Balancing Ad Grants & paid Google Ads to maximize fundraising ROI.

WaterAid is an international non-profit organization that brings clean water, sanitation, and hygiene to places where these things aren’t a normal part of daily life. Clean water and hygiene are a baseline for people to stay healthy and break free from poverty. WaterAid brings these basic commodities to people who wouldn’t be able to get them otherwise.

WaterAid consists of dozens of local organizations – some raise funds, some build wells, install water taps, toilets, and do other important work in poor communities. Since 2018 we work with WaterAid America and since 2020 with WaterAid Canada. Both organizations are primarily focused on raising funds and increasing brand awareness in North America. In this case study, we’ll present our cooperation with the US organization.

  • Website: wateraid.org/us
  • Location: New York, United States
  • Cooperation period: 2018 – ongoing

Marketing goals

  • Audit existing campaigns and bring them to full compliance
  • Evaluate historical campaign performance and decide which campaigns stay in the account and which will be removed
  • Increase the website traffic volume
  • Fix conversion tracking and increase the conversion volume
  • Build brand awareness by ranking high on selected keywords
  • Develop a new detailed campaign performance report
  • Configure seasonal year-end fundraising campaigns and optimize them to maximize ROI

Success Metrics

  • Ramp up grant campaigns to generate at least 1800 website visits per month
  • Configure conversion tracking and track at least 50 conversions per month
  • Achieve high ad position for selected keywords (at least 80% of ad impressions in the top part of search results)
  • Test commercial Google Ads campaigns and other performance channels

Initial situation

Google introduced new Ad Grants compliance requirements in early 2018. We list them here. As a part of this change, Google started to enforce the removal of low-quality keywords, single-word keywords, and keywords not related to the nonprofit’s mission. Also, Google started to limit the ad serving on a variety of keywords with lower relevancy, which caused a significant drop in campaign performance in a large amount of Ad Grants accounts. WaterAid wasn’t an exception here.

Keywords with a solid track record of impressions and clicks stopped working overnight, newly required automated bidding strategies did not work properly due to lacking conversion data and the old campaign structure could not be used anymore due to an incompliant number of adgroups, ads and sitelink extensions. Click volume dropped by a staggering 82% in the month following the month when new compliance requirements were introduced. Grant utilization dropped below $1000 per month. This chart demonstrates the situation:

wateraid performance chart 1

The organization also had a commercial Google Ads account that was irregularly used to run search and display fundraising campaigns. Keywords used in commercial search campaigns often conflicted with keywords used in the grant account, the account lacked proper conversion tracking and many campaigns used unnecessarily high bids that resulted in high cost per click and even higher cost per conversion.

Google Ad Grants Campaigns

Early on in our cooperation, we focused on the grant account. Dropping performance, lack of conversion tracking, and lacking compliance needed our immediate attention.

Existing campaigns were extensive and while not being entirely compliant, they’ve included many quality keywords with an established history and relatively high quality scores. Recreating everything from scratch would ruin all this and prolong the learning period needed for automated bidding strategies to work efficiently. After discussing the situation with the client we decided to:

  • Keep well-performing campaign elements in
  • Expand well-performing campaign elements as much as possible
  • Bring all campaigns to full compliance
  • Add new campaigns targeted at relevant keywords not yet included in the account
  • Configure conversion tracking
  • Optimize campaigns to meet the marketing goals asap

The performance of grant campaigns improved soon after we implemented these changes. It took about 3 months to accumulate enough conversion data for bidding algorithms to run on an optimal level. In month 4 after the change, we managed to exceed the goal of 1800 monthly website visits and 50 conversions. We’ve also used the full grant, which they weren’t able to do before.

As we progressed with data-driven campaign optimization, the performance of the grant account continued to pick up. In mid-2020 Google decided to award WaterAid with extra grant funds to help them scale their Coronavirus Appeal Handwashing campaign. These extra funds allowed us to lift campaign budgets, target bids, and significantly expand the reach of our campaigns. Campaign performance peaked in January 2021 when we managed to get:

  • Over 50k ad impressions
  • Over 4100 website visits
  • 200 conversions

wateraid performance chart 2

This extra support from Google ended in mid-2021. At that point, we cut back budgets, bids and removed keywords/ads with below-average performance. The main focus of this optimization was to maximize the click and conversion volume while using the new (smaller) budget to the maximum possible extent. We sustain this course until now and focus on improving campaign efficiency month after month.

