The psychology of giving: your secret fundraising weapon

How do we encourage people to dig deep and give to our cause? It’s a question many charitable organisations ask themselves on a regular basis (usually while brainstorming ever more creative ways to convince donors to part with their hard-earned cash). But we’ve got a newsflash for you: you’re starting with the wrong question.

Before we approach the ‘how’, we need to first understand the ‘why.’ Why do people give – and what do they get out of it? What are the psychological drivers that motivate a person to help someone else?  Even if you think you already know the answer, read on. What you find out might just surprise you.

Giving can change our mindset towards people

The psychology of giving offers many fascinating insights into the often capricious and contradictory human mind. Case-in-point, the psychological phenomenon known as the Ben Franklin effect (named after the US president who first identified it).

According to the theory, we’re more likely to feel well-disposed towards someone who asks us for our help – even if that person is someone we had a poor opinion of previously. The act of giving or helping changes how we feel about that person – and even encourages us to want to help them more.

Psychologists believe that this phenomenon is due to us feeling flattered and empowered by the request for assistance; this triggers our feel-good hormones and voila, our brain now associates that person with positive emotions.  Ironically, the inverse is also true: when someone does us a favour, instead of being appreciative, we’re inclined to feel more negatively towards them because we resent asking for help and feeling submissive.

How charities can leverage the Ben Franklin effect

What this tells us is that doing good makes us feel good. It’s not just psycho-babble with no grounding in science either: this is one theory that’s backed up by research. Studies have shown that being recognised and acknowledged for doing something helpful lights up the same pathways in the brain as eating your favourite food.

There are two key takeouts for charities here:

  1. If someone has supported your cause once, they’re more likely to do so again (because they now feel more favourably towards you)
  2. Acknowledging your supporters’ efforts is vital to stimulating those positive pathways and soliciting future donations

This is further borne out by research: the top two reasons why people stop regular giving are not being asked to donate again, and not being acknowledged the first time.

The power of social relationships vs market relationships

How supporters view their relationship with your cause is another key factor that has a big influence on giving behaviours. A social relationship is one in which supporters give ‘because it’s right’. It relies on intrinsic values and is linked with how we perceive and label ourselves. Meanwhile, a market relationship is more transactional and triggered by a tangible rather than an emotional reward – in other words ‘I’m happy to pay x, because it means I’ll get y in return.’

Practices which create a market relationship, such as high registration fees or offering high-value gifts as fundraising incentives, encourage supporters to view their interaction with your cause as a transaction. They’re not giving because it’s right – they’re giving to get something back. This is why we often see fundraising efforts stall once that incentive amount is reached – or in instances where registrations are paid, no funds raised at all.

A famous experiment with daycare centres in Israel illustrates this theory perfectly. To stop parents arriving late to collect their children, the centres introduced a fine system which was imposed on late parents. But instead of having the desired outcome, the financial penalty had the opposite effect and lateness doubled. What this shows us is that when our behaviour is defined by social mores (avoiding inconveniencing centre workers and ‘doing what’s right’) we do our best to adhere to it. However, this social pact is forgotten when the behaviour takes on a transactional element (‘if I pay the fine, I can arrive late guilt-free’).

How charities can maintain social relationships with supporters

There’s plenty you can do to ensure your supporter relationships stay in the ‘social’ zone. Here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Remember that when it comes to rewards, less is more. If you offer a gift with a high perceived value, you create a market relationship and set a price for that gift. The ideal gift value is between 3 and 6 percent of the amount you’re asking them to raise.
  • Make sure that any gifts you do offer are branded and, ideally, wearable – think t-shirts and wristbands. Psychologically-speaking, asking supporters to label themselves as such in public is a powerful exercise as it encourages them to identify as an advocate for your cause.
  • Ensure gifts are exclusive. Gifts don’t have to be high value to have value – giving supporters something that can only be obtained by supporting your cause is an easy way to reward them for their involvement without making the relationship transactional.
  • Be considered in your messaging. Avoid using transactional language such as ‘discount’, ‘incentive’ ‘register by x and get y’ or ‘last chance to register at this price’. All of this moves people away from the ‘I do it because it’s right’ mindset. Instead, opt for more emotive words that speak to how your supporters want to feel when they connect with your cause. Words like ‘caring’, ‘generous’ and ‘compassionate’, as well as the all-important ‘thank you’ have been shown to have a powerful effect on people’s disposition to give.

So what does all of this tell us? It’s actually not hard to get people in the right frame of mind to give – in fact, it’s often easier than we think.  By employing a few clever tactics and keeping your messaging on point, you can easily tap into the psychology of giving and start reaping the rewards.