Mention money and watch donors give less

publication date: Jun 24, 2013
author/source: Ken Wyman, with Janet Gadeski

Does talking about money – or the aroma in the air -- change the way people think? In short, yes – and in a way that’s crucial for effective fundraising.

In an experiment reported in Peter Singer’s book “The Life You Can Save” a group of subjects saw slides about money, unscrambled words or phrases related to money or had play money nearby. Another group did none of that. Then both groups faced a series of hypothetical situations. What was their behaviour difference? The money group:

  • Gave less to charity;
  • Took longer to ask for help;
  • Stayed further away from others;
  • Chose solitary leisure activities; and
  • Were less helpful to others

Money talk alienates

The researchers concluded that thinking about money alienates us from others. Psychologists refer to this as ‘priming’ the brain, and it can happen with words, images, and even scents or sensations such as the warmth of a cup of coffee. Fundraisers, then, should focus on asking people to help people by telling effective stories. Avoid talking about the money it will take to help them, or comparing the suggested gift to the cost of a movie.

(Planned giving specialists, take note: This is another reason to diminish the talk of tax savings in your brochures and letters to prospects. Instead, emphasize stories of the good that is being done with gifts like the one you hope they’ll make.)

Fundraisers raised more when primed with a photo

The visual clues can be subtle.

“Employees in a university fund-raising call center… were divided into three groups”, according to a study by Dr. Gary Latham, an organizational psychologist in the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, reported in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, about those who doubt that priming experiments constitute solid science. “Each group was given a fact sheet that would be visible while they made phone calls. In the upper left-hand corner of the fact sheet was either a photo of a woman winning a race, a generic photo of employees at a call center, or no photo… Those with the photo of call-center employees raised the most, while those with the race-winner photo came in second, both outpacing the photo-less control. This was true even though, when questioned afterward, the subjects said they had been too busy to notice the photos.

Passive or active choice?

Fundraisers are taught to have a clear ‘call to action’ telling the donors what you hope they will do. The language you choose will affect your response rate.

In an experiment, subjects saw different calls to action in an online appeal for volunteers. One group had to click either “Yes, I’d like to volunteer” or “No, I would not like to volunteer.” The other group chose between “Click here to volunteer” and “Continue to next page.” The first group volunteered at the rate of 48.15%, while just 9.09% of the second group signed up.

“[It] is significantly more difficult for individuals to explicitly deny their help than it is for them to elude doing ‘the right thing’,” explained researchers Rimma Teper and Michael Inzlicht.

Charities need to test this in practice, to see if volunteers or donors see this as a manipulative guilt trip, and have strongly negative reactions. A softer variation might offer donors choices such as “Yes, I’d like to help a child today” or “No, not today”.  

Smelling like a rose – or a cinnamon bun

Sweet smells influence behaviour too. They can make people “buy more, favour certain locations, and even respond more ethically and charitably,” explains Toronto Star reporter Nancy J. White in an overview of related research.

When researchers quizzed people in a lemon-scented room about their interest in volunteering for a service project and donating money, 22% responded positively. But in an unscented room, only 6% of the subjects expressed interest.  Another study found that people in a mall were much more willing to do a small favour (making change for a dollar) for someone when asked while they were standing in front of a pleasantly scented shop like Cinnabon. And real estate agents have relied on the fragrances of flowers or fresh baking for years.

You might consider the effect of appropriate aromas when you meet donors face to face. With a donor you know well (that means you’re sure there’s no dietary restrictions), you might bring a small box of fresh baking when you visit. An event holds many opportunities for delicious scents, and the timing of a fundraising appeal. You’re planning to serve light refreshments or a gala meal anyway, so why not consider the impact of smells as you choose the menu?

Skeptics might question whether results in university psychology labs, gathered from experiments often done with poverty-stricken students in their twenties, can truly apply to charities in the real world, working with donors who are usually at a different stage in life. Ultimately, the only way to find out is to test this in your fundraising. The risk is small, and the costs are low. The benefits could be very high indeed, if this works as well as the scientists say.

This article is adapted from a presentation to the Southeastern Ontario chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals by Ken Wyman, professor and coordinator currently on a research sabbatical (returning Aug. 2013) from the Fundraising Management graduate program at Humber College in Toronto. He is particularly interested in the work of neuroscientists, psychologists and other scientists who want to figure out why, when and how people are moved to be generous. 

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