The Science of Effective Fundraising: Four Common Mistakes to Avoid

Sum­mary/​TL;DR: Char­i­ties that have the biggest so­cial im­pact of­ten get sig­nifi­cantly less fi­nan­cial sup­port than ri­vals that tell bet­ter sto­ries but have a smaller so­cial im­pact. Draw­ing on aca­demic re­search across differ­ent fields, this ar­ti­cle high­lights four com­mon mis­takes that fundraisers for effec­tive char­i­ties should avoid and sug­gests po­ten­tial solu­tions to these mis­takes. 1) Fo­cus on in­di­vi­d­ual vic­tims as well as statis­tics; 2) Pre­sent prob­lems that are solv­able by in­di­vi­d­ual donors; 3) Avoid rely­ing ex­ces­sively on match­ing dona­tions and fo­cus on learn­ing about your donors; 4) Em­power your donors and help them feel good.

The Science of Effective Fundraising: Four Common Mistakes to Avoid


Co-writ­ten by Gleb Tsipursky and Peter Slattery

Ac­knowl­edg­ments: Thanks to Ste­fan Schu­bert, Scott Weathers, Peter Hur­ford, David Moss, Alfredo Parra, Owen Shen, Gina Stuessy, An­thony Obeye­sekere and other read­ers who pre­fer to re­main anony­mous for pro­vid­ing feed­back on this post. The au­thors take full re­spon­si­bil­ity for all opinions ex­pressed here and any mis­takes or over­sights. Ver­sions of this piece will be pub­lished on The Life You Can Save blog and the In­ten­tional In­sights blog.

Cross-posted to Less Wrong.

Intro

Char­i­ties that use their funds effec­tively to make a so­cial im­pact fre­quently strug­gle to fundraise effec­tively. In­deed, while these char­i­ties re­ceive plau­dits from those com­mit­ted to mea­sur­ing and com­par­ing the im­pact of dona­tions across sec­tors, many effec­tive char­i­ties have not suc­cess­fully fundraised large sums out­side of donors fo­cused highly on im­pact.

In many cases, this situ­a­tion re­sults from the be­liefs of key stake­hold­ers at effec­tive char­i­ties. Some think that per­sua­sive fundrais­ing tac­tics are “not for them” and in­stead as­sume that pre­sent­ing hard data and statis­tics will be op­ti­mal as they be­lieve that their non­profit’s effec­tive­ness can speak for it­self.



The be­lief that a non­profit’s effec­tive­ness can speak for it­self can be very harm­ful to fundrais­ing efforts as it over­looks the fact that donors do not always op­ti­mise their giv­ing for so­cial im­pact. In­stead, stud­ies sug­gest that donors’ choices are in­fluenced by many other con­sid­er­a­tions, such as a de­sire for a warm glow, so­cial pres­tige, or be­ing cap­tured by en­gross­ing sto­ries. In­deed, char­i­ties that have the biggest so­cial im­pact of­ten get sig­nifi­cantly less fi­nan­cial sup­port than ri­vals that tell bet­ter sto­ries but have a smaller so­cial im­pact. For ex­am­ple, while one fundraiser col­lected over $700,000 to re­move a young girl from a well and save a sin­gle life, most char­i­ties strug­gle to raise any­thing pro­por­tionate for causes that could save many more lives or lift thou­sands out of poverty.

Given these is­sues, the aim of this ar­ti­cle is to use available sci­ence on fundrais­ing and so­cial im­pact to ad­dress some of the com­mon mis­con­cep­tions that char­i­ties may have about fundrais­ing and, hope­fully, make it eas­ier for effec­tive char­i­ties to also be­come more effec­tive at fundrais­ing. To do this it draws on aca­demic re­search across differ­ent fields to high­light four com­mon mis­takes that those who raise funds for effec­tive char­i­ties should avoid and sug­gest po­ten­tial solu­tions to these mis­takes.

Don’t for­get in­di­vi­d­ual victims

Many fundraisers fo­cus on us­ing statis­tics and facts to con­vey the sever­ity of the so­cial is­sues they tackle. How­ever, while fact and statis­tics are of­ten an effec­tive way to con­vince po­ten­tial donors, it is im­por­tant to recog­nise that differ­ent peo­ple are per­suaded by differ­ent things. While some in­di­vi­d­u­als are best per­suaded to do good deeds through statis­tics and facts, oth­ers are most in­fluenced by the close­ness and vivid­ness of the suffer­ing. In­deed, it has been found that peo­ple of­ten pre­fer to help a sin­gle iden­ti­fi­able vic­tim, rather than many face­less vic­tims; the so-called iden­ti­fi­able vic­tim effect.

One way in which char­i­ties can cover all bases is to com­ple­ment their statis­tics by tel­ling sto­ries about one or more of the most com­pel­ling vic­tims. Sto­ries have been shown to be ex­cel­lent ways of tap­ping emo­tions, and sto­ries told us­ing video and au­dio are likely to be par­tic­u­larly good at cre­at­ing vivid de­pic­tions of vic­tims that com­pel oth­ers to want to help them.