Commercial Google Ads Campaigns

WaterAid America has a strong fundraising focus. At the beginning of our cooperation, we audited their existing commercial Google Ads account and identified keywords and other targeting options that had high conversion prospects.

We’ve also noticed that some keywords from the grant account had a lot of potential in a fundraising campaign but they were simply too competitive to get significant traction in the grant account. On the other hand, we’ve also identified keywords with relatively low competition that ran in the commercial account while they might have performed well in the free grant account. Google gives priority placements on the search results page to commercial advertisers, thereby limiting the space for grant advertisers. Using both grant and commercial accounts with similar targeting, our task was to find the balance that maximizes the total click and conversion output for the organization out of its media budget.

Following a conversation with the client we’ve:

  • Moved keywords with a low level of competitiveness from commercial account to grant account
  • Added competitive keywords with proven conversion performance from grant account to commercial to improve our reach
  • Configured value-based conversion tracking in the commercial account
  • Created tiered retargeting audiences and used them in new retargeting campaigns
  • Optimized bids, budgets, and targeting in existing campaigns to maximize fundraising ROI
  • Created and tested new creatives in a number of variants

Conversion tracking was configured on the Google Analytics level and from there distributed to both grant and commercial accounts. Accounts were synced together and the most suitable attribution models were used to bring maximum transparency to performance reporting and evaluation. Google Analytics then became a tool for comparison of the performance of grant and commercial campaigns and a source of information on which keywords/targeting methods work optimally in which account. We’ve also developed Google Data Studio reports visualizing important performance KPIs from both accounts in real-time. Uniform conversion tracking and constant testing enabled us to find an optimal combination of grant and commercial campaigns i.e. a combination that maximizes the click and conversion outcome (amount, value) generated from a defined media budget.

Besides evergreen year-round campaigns, we use a commercial Google Ads account for an annual year-end fundraising campaign. That is WaterAid’s largest campaign in terms of both media budget and raised funds. When preparing this campaign, we follow this checklist:

  1. Prepare strategy (targeting, budget distribution)
  2. Create web content / landing pages
  3. Create retargeting audiences
  4. Prepare campaign assets
  5. Configure analytics on new landing pages
  6. Launch everything
  7. Evaluate & optimize for ROI

The year-end giving season is also characterized by high seasonality. There are distinct days when the donation sentiment peaks. Our fundraising campaigns are specifically designed to target people considering donating on those days. Also, as the end year approaches we gradually push more with retargeting campaigns in an attempt to convert past website visitors to supporters.

These are the days with the highest donation prospects:

fundraising campaign timing

The Road Ahead

The ever-changing nature of WaterAid’s campaigns requires our ongoing attention. Besides regular optimization efforts, creation of new seasonal campaigns, and testing, we constantly adapt our campaigns to changes in the Google Ads environment. Switch to responsive ads, new ad extensions, adoption of ROAS-based bidding algorithms, and migration to Google Analytics 4 are some of the most recent ones.

The media space also evolves constantly. The level of competition in the online fundraising space grows exponentially as more and more nonprofit advertisers use Ad Grants and commercial Google Ads. These changes require ongoing evaluation and recalibration of our campaigns.

On the other hand, AI-powered bidding algorithms and flexible budgeting strategies are now smarter than ever, which helps us improve conversion performance beyond what would be possible with manually set bids and budgets.

WaterAid’s in-house marketing team is tech-savvy and always ready to try new performance marketing channels. Every year we add new channels to our marketing mix, which helps us increase our reach, tap into new sources of fundraising revenue and stay ahead of the competition.

A smart strategy combining grant and commercial campaigns in the most efficient way that we’ve developed for WaterAid gives this organization a solid foundation to build on in years to come. Increasing media budgets, freedom to shape the marketing strategy, positive feedback from the client, and referrals to other organizations are the best proof of appreciation for our work. We’d like to thank WaterAid for what they do, we are proud to be a part of it!

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