How Nonprofits Can Encourage Donors to Give More


Despite ample holiday-season appeals, many charities don’t get the donations they need. Most are underfunded, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. How can they increase donations? Research points to three strategies. First, give people a choice when they are allocating their cash; even an unrelated vote on favorite pets (dog or cat?) or flavors (vanilla or chocolate?) can increase donations. Second, use nouns instead of verbs to encourage positive behavior: “please become a donor” rather than “please donate.” Finally, invoke the second person “you” to personalize your message and prompt action.

‘Tis the season for giving — and not just the items on your loved ones’ wish lists. As the flood of requests filling our inboxes and social media feeds in recent weeks illustrate, charities and nonprofits are all asking for help.  They want us to spread the holiday cheer (and secure end-of-year tax-deductions) by spending just as much on Giving Tuesday donations as we do on Black Friday and Cyber Monday purchases. Indeed, in the United States, nearly one-third of annual charitable contributions are made in December, a third of them in the last three days of the year.

Unfortunately, many organizations don’t get what they need. Most charities are underfunded, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. How can they increase donations? Here are three research-backed ways to do it.

Give People a Choice

At some cafés, waitstaff have a cool strategy for encouraging tips. Instead of putting out one jar for customers to drop cash in, they offer two, each with a different label, and ask a question (e.g., Cats or dogs? Chocolate or vanilla? Mets or Yankees? Star Wars or Star Trek?). As people tip, they also get to vote, dropping their bills or coins in the container representing the answer they prefer. (Employees simply split the proceeds from both jars as they would the money from one.)

This might seem silly. After all, what do pets have to do with whether or not a barista deserves to be tipped?  One might even suspect that this strategy would turn some customers off. Some might get confused, or hate both options, and so not give at all.

But it turns out that this can actually increase tipping — and donations.  To demonstrate this, some colleagues (Jacqueline Rifkin and Katherine Du) and I conducted some experiments. We started out at a local café. When some customers paid for their coffee, they encountered the café’s normal tip jar. Other customers instead saw two jars and a small sign asking “Cats or dogs?” and indicating which jar stood for which choice. The result was striking: Tips more than doubled. People seemed to like having a choice.

My co-authors and I then did a similar experiment requesting online donations to the American Red Cross. Some people were asked for contributions directly, while others were asked to donate by voting for whether they liked chocolate or vanilla best. Again, people might have found this odd or even frivolous for a charity focused on providing relief in dire circumstances. But the strategy worked: People given a choice donated 28% more than those who weren’t.

We call these “preference duels,” and they boost giving because they provide not just a choice but an opportunity for self-expression. People love sharing their opinions — likes, dislikes, and feelings about different things. So when given the opportunity to declare a preference for cats or dogs, or vanilla or chocolate, they jump at it — even if they have to pay a little for the opportunity to do so.

This simple shift in how we make requests can have big implications for nonprofits, charities, and other organizations reliant on giving. Even more topical questions about pop culture or current events might work (e.g., “Too early for Christmas music? Yes or no?”). Give people a choice and they’ll vote with their wallets.

Turn Verbs into Nouns

When asking for help, non-profits, charities, and other organizations tend to use verbs.  They ask people to give, to donate, or to help the cause.  But it turns out a subtle linguistic change can have a bit of impact.

A few years ago, researchers went to a local school and asked kids to help clean up: move a pile of blocks from the floor into a container, put away other toys, and right an overturned cup of crayons. Some kids were asked to help, while other kids were instead asked to be “helpers.” This difference might seem small; indeed, it’s only the addition of a few letters. But the study showed that it made a big difference. Kids who were asked to be helpers helped around a third more than the kids who’d just been asked to “help.”

Similar results have been found in a host of domains. Asking people “to be a voter” instead of asking them “to vote” significantly increased turnout. Students told “please don’t be a cheater” rather than “please don’t cheat” were half as likely to engage in unethical behavior.

Turning verbs into nouns encourages action because it allows people to claim (or avoid) desired identities. We often try to act in ways that support how we want to see ourselves: smart, competent, helpful, and efficacious. Want to feel athletic?  Better go for a run. Want to feel high status? Better buy that fancy car. By doing things that support desired self-image, and avoiding behaviors inconsistent with it, we signal that we are who we want to be.

Consequently, if organizations frame certain actions (like donating) as opportunities to confirm positive identities (like being a donor), they will have more success.

Invoke the Power of You

Popular content often has a particular word in common: You. Whether it’s on the news (e.g., “Is there a dangerous chemical in your water?  Learn more after the break”) or online (e.g., “5 Tips You Can Use to Land Any Interview”) the most read or watched stuff often uses second-person pronouns.

And it’s not just chance.  Using these words increases engagement. An analysis of thousands of branded social media posts, for example, found that the presence of “you” or its variants (“your,” “you’ll” etc.)  was associated with around a 10% increase in engagement. Posts were liked and shared more and received more comments. Other studies we conducted  found that songs with “you” in them are more popular.

Second-person pronouns work so well because they personalize the statement or request. They make people feel like someone is speaking directly to them about something that is personally relevant. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that they pay attention and take action.

So instead of saying “we need help” or “every dollar helps,” nonprofits seeking donations might instead opt for “we need your help” or “every dollar you give helps.” If you can, try using names as well. This makes it feel like more than a generic or boilerplate request, but one targeted directly at them, which makes them more likely to say yes.

Getting people to make charitable donations isn’t easy. But, in this season of giving, we can leverage the human drive for identity and self-expression to make it a bit more likely.





Credit byHarvard Business Review

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