New Research Sheds Light on What Works in Charitable Appeals

I read an article in The Journal of Philanthropy this week about a conference held a couple weeks ago at Princeton University titled, “Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charitable Giving” in which the speakers and attendees were focused on answering the question of why some crises receive an overwhelming donor response while others do not.

Interestingly the way many of the speakers sought to answer the question was through controlled surveys and scientific experiments performed on study groups (as opposed to through historical fundraising results). And although my take is somewhat different from the author of the article, I thought all of the experiments were confirming basic fundraising principles or at least felt like they were common sense. For example; “In one experiment, he asked subjects to imagine how much they would donate to a fictitious fund-raising event to help tsunami victims. People gave about $25 to participate in an imaginary five-mile run, but when they envisioned attending a picnic, they gave just $15.” The results seem to make sense in that if I am imagining empathizing with someone’s pain I feel like I should give more than if I am shown a good time and asked to help out.

While on the surface the experiments make common sense, what made the most sense from this specific example is the concept that all fundraising appeals should be appropriate. If you are raising money for an Art Museum you should not host a BBQ dinner in a barn and if you are raising money for a Rescue Mission that serves meals to the homeless you should not put on a Five Star Dinner at The Mansion. Or should you?

The problem with the experiments from this conference is that while they seem to work from a common sense standpoint there really isn’t any historical or results data that can prove or dis-prove the concepts in reality. So to me, these experiments prove that what is common sense to me is common sense to a scientific sampling of the public. What I am left wanting to know is if in a real-life fundraising situation they are right?

Now, I am not arguing against this conference or the idea of these experiments (after all, I realize that the word “experimental” was in the conference title). They are simply trying to get to the “why” behind the fundraising in the best way they know how and have access to (namely scientific studies and surveys). Maybe all I am saying is in fundraising (like anything else) you have to test it.

You start by believing something based on something you heard, your own past fundraising experience or common sense, then you experiment to validate that you are not off (which is what was successfully happening at this conference), then you have to test those experiments on a sampling of actual fundraising appeals.

As a nonprofit organization you have a relationship with your donors and sometimes they react to things exactly the way you would expect and sometimes they will react exactly the opposite of the way you would expect. So anytime you have a new fundraising idea, before you alter your fundraising strategies, perform some experiments or surveys to validate that it is a good idea and then test it on a scientifically-significant sampling (which varies depending on the size of your donorbase) to see how your donors react to it. That way you won’t risk taking your organization off the side of a cliff because you were convinced to do something by people who said they would give more money because they stuck their hand in freezing cold water.

New Research Sheds Light on What Works in Charitable Appeals

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