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3 Psychological Triggers That Can Help You Win Donations

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Published January 7, 2016 Reading Time: 3 minutes

To be a great nonprofit marketer—and fundraiser—you need to understand your donors and what makes them tick. Donor insight often comes from testing and data collection, but there are also certain psychological principles that can help you better understand what motivates people to give.

Just as for-profit companies conduct tons of research on consumer psychology, social impact organizations should have a firm grip on the psychology of giving. When you understand what leads people to offer their help and resources, you can tailor your marketing accordingly.

Here are three principles of fundraising psychology to help you optimize your fundraising and motivate your audience.

1. The Identifiable Victim Effect

While your organization is making a widespread impact, the identifiable victim effect suggests that you’ll inspire more donations by focusing on individuals rather than larger groups or statistics. In a study conducted by University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Deborah Small and her colleagues, researchers found that cases focusing on a single person’s story generated more donations than those focusing on a larger number of unnamed victims. In fact, they also found that presenting general statistics alongside individuals’ stories actually led to a decline in overall gifts.

Small and her colleagues conclude that charitable giving is often triggered by “spontaneous affective reactions.” In other words, people are more likely to donate based on feelings, not logic. And stories that focus on the plight of one individual seem to have a greater emotional impact.

At the end of the day, your supporters are wired to connect emotionally with other people. The most effective way to inspire them, then, is to introduce people with whom they can connect.

The Takeaway:

Tap into the power of storytelling in your communications. On your website and in your email appeals, highlight individual narratives that put a face to your cause. Introduce beneficiaries’ names, their pictures, and a brief story to help potential donors connect on an emotional level.

2. Goal Proximity

Potential donors want to know their gifts will make a difference, and fundraising psychology says that certain scenarios heighten this feeling of impact. To illustrate, people are more willing to give when you are closer to your fundraising goal.

In a study performed in conjunction with online microfinance platform Kiva.org, researchers measured the giving rates when a project was

A) 0-33 percent toward its fundraising goal

B) 33-66 percent toward its goal

C) 66-100 percent toward its goal

The rate of giving at stage B was significantly greater than A, and the rate of giving at C was significantly greater than that at B. In other words, the rate of contributions substantially increased as the project got closer to its fundraising goal.

In the same way that people give more credit to the game-winning touchdown than the first goal, donors have a greater feeling of satisfaction when they help your campaign cross the finish line, rather than when they help it get off the ground. This means that your campaign will probably attract more gifts as you approach your goal.

The Takeaway

In order to build initial momentum toward your fundraising goal, split your campaign kickoff into a soft launch and a hard launch.

During your 1- to 2-week soft launch, reach out to your most dedicated supporters, including passionate volunteers, social media evangelists, and past power fundraisers. Ask these early adopters to get involved by donating and/or setting up fundraising pages. This way, when your campaign opens to the public, it already demonstrates initial progress.

3. The Martyrdom Effect

While most would avoid pain at all costs, fundraising psychology implies it can be a magnet for charitable giving. People are willing to give more to a cause when they expect having to endure pain to raise money.

In a series of five experiments, Christopher Olivola of Carnegie Mellon University found that the idea of suffering to advance a worthy cause makes people more willing to participate. This “martyrdom effect” suggests that people find the pain and effort more meaningful because it promotes a cause they care about. As a result, their contributions feel more meaningful too.

This speaks to the popularity of labor-intensive, and often painful fundraisers like running a marathon or dumping a bucket of ice on your head.

The Takeaway

When planning a fundraiser, consider ways that you can make it difficult and engaging for participants. Whether you put on a sweaty bike-a-thon, or challenge supporters to jump into an icy lake, think of creative activities that will drive both participation and contributions. You should also encourage individual fundraisers to commit to personal challenges, like doing 25 burpees per donor or a pushup per dollar. These types of strenuous challenges can excite prospective donors and maximize contributions.

By becoming familiar with fundraising psychology, you’ll have the knowledge to craft more compelling asks. Whether you feature individual impact stories, or run a campaign soft launch to plug more juice into your progress bar, there are steps you can take to catch supporters’ attention and hopefully lead them to give.

Keep in mind that these insights should be coupled with your organization’s own data. Test the effects of any changes with your constituent relationship management, and see what your own donors respond to. This two-pronged approach will help you dial into the unique habits of your own fundraising community.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Hey Paul Studios
Rubix Cube

The Pocket Guide to Fundraising Psychology

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