

Blocker: The reward is too far away

Bias: Present bias (Hyperbolic discounting)

Donors are inclined to prefer a smaller immediate reward to a larger one later. 


Show the total long-term impact of donating, but prioritise the outcomes that are immediate. 


Blocker: Recency of an event overpowers historic or long-term outcomes

Bias: Recency bias

Much like present bias, donors can be dissuaded If the impact (reward) or outcome of their donation is too distant. 


Reward substitution. Break the outcomes down into chunks, by showing the impact of recent donations and immediate outcomes related to the long-term goal.


Blocker: Cognitive load

Bias: Effort bias

We’re inherently lazy. It’s not our fault, evolution has made us this way to conserve energy wherever possible. For example, we all fear lengthy application forms. 


Give an indication as to how simple and quick the process will be. E.g. This article is only a three minute read. 

Effort bias

Blocker: Lack of hierarchy or differentiation

Bias: Positioning effect 

Making choices is difficult, especially from long lists. When options are similar, we tend to favour the middle one. When things are hard to access, we tend to choose the most convenient, often the item placed at the top. However, when the options become lengthy, our ability to remember diminishes, and it is the final option that is remembered most.


Always consider the placement and number of options provided.


Blocker: Choice paralysis

Bias: Defaults 

We prefer to avoid making decisions where possible. Think of the last time you got lost in the endless options on Netflix. Defaults make choices simpler. 


By setting a default donation and providing a ‘status-quo’, we reduce friction and increase the likelihood of users sticking to the desired behaviour.


Blocker: Avoiding social conflict

Bias: Social proof

We are community-minded creatures, who tend to seek alignment over conflict. Social proof is an example of this. 


Help by explaining the decision of their peers, and attribute community-based facts to the most impactful choices.

  • ‘Most people create the greatest impact by donating $X monthly’. Or ‘Most people in ‘X’ location, donate $Y as a single gift.

Be specific to location, recency and donor type. Also include social proof not related to donations, such as the site activity of other similar users.

  • Determine whether your audience is influenced by locality and if this relates most to their town, state or country? Be very careful with going too far, as privacy can become an issue.
    • E.g. ‘X’ number of people in NSW have donated today
  • Use your email marketing to reinforce social proof, based on ongoing activities and donations. 
    • E.g. X% have increased their monthly gift by $Y, creating Z impact.

Blocker: Lacking benefit or value

Bias: Endowment, the decoy effect and the power of ‘free’ 

We love free things. Anything that comes at no cost has a net positive effect and can also be used to make a poor option look like an appealing one.


Offer free gifts and use them to create a decoy in the donation options.

  • Eg. Option 1: $50, Option 2: $95, Option 3: $95+ a free gift 

Make the gift free and something they take ownership of, such as a collectible. Preferably a physical object or totem, this item would be used to mark their donations. By doing so, they may attribute their own value. The decoy option of ‘no-gift’, then serves to elevate the higher donation value that includes one.


Blocker: Lacking motivation or urgency

Bias: Instant gratification and scarcity 

We lean heavily towards things that give us exclusivity. Think of VIP experiences or the early days of Facebook. It was the fact that limited universities were given access that drove early adoption, which drove the demand for broader public access. 


Build in a reward exclusive to new and existing donors. Look at introducing a video or piece of interactive content early in the flow, only to be fully revealed once a donation is given. This creates a desire to finish the task and be the only one of a select group to see it.

Instant gratification

Blocker: Not seeing the value of an individual contribution

Bias: Loss aversion

We don’t like to miss out. Especially once a task has been started and there is a reward at the end of it. 


As the donation progresses, show that for a limited time, their donation may be doubled by a corporate or peer donation match.

Loss aversion

Blocker: Not knowing when the task will end

Bias: Task completion effect 

Like the goal gradient mentioned above, we also like to know how close we are to finishing a personal task. Think of the checklist and how satisfying it is to finish each item, especially as we approach the bottom of the list. 


Show a user their progress and how close they are to completing their donation to reduce the likelihood of abandonment.

Task completion

Blocker: Perceived risk

Bias: Regret aversion

We are hard-wired to avoid regret. We seek every opportunity to avoid it. 


Wherever we have friction in the process, such as tool-tips for fees, also show something that speaks to the positive outcome to negate it.

Regret aversion

Blocker: Handing over money

Bias: The pain of paying 

Paying for things hurts, especially when our bank account is low. A donation is no different and this is amplified when the payment is incremental, in cash, as a fee, or taken frequently. 


To reduce this pain, limit the frequency, allow the donor to schedule the payment and recommend that it be on the days that immediately follow payday. 

Should the donor opt to make a one-off donation, allow them to define a time to be reminded for an upgrade with the recommendation that it follows salary review, tax rebates and bonus time of year.

Pain of paying

Blocker: Donors remorse

Bias: Peak end rule 

Donors will remember the peak and final experience over the average. 


If there is an unavoidable negative experience, counter it with an overwhelmingly positive one and always end on another positive. Offer thanks and encourage them to take another positive action, such as a sharable celebration.

Peak end rule

Blocker: Done enough already (existing donors)

Bias: Sunk costs and impact bias

We are wired against losing all our hard work and overestimating the impact of our actions. So, communicate with existing donors just how much they’ve contributed, ideally as a dollar figure. 


Show their contribution over time, including their initial impact and its reduction over time, due to inflation and other factors. Demonstrate how they could get back to the same impact or what a small uplift ($2/month) would do and how much quicker it would get them to their goal if all ongoing donors did it.

Sunk cost

Blocker: Lack of control and autonomy

Bias: The illusion of control

We overestimate our control over events and outcomes. However, when we can provide it, ethically we should. 


By allowing donors to cancel, pause and amend donations, we avoid feelings of being trapped and negative sentiment towards our brand. 

Illusion of control

Wrap up

The topics covered here are broad, but by no means an exhaustive list of all biases. What I hope you’ve taken away from this case study, is that not only do many of our shortcuts prevent the behaviour we wish to see but they can also be used to influence that same behaviour in a positive way. Finally, this case study is not a blanket recommendation for every organisation. Each will need to approach behavioural design individually to meet organisational and customers' needs. We at Luminary strongly recommend a case-by-case approach with rigorous user testing to define the right solution. 

Want to tap into the expertise of an agency that’s been in operation since 1999?

Get in touch

Keep Reading

Want more? Here are some other blog posts you might be interested in.