When I first got into fundraising, I executed campaigns without worrying too much about donors or spending a lot of time thinking about why or how they responded to particular strategies or appeals.
Eventually, I realized that if development professionals really want to make a difference in their organization's ability to raise money, they not only need to think about their donors, they need to understand how the donor brain works. Let's face it: the brain is an economic weighing machine that makes hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunity-cost calculations a day. Rather than choosing the most difficult thing, it tends to nudge us down the path of least resistance.
What does that mean for the fundraising professional? It's simple. Donors are drawn to actions that, psychologically speaking, are low cost but yield a satisfying result. We need to build that recognition into our appeals and the way we communicate about our organizations.
The 'Me-Too' Effect
Imagine walking into a museum and at the entrance coming across three buckets. Bucket #1 has a sign asking you to donate the change in your pocket. You notice the bucket is almost full of coins. Bucket #2 has a sign asking you to donate $5 and is maybe half full of one- and five-dollar bills. The last bucket, bucket #3, has a sign asking you to donate $50 and has a few bills crumpled at the bottom.
Which approach is likely to raise the most money?
According to research, a bucket filled with loose change will actually generate more money than a bucket only partially full of larger-denomination bills. Why? Because donors want to feel they are part of something bigger than themselves. A bucket full of change suggests that lots of other people support the cause and momentum is building. Most people will see that and want to be part of it. Besides, it's easier to fish the loose change out of your pocket than it is to pull out a wallet and find the right number of bills in the right denominations.
It Feels Good to Give
You may have asked yourself, does altruism really exist? Altruism — the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others — is what we hope to appeal to in our donors. But we all know there is an element of selfishness and ego in most charitable giving. It's what some call the “warm glow effect.” When you ask someone why he or she signed a petition or responded to an appeal with a donation, they invariably open with an “I” statement: “I wanted to show my support for the organization/cause,” or “I did it because it's important to me.” Our brain, meanwhile, is telling us that it feels good to help others.
When you ask someone to give, it's important to help them understand why their donation matters and how it relates to their life. The two work together to increase the empathy a donor feels for the intended beneficiaries of his or her donation and ultimately leads to the donor having a keener interest in helping others.
Let's return to the bucket scenario. An individual is much more likely to throw some change or a bill or two into a bucket if at least a few of the people he is with are willing to do the same. He's also more likely to put money in the same bucket that his friends have put money in. Why? Because humans are social animals. In fact, research shows that people tend to feel safer and more secure when they are holding hands with a friend or family member. When we see a person or people we care about donating money to a cause, our warm feelings toward that person (or persons) are transferred to the cause, while any skeptical feelings we may have are likely to be put aside.
How can you apply this observation to your own fundraising appeals? It goes without saying that peer influence is one of the most important tools in a fundraiser's arsenal. You can ask a donor for a contribution from your first day on the job until your last and hope that this time she'll respond — or, if she's given in the past, won't change her mind. But if you can empower her peers to give money to your organization (through a series of well-executed peer fundraising tactics), you'll be leveraging your efforts with their efforts and greatly increasing your chances in the long run of adding to your donor base and raising more funds.
Remember, the key to successful fundraising is to take donors on a journey from initial contact to ever-deeper levels of engagement. Keeping these aspects of donor behavior in mind as you create a roadmap for your next fundraising campaign will ensure you reach your destination sooner — and with fewer wrong turns. Your goal, always, is to nudge donors past what they think they can do to successively higher levels of interest and action.
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and creative agency that works with nonprofits to increase their impact. He also leads the national research team for the Millennial Impact Project, the premier study dedicated to millennials and how they engage with cause work, and is co-author of Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement.