The more they remember, the more they give?

publication date: Feb 19, 2013
author/source: Janet Gadeski

Do you want your donors to remember what you tell them about your impact? If you thought the answer was ‘yes, of course,’ you may be in for a surprise.

It is not always true that they’ll give more money if they retain the information you give them – even though that’s common sense. In fact, science tells us something else, according to a study reported in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (2012).

Giving to help

Researchers tested the notion that the more people remember, they more they would give. Participants read a one-page description of a charity called Children of Uganda. It included a vividly detailed account of the plight of Ugandan orphans and a description of its numerous activities to help them. Half of the subjects took an easy memory test afterwards, and half took a harder test. Then they were asked how much they would give to help the charity.

Those who had taken the easy memory test said they would contribute an average of $187.11 to help the kids. Those who took the difficult test said they would give just $59.67, less than a third as much. The easy test reassured them that they knew a lot about the charity. The hard test left them doubting what they knew.

Giving to build awareness

But another experiment yielded the opposite result. The charity was The Prince’s Rainforest Foundation, working to raise awareness of the need to prevent tropical deforestation. Note that this is about awareness, not helping people. That is an important difference.

In that instance, the subjects who took the easy test, and felt that they knew a lot, said they would give $13.63 to build awareness, while those who took the difficult test, and felt they did not know much, offered contributions averaging $30.77, more than double the amount. The scientists who ran the experiment speculated that participants thought that if they knew a lot about the issue, then others must also know about it, and therefore an awareness-building campaign was not a good use of money.

But those gifts were theoretical. What happens, the researchers wondered, when you introduce real money to the experiment?

In a third test, the same participants received an honorarium of $15. They read a one-page description of Heart 2 Heart, a charity devoted to reducing the impact of childhood heart disease. Half the subjects read about the goal of treating childhood heart disease, and half read about the goal of raising awareness of childhood heart disease. The groups then took an easy or a difficult test on what they had read. All the subjects had the opportunity to make anonymous, real donations in the envelope with their completed test.

Same trends, less money

The third experiment reinforced the results of the first two. When helping was the goal, participants who took the easy memory test contributed 162% more. When awareness was the goal, those who took the difficult memory test gave 166% more. Sadly, generosity declined once the subjects had to part with actual dollars:


Donate to Help

Donate to Awareness

Easy test



Hard test



To sum up, the study tells us three things:

  1. Donors would give significantly more money to help people than to build awareness.
  2. If your goal is helping people, the more donors know about your charity the more they give. You might even increase the amount they donate by giving donors an easy memory quiz about your work, to reassure them that they understand the needs.
  3. If your goal is building awareness, the less donors know about your charity the more they give. You might increase the amount they donate by giving donors a hard memory quiz about your issue, to show that an awareness building campaign is necessary.

Next: The chemistry of giving: how your brain chemicals influence your responses

This article is drawn 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. 

Like this article?  Join our mailing list for more great information!

Copyright © 2011-Current, The Hilborn Group Ltd. All rights reserved.

Free Fundraising Newsletter
Join Our Mailing List