joe-callahan
Joe Callahan
5 min
pyschology-of-donating

To Give or Not to Give: How Donors Decide According to Psychology

A hard reality nonprofit fundraisers face is that their success ultimately relies on donors’ personal choices. You can give them all the reasons your cause is worthwhile, you can show them the great progress you’re making, and you can ask for a reasonable gift. But in the end you can’t make them say yes. Knowing the mental processes behind how people make choices helps you convey the information they need in a way that is comfortable for them.

To help you understand a donor’s mindset, this post covers some of the psychology behind decision-making. Then we will discuss some interesting ideas on how time plays into decisions from a fascinating book called The Influential Fundraiser by Bernard Ross and Clare Segal.

Value Judgments

Most of the decisions people make with money are transactional. They are choosing whether or not to exchange a sum of money for a certain good or service. For example, if you walk into a clothing store and notice a t-shirt you like, you can then look at the price tag and see that it costs $12. You then have a choice of whether or not to buy it. You ask yourself, “Is this t-shirt worth $12 to me?” Donations don’t work in quite the same way.

When making a giving decision, donors may feel like they don’t have much information to work with. In many cases, a donor has the option to name their own “price,” but to simplify the process most nonprofits have suggested giving levels, like $45.

Okay, now they know the cost, but what is that money “buying?” Unlike in a clothing store, they don’t walk away with their purchase and use it – there is no tangible exchange made. The return on their money is much more abstract. This is why it is essential to link donations with the impact they create.

This allows the donor to feel like they are making a more informed decision. They feel more confident buying 5 bed nets to protect people in a Rwandan village from Malaria, than they would simply handing you $45 to fight Malaria. Tying a donation size to the supplies or impact it pays for presents the appeal as a buying decision, and people make those every day.

Mental Shortcuts

When people don’t have enough time or information to make a truly informed decision, psychologists find that they often fall back on what is called heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts people use to come to a conclusion, usually rules of thumb that work in many situations but not all. These thought processes may influence how donors evaluate your appeal.

Normative decision-making – Have you ever been in a situation where you don’t know what to do, so you look around to see what others are doing? You are looking for what psychologists call social information.

People often look to their peers for clues on how to behave, so donors may be interested in who else contributes to your nonprofit (Science of Giving pg 66-67). If a donor’s friends have already given to you, they will probably trust their friends’ judgment.

Availability Bias – When we make a decision, we often try to look at some kind of evidence. The problem is, we also tend to focus on some evidence more than others. Specifically, people tend to pay more attention to recent experiences. For example, if they hear about financial impropriety in another nonprofit, they may take that as evidence nonprofits cannot be trusted in general.

Confirmation bias – This one is especially troublesome. This heuristic comes into play when someone already has an opinion or has made a judgment, like a donor who is already planning to give to your organization. Confirmation bias describes when people search for or interpret evidence to support their opinion. This can make it incredibly difficult to change some people’s minds.

The 4 Types of Decision-Makers

Some people need more time to make a decision than others. When you go out to dinner with friends, one person may know what they are going to order in seconds while another debates the options for half an hour. According to The Influential Fundraiser, there are four types of decision-makers and they vary in how long it takes to make their choice. While there are certainly many other factors in a donor’s decision, these archetypes may help you know how to convince and reassure a potential donor. Below are the different types of decision-makers and some helpful tips from Ross and Segal.

The Automatic Decision Maker

These decision-makers form some kind of judgment about a situation almost immediately. While first impressions are important with every donor, with the Automatic decision-makers, they are absolutely crucial.

“The secret here is to make a convincing and powerful case and then get a formal commitment as soon as possible. You should also try to ensure that such a donor really understands the case rather than just agrees with it on a superficial level.”

The Experimental Decision Maker

This type of decision-maker is kind of like a scientist. They may have a theory about what the right decision is, but they will keep testing it and looking for more information to confirm it. They need to hear the same idea multiple times or in multiple ways, so be prepared for questions.

“Typically this person will compare a range of products before they buy, visit the same product a number of times, or talk their decision through several times with the salesperson. Essentially they need specific reassurance on issues as they occur and will internally question any decision they make.”

The Patient Decision Maker

As the name suggests, this person needs a period of time to reflect on their choices. They are the opposite of an impulse buyer because they purposely don’t make a decision on the spot.

“If the donor says they will think about it, ask them how long they need. And allow them to have that period. If you chase them too soon, or offer them too many different choices, they’ll feel harassed.”

The Indecisive Decision Maker

This is the person who is still wondering what they should have ordered when the food arrives at your table. They are never fully convinced of the right decision, so they require a lot of attention and reassurance.

“People with this decision-making preference are very high maintenance and require very hard work. But they will also ask you very good and searching questions about your proposition, which you should be able to answer. If you can satisfy them, you can satisfy anyone.”

Help Donors Help You

Donors want to make good, informed decisions, but philanthropy isn’t as cut and dry as buying a t-shirt. Frame a donation in terms of its buying power so donors understand their money will be used wisely. Also keep in mind that potential donors are influenced by who is already supporting you and the most recent experiences they have with your cause or organization.

Finally, try to determine what kind of decision-maker someone is and use their type to guide your communications. If someone makes decisions automatically, prepare to move forward with a gift very quickly. If they say they need time to think, it is a clear sign that they would rather make this choice after a period of time. Even if every donor said yes to your appeal, they would probably arrive at that decision in a multitude of different ways.


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