Catching a Crowdfunder’s Eye

How funders choose who to donate to

“I like this guy. I see that he needs help but he also seems like someone who can be helped,” said Mike, a donor, pointing at the Watsi site during a contextual interview. I asked 10 different donors to use Watsi, a non-profit crowdfunding site to get a better understanding of what drives people to donate to some cases over other and to discover what makes someone like “this guy”.

Over the past 5 years, non-profit and B-corp crowdfunding sites have grown in popularity by allowing donors to both support a cause and feel more connected to the person that they are funding. I studied the startup Watsi to get a better understanding of how people choose who to support.

What is Watsi?

Watsi is a non-profit that uses crowdfunding to raise money for patients from around the globe to help them with their medical bills. The startup works with foundations to find patients that need a straight-forward medical procedure that can have a huge impact on their quality of life. A donor can select a patient from a list and donate directly to that campaign. Each patient has a photo and a profile that states their background, the diagnoses, and the amount of funding that they’ve received. Typically, there are around twelve patients that need funding at one time, but the donor is also able to see fully-funded campaigns. I will admit that I partially chose Watsi because I believed in their mission. The other part is that their concept and layout is similar to other crowdfunding sites so these results can be applied to other start-ups.

For the test, I contextually interviewed potential donors as they navigated the site, and made decisions about which campaign to fund. This particular setup is ever so slightly different from a usability test because I am not observing how the user performs the tasks, but rather what the user thinks in a certain situation. I studied 10 donors and told them to pretend a friend gave them a $25 gift card that they had to use on the Watsi site.

What I discovered

  • 7 out of 10 users funded children
  • 3 out of 10 funded patients with the same medical problem as a family member
  • 4 out of 10 focused on the patient’s condition and their type of treatment when reading the patient’s profile
  • 3 out of 10 focused on the patient’s background story and if the patient had a support system when reading their profile
  • 6 out of 10 had questions on how the money was spent
  • 6 out of 10 were overwhelmed when they first saw the patient’s list

My hypothesis

I started this test with the hypothesis that donors would search for patients that reminded them of someone they loved or themselves. What I discovered was a little more complicated. Many of the donors I sampled used various criteria to narrow down the list patients instead of searching for a specific patient that fit a familiar profile.

3 out of the 10 donors did fit my hypothesis. Even though it was a smaller amount than I expected, they were the ones who were the most motivated to find a patient to fund. They were more likely to search for a particular person rather than browse the different profiles. This is where scannability plays a huge role. If the information is easier to find, the donor will use their energy to focus on the patient’s story and not on actually finding the patient.

The age factor

For the majority of individuals that I sampled, age was the most important selection criteria... “I am drawn to the kids. Not because I think it is less important to fund adults but because they have longer to go in life,” said Katie. Most donors touched on the idea of hope and one donor expressed the hope that the child would completely forget what happen to him and grow into a healthy adult. Children are perceived as resilient and that they can achieve their goals if they can get past their medical problems. It is important for the profile to highlight what the parents and children hope for in the future. By giving the donors a fuller picture of the patient’s potential life, the donor will have more of a connection to the patient.

Two of the donors who picked adults patients, knew that other donors were more likely to fund the children and they wanted to make sure that the adults were also able to receive funding. It is interesting that some of the donors are aware of other’s donors selection process.

Other factors

Other factors that donors took into account were the amount of funding the patient needed, if the diagnosis was a chronic illness or just needed an one time solution, the recovery and the community. Most of the time it was a combination of factors or the lack of a factor that would cause donor to select the patient.

Analyzing the profiles

When searching through the profiles, half of the group focused on the personal story. They were looking at the patient’s personality, family and community. They wanted to know if the children had parents that could care for them and if the adults had family dependent on them. The other half of the donors focused on the details of the diagnosis. They wanted to know the treatment, the cost breakdown, the recovery time and the expected outcome. It was also important to know what would happen if the procedure was not administered. In different ways, both of sets of the donors are trying to figure out who is the most likely to thrive. The donors who were looking at the diagnosis were looking to see if the medical problem is solvable. The donors who were focused on the community, family and personality wanted to understand if there was a support system to help the patient through the treatment. Both parties were piecing together how the patient would live after the treatment.

“This is so sad”

What I never expected was how overwhelmed most of the donors felt when viewing the patient lists. Typically there are only twelve patients that need funding and then a long lists of successful campaigns. Still, the sight of the twelve patients caused two of the donors to want to leave the site. One donor summed it up when she said “When I come to his page, I want to feel good about helping someone and I instantly feel like ‘oh snap’, I don’t know who to help, what to do or how to navigate.” A total of six donors felt overwhelmed by the series of patient pictures. Two were annoyed that they couldn’t split the gift card between the patients. This is a good example of a balancing act between encouraging empathy and not overwhelming the donors. Watsi needs the emotional pull but the problem is when the pull is too much and it emotionally knocks the donor down.


Even though I went into the study to focus on how donors view profiles, I realized that the biggest painpoint is the fact that donors often feel overwhelmed by the list of patients to crowd fund. The main goal of the patient list should be to have the donor select a patient as quickly as possible. If they spend less time searching the patient’s list to find information, then they are less likely to be overwhelmed by the information. Designers can do this by reducing the number of listed patients, improving the search function and scannability of the information.

Scannability is usually the easiest pain point to solve because all the designer has to do is add some subtitles and play with the information hierarchy. Based off this study, donors are looking for the patient’s age, type of disease, the solution, the community and the funding. Donors can guess the patient’s age by looking at the profile, so that is automatically the easiest information to process. Next, they want to know the disease because they have a connection to someone who had the disease or to empathize with the patient or to rationalize how the money is going to help fix the problem. Donors will probably not have that much medical knowledge, but they will still have strong feelings about treatments. Break down the information so that the donors feel more informed and break it down into ideas that anyone can comprehend. Ideas like where the money is going, the recovery time, what would happen if the treatment doesn’t happen and the best possible solution. If donors can find the information as quickly as they want to, they can go from feeling empathy to feeling like they are part of the solution.

Talk about the money. Watsi is a non-profit where 100% of the donation goes to the patients and their operational costs are covered by a separate donation to the Watsi foundation. Even though I told the donors this information, they still wanted to insure that the money went directly to the patient. Watsi does a good job about being transparent, but I learned that no matter how transparent crowdfunding sites are, donors are always going to be suspicious of strangers trying to game the system. A work-around is explaining the money’s journey from Watsi to the patient. Tell the donor if the money goes directly to the hospital, to another non-profit working with the patient, or directly to the patient. Then simply explain why. Answer as many questions about the funding so that the donors don’t make up your answers.

Final Thoughts

This study only answers one of the many “Whys” of crowdfunding. By asking the question “Why are you funding this campaign”, I was able to understand more about the information hierarchy, the emotional triggers and basic layout. It uncovered issues with trust and lack of information. Through questioning that one “Why,” I found ten different ideas to design around. This is why conducting even a simple research test can greatly impact a product.