Don’t overem­pha­sise the problem

Fo­cus­ing on the size of the prob­lem has been shown to be in­effec­tive for at least two rea­sons. First, most peo­ple pre­fer to give to causes where they can save the great­est por­tion of peo­ple. This means that rather than save 100 out of 1,000 vic­tims of malaria, the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple would rather use the same or even more re­sources to save all five out of five peo­ple stranded on a boat or one girl stranded in a well with the same amount of re­sources, even if sav­ing 100 peo­ple is clearly the more ra­tio­nal choice. Peo­ple be­ing re­luc­tant to help where they feel their im­pact is not go­ing to be sig­nifi­cant is of­ten called the drop in the bucket effect.

Se­cond, hu­mans have a ten­dency to ne­glect the scope of the prob­lem when deal­ing with so­cial is­sues. This is called scope in­sen­si­tivity: peo­ple do not scale up their efforts in pro­por­tion to a prob­lem’s true size. For ex­am­ple, a donor will­ing to give $100 to help one per­son might only be will­ing to give $200 to help 100 peo­ple, in­stead of the pro­por­tional amount of $10,000.

Of course char­i­ties of­ten need to deal with big prob­lems. In such cases one solu­tion is to break these big prob­lems into smaller pieces (e.g., in­di­vi­d­u­als, fam­i­lies or villages) and pre­sent situ­a­tions on a scale that the donor can re­late to and re­al­is­ti­cally ad­dress through their dona­tion.

Don’t as­sume that match­ing dona­tions is always a good way to spend funds

Char­i­ta­ble fundraisers fre­quently put a lot of em­pha­sis on ar­rang­ing for big donors to offer to match any con­tri­bu­tions from smaller donors. In­tu­itively, dona­tion match­ing seems to be a good in­cen­tive for givers as they will gen­er­ate twice (some­times three times) the so­cial im­pact for donat­ing the same amount. How­ever, re­search pro­vides in­suffi­cient ev­i­dence to sup­port or dis­cour­age dona­tion match­ing: af­ter re­view­ing the ev­i­dence, Ben Kuhn ar­gues that its pos­i­tive effects on dona­tions are rel­a­tively small (and highly un­cer­tain), and that some­times the effects can be nega­tive.

Given the lack of strong sup­port­ing re­search, char­i­ties should make sure to check that dona­tion match­ing works for them and should also con­sider other ways to use their fund­ing from large donors. One op­tion is to use some of this money to cover ex­per­i­ments and other forms of prospect re­search to bet­ter un­der­stand their donors’ rea­sons for giv­ing. Another is to pay var­i­ous non-pro­gram costs so that a char­ity may claim that more of the smaller donors’ dona­tions will go to pro­gram costs, or to use big dona­tions as seed money for a fundrais­ing cam­paign.

Don’t for­get to em­power donors and help them feel good

Char­i­ties fre­quently fo­cus on show­ing tragic situ­a­tions to mo­ti­vate donors to help. How­ever, char­i­ties can some­times go too far in fo­cus­ing on the nega­tives as too much nega­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion can over­whelm and up­set po­ten­tial donors, which can de­ter them from giv­ing. Ad­di­tion­ally, while peo­ple of­ten help due to feel­ing sad­ness for oth­ers, they also give for the warm glow and feel­ing of ac­com­plish­ment that they ex­pect to get from helping.

Over­all, char­i­ties need to re­mem­ber that most donors want to feel good for do­ing good and en­sure that they achieve this. One rea­son why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was such an in­cred­ibly effec­tive ap­proach to fundrais­ing was that it gave donors the op­por­tu­nity to have a good time, while also do­ing good. Even when it isn’t pos­si­ble to think of a clever new way to make donors feel good while donat­ing, it is pos­si­ble to make donors look good by pub­li­cly thank­ing and prais­ing them for their dona­tions. Like­wise it is pos­si­ble to make them feel im­por­tant and satis­fied by ex­plain­ing how their dona­tions have been key to re­solv­ing tragic situ­a­tions and helping ad­dress suffer­ing.

Conclusion

Re­mem­ber four key strate­gies sug­gested by the re­search:

1) Fo­cus on in­di­vi­d­ual vic­tims as well as statistics

2) Pre­sent prob­lems that are solv­able by in­di­vi­d­ual donors

3) Avoid rely­ing ex­ces­sively on match­ing dona­tions and fo­cus on learn­ing about your donors

4) Em­power your donors and help them feel good.

By fol­low­ing these strate­gies and avoid­ing the mis­takes out­lined above, you will not only provide high-im­pact ser­vices, but will also be effec­tive at rais­ing funds.


P.S. This ar­ti­cle is part of the EA Mar­ket­ing Re­source Bank pro­ject lead by In­ten­tional In­sights and the Lo­cal Effec­tive Altru­ism Net­work, with sup­port from The Life You Can Save.