Donations: Gotta Catch ‘Em All!
Framing your donations as a set can double, triple or even quadruple your average gift.
Hopefully, that statement is enough to get you to plow through some psychology, behavioral science, and peer-reviewed research with me.
First, let’s do a little experiment. You are trying to get people to send cards to nursing home seniors. With one group (the non-set group), every time they’ve completed a card, you say, “You’ve completed one (or two or three) card(s). Would you like to write another?”
With the other group (the set group), you tell them you are bundling the cards in sets of four (for no reason—every senior just gets one card). Every time they’ve completed a card, you say, “You have completed 25 percent (or 50 percent or 75 percent) of one batch of cards. Would you like to write another?”
As you can see, it’s the same circumstance. The batching is artificial—all you are trying to do is get someone to complete more cards.
Well, it works. A little over 4 percent of non-set people complete four cards. Almost 40 percent of set people complete four cards—quite the jump.
Why does this work? As humans, we are pattern-generating machines. We learn better when we can group things together. We deal better with united wholes than disparate pieces. In fact, we will donate more to support groups of people who have similar qualities (e.g. a family) than the same number of people in the same condition who don’t have anything in common.
Gestalt psychology says that there are five conditions that help us recognize patterns: proximity, similarity, continuity, closure and connectedness. DonorVoice’s Kiki Koutmeridou, PhD, used the similarity condition to show that symbolic gifts work best (42 percent better!) when you can give more of the same item as the donation ask increases (e.g. three blankets for $5, six blankets for $10, nine blankets for $15 versus three blankets for $5, three meals for $10, a hot stove for $15). You can learn more here.
Three of these—similarity, connectedness, and (especially) closure—come together to make us want to complete sets of things.
We feel this in our everyday lives. Whether it’s Pokemon, a jigsaw puzzle or a coin collection, our brains give us a little dopamine reward when we complete a unified whole.
That’s what is at work when people strive to complete a pseudo-set of cards for nursing home residents. And it works for donations also.
In the same study, they asked people to donate for a book fundraiser:
No-set condition: Each textbook costs $5, and you can donate up to 5 for a total of $25.
Set condition: Each set of textbooks costs $25, and there are 5 textbooks in every set.
It won’t surprise you now (hopefully) that 22 percent of people gave $25 (the maximum) in the no-set condition and 38 percent gave $25 in the set condition.
But at the beginning, I promised I would help increase your average gift substantially. How does this work for a real-life nonprofit?
Enter the Canadian Red Cross. Their holiday donation-landing page had six symbolic items (e.g. blankets, hot meals) a person could give. For the purposes of this study, they created three different versions of this landing page:
- Cash: A donor could select one or more of the symbolic gifts, or they could pick an amount to give and CRC would put together an appropriate gift box. The cash option was more prominent.
- Gift: A donor could select one or more of the symbolic gifts, and they would show up on the map where the gift would go. The cash option was less prominent in this case.
- Pseudo-set: A donor could select one or more of the symbolic gifts, and they would show up as a percentage of a completed “Global Survival Kit.” The cash option was less prominent here, too.
Potential donors were directed randomly to one of the above landing pages. For donors who decided to donate symbolic gifts, the pseudo set page significantly increased the likelihood of donating six items. Only 3 percent of donors gave six items in the cash page, just 5 percent gave six items in the gift page, but 21 percent of donors gave the “full set” of six items in the pseudo-set page.
As donors, as humans, we can’t abide a set—even an artificial one with a piece missing. So, as for-profit marketers endeavor to use this to sell you cat