If donors knew what others gave, would they give more?

In the Summer 2011 issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly, you’ll find an intriguing article, “Fundraising Education: A Fork in the Road?”.

The authors, both professors at Indiana University, home of The Center on Philanthropy, lament the depressingly statistic that giving in the US has been static for decades at just 2% of GDP. They suggest that more robust interaction between academic research and practice — and more academically educated fundraisers – is a potential solution to lifting us out of this giving doldrums.

We can talk more about this at another time.

But what particularly caught my eye was an assertion, that if true, every fundraiser should be aware of now.

The authors stated:

“… by simply changing the words in their solicitation to provide donors with social information, [fundraisers] could increase the value of giving by an average of 10 percent.”  (Emphasis added)

WOW! What fundraiser wouldn’t want to increase solicitation returns by 10%?

Immediately intrigued, I wanted to know how to do this. First, I had to decode what the authors meant by social information. (You might have been asking yourself that same question.)

So I read a few of the research studies available online that had been conducted by one of the authors, Jen Shang, PhD.

Providing social information, it seemed, was letting a donor know what other donors were doing.  The idea is that we are influenced by what other consumers similar to us have done – a concept that’s not unfamiliar to most of us, think of social media driven marketing like Foursquare, for example. Or the research on peer influence that we talked about in a recent blog post It’s not what you know, but who you hang out with.

In the papers I perused, some of the fundraising tactics mentioned by Dr. Shang included:

  • Telling alumni in a fundraising appeal what percentage of the class has made a gift. Doing so apparently gets a bigger response than not mentioning this information.
  • In Dr. Shang’s research, prospective donors to a public radio station were told what another donor had given during the same pledge drive before they were asked about their donation. Example: “We had another member, he [she] contributed $240.”  This led to higher giving levels, in some instances.  (I’m grossly simplifying, but that’s the purported gist of the research).

The papers I read seemed far from definitive on the topic. Some of the conclusions were based on experiments that involved using questionnaires to ask how people might act or be influenced in a given situation.

But nevertheless, I was still intrigued. I’ve often thought that one of the missing pieces to lifting US giving overall is the lack of community-wide benchmarks for personal giving. Is 1% a year enough? 5%? 10%?

If we knew how much other people gave, would we give more?

We have some examples of how this might work in practice:

  • The tithe requirement of many religious organizations sets a benchmark for giving by members of the congregation. Higher personal donation amounts by state seem to correlate with areas where religious giving and participation in tithing faith traditions is high.
  • Another notable example of the use of benchmarks is Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s challenge to US billionaires – the Giving Pledge– to give the majority of their wealth to charity. 69 of the 412 billionaires in the US have signed the pledge to date (16.7% – is that good?).
  • A more common fundraising example that came to mind is the participation of peer donors on a solicitation team – not only so they can talk about why this program is important to them, but also so they can tell how much they were giving to the campaign.
  • The invitation for that big gala fundraising event may list the host committee members by their giving levels, again, providing a benchmark for others to give.

But do we have any reliable data documenting a difference that these practices may have made in improved giving?

I’m not at all familiar with the use of this type of social influence in direct response programs like mail or telephone solicitation. Once, long ago, in a new member campaign for an environmental organization, we included a list of some neighbors in the same town who were members (with their permission, of course). I can’t say that after all these years I remember whether it lifted response or not – which makes me think the results weren’t terribly amazing.

It seems to me that with all of the fundraising activity going on in this country or abroad, there must be more real-world, tested examples of using social information in this way.

So I’d love to hear from you.

Do you have experience using social information to influence your solicitation requests?

Has it worked for you? Do you have data to back it up?

If we lifted giving in the US by 10%, that would be another $30 billion. No small change.

4 responses to If donors knew what others gave, would they give more?

  1. Sandy Rees

    There’s a concept I’ve heard of called “social proof” that I think applies here. Sometimes, when people are thinking about doing something, like making a gift, they may be more apt to do it if they see others around them doing it and feeling good about it. Clearly, if a donor loves a nonprofit, they don’t need social proof to make their gift, but for first-time givers or for new nonprofits seeking a gift, social proof could have a big impact.

    Sandy Rees

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