Fundraisers who appeal to donors’ fond memories by evoking their emotions may get larger gifts – new research

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

The emotions donors feel when they decide whether to give money to nonprofits can affect the size of their gift.

That’s what my research team found when we partnered with a small liberal arts college during its fall fund drive.

Fundraisers used their standard phone pitch when they asked around 100 alumni to chip in. During another 100 calls, selected randomly, the fundraisers first asked the alumni to reflect on “a person or event in their past that had particularly benefited them since graduating.”

We found that people who were asked to reflect on things that have benefited them were not more likely to make a pledge. But the average pledge they made increased by about 90% to US$27 from $14.

As fellow economist Steven Furnagiev, college student Rebecca Forbes and I explained in the academic journal Theory and Decision, we found that the emotions these donors felt when making their pledge was responsible for this difference.

Why it matters

Nonprofits advance many causes by engaging in activities like conserving nature, reducing poverty, protecting human rights and strengthening education. Figuring out what leads people to give more to support these groups could help these organizations raise more money and accomplish more of their goals.

Prompting alumni to reflect on things they feel grateful for is what’s called a “nudge” in behavioral economics. One explanation for why the nudge we used with one group led it to pledge bigger gifts is that most people are inclined to focus more on their difficulties rather than their good fortune.

Our study suggests that when people are thinking about what’s gone right in their lives, they are more willing to donate more money.

What other research is being done

Other researchers have also found that feelings can play a role when donors make decisions. Those studies had similar results but were largely done in less realistic settings.

What still isn’t known

Despite this research’s being conducted in a real-world situation, it is still limited in scope. We don’t know, for example, whether donors might respond the same way if they weren’t being asked to support their alma mater. We also can’t say whether evoking different emotions, aside from gratitude, might have different effects.

by : Michael Kurtz, Associate Professor of Economics, Lycoming College

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