Thank-You Gifts May Distract Donors From Giving, Study Finds

Offering thank-you gifts during a fundraising campaign can draw attention away from a would-be donor's intrinsic reasons for giving and actually reduce the number of gifts received, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests.

Conducted by Matthew Chao, an assistant professor of economics at Williams College, the study analyzed donations to a public radio station from three groups of previous donors — a control group of donors who received mailings with only a standard solicitation and remit form; a group that also received a large color insert advertising an opt-in thank-you gift of a tumbler for a donation of at least $180; and a group that received an insert for an opt-in thank-you gift of meals donated to the local food bank. According to the study, those who were offered thank-you gifts were less likely to give — 3.5 percent among the tumbler group and 4 percent among the donated meals group — than the control group (6.9 percent). And of the 175 donations made by all three groups, only twenty were gifts of at least $180 — eight from the control group and six from each of the thank-you gift groups — while only one of those who were offered thank-you gifts opted in. Donation amounts averaged $102 for the control group, $94 for the tumbler group, and $115 for the donated meals group.

Chao argues that while economics and psychology suggest that a thank-you gift makes the donation feel less selfless and "crowds out" a donor's motivation to give, that explanation doesn't hold when donors have the option to opt out of a gift or when the gift in question is meals donated to a food bank. Instead, Chao's study points to an attention-based model, in which the glossy insert diverts attention away from the solicitation letter and the potential donor's reasons for giving and/or shifts the potential donor's mindset to a cost-benefit analysis leading to less socially oriented decision making. A complementary online experiment varied the visual saliency and desirability of the opt-in gift and found that increasing saliency without increasing desirability reduced donation rates.

"The eye-catching colored insert draws attention toward the gift and away from all of the intrinsic reasons one might have for supporting the station," said Chao. "When individuals open the envelope, they face a split-second decision on whether to donate or to instead throw the mailer out. At this critical point, they may be thinking about whether the tumbler or the meals gift is worth $180 instead of how much they enjoy the station's original programming."

"Professor's Research Shows Thank-You Gifts Undercut Charitable Giving." Williams College Press Release 07/05/2017.