Nonprofit Remix

Translating business research into nonprofit language


The Power of “Please Give Today.”

Photo "Büttel" von Roland Martin vor dem Hospital zum Heiligen Geist, Marktplatz in Langenargen courtesy of Frank Vincentz, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

I should probably save this one until December, but it’s such fascinating research, I can’t wait that long!

Imagine this scenario: You’ve just gotten out of your car at your local supermarket. At one of the two entrance doors, there is a Salvation Army bell ringer with a Red Kettle. At the other door, there is not. Which door do you use? What if that bell ringer is also making eye contact with everyone and saying, “Please give today?” What if there are bell ringers at both doors, and you know there’s an inconvenient side entrance you can use to avoid them?

Avoiding the Ask: A Field Experiment on Altruism, Empathy and Charitable Giving did exactly that, and the results are so amazing, it’s like Christmas in June. The authors are James Andreoni of UCSD, Justin M. Rao of Microsoft Research and Hannah Trachtman of Innovations for Poverty Action. The paper is based on Ms. Trachtman’s work as an undergrad at Harvard.

TL;DR: The researchers conducted a randomized natural field experiment at a supermarket during the Salvation Army’s red kettle campaign. The results illuminate a little about the psychology of giving (or not giving), while also exploring a few theories of what motivates people to give.

Why should nonprofits care? Seriously? If you’re not interested in the psychological underpinnings of a donor’s decision to give or not give, you’re totally on the wrong blog. Click here to escape.

The Experiment

The researchers set up the experiment to test several different conditions:

  • Bell ringer at one entrance, without a verbal solicitation
  • Bell ringers at both entrances, without a verbal solicitation
  • Bell ringer at one entrance, with a verbal solicitation
  • Bell ringers at both entrances, with a verbal solicitation

The verbal solicitation was, “Hi, how are you? Merry Christmas. Please give today.”

Then they measured how the different conditions affected traffic and donations with a sample size of 17,662 people walking in or out over four days.

Results, Part 1.

Oh, I didn’t notice you ringing that bell there.

With a verbal solicitation at one of the doors,  more than a third of shoppers went to a different door. With a verbal solicitation at both of the doors, more than a quarter of shoppers went around the side of the building to the side door!

When the bell ringers were just ringing bells and not making eye contact or speaking, shoppers only avoided those doors at a rate of two to three percent. The thought is that having no human interaction made the solicitation much easier to avoid without having to physically walk to a different door.

Results, Part 2.

Sorry I made you uncomfortable, but it’s a good cause.

Not surprisingly, a verbal ask increased giving. When you include all of the people arriving at the store, even with folks avoiding the terrifying bell ringers by sneaking in the side door, a verbal ask still increased total giving by around a third (from roughly 9% to roughly 12%). In other words, even though a bunch of people are actively avoiding the doors with the verbal asks, human contact still increases total giving.

Conclusion and Discussion

Since this is an economics paper, the authors frame their results in terms of utility, which is a way to measure satisfaction. In this experiment, there are several sources of utility that fight against each other.

  • The “warm glow” of giving
  • Appearing generous (or stingy) in the eyes of the solicitor or other shoppers
  • The likelihood that you will be noticed giving (or not giving)
  • Avoiding guilt
  • The satisfaction of knowing that you avoided making a donation you didn’t want to make
  • The value of the money you gave away
  • The extra 30 seconds it takes to walk to a different door

The utility gained (or lost) from each of these is different for every person, and the assumption is that each individual will act in a way that will maximize their own personal utility. The authors then calculate the assumed social cost to donors and the social benefit to recipients, and sum them together. They find that sometimes the discomfort caused by this type of fundraising appeal will be higher than the benefit to the recipients, and sometimes it will be lower.

The Nonprofit Perspective

As nonprofit folks, we’re used to being on both ends of the ask, but I suspect that our technical knowledge of the process colors our understanding of how donors actually feel when they’re asked. To my knowledge, I don’t think I’ve ever avoided anybody fundraising out in front of a supermarket — even adorable little cookie selling Girl Scouts (an appeal to which I’m not at all immune.) And I don’t think there’s guilt involved when I say, “No, thanks.” But the numbers in the study show that I’m clearly in the minority!

The biggest surprise is that the verbal ask was so uncomfortable to many donors that they actually used a different entrance or exit to avoid it. But why was it that uncomfortable? Two reasons:

  1. Social norms require responding to a greeting
  2. After that initial contact, natural empathy makes it more difficult to avoid complying with the request

Shoppers unconsciously do that social calculation in their heads as they get out of their cars and see the bell ringer.

So what does this mean to us as fundraisers? Most obviously, an in-person, verbal ask is more likely to result in a donation than one that can be ignored without any social cost.

More importantly, though, it’s important to recognize that there can be costs to the donor over and above the cash value of their gift.  Nonprofits who can recognize and eliminate these social costs may actually see more success.

Read it yourself:  Andreoni, J., Rao, J. M., & Trachtman, H. (2011). Avoiding the ask: a field experiment on altruism, empathy, and charitable giving. NBER Working paper w17648.

Note: There’s an updated version of this paper on James Andreoni’s publications page.

Photo “Büttel” von Roland Martin vor dem Hospital zum Heiligen Geist, Marktplatz in Langenargen courtesy of Frank Vincentz, licensed under the Creative Commons  Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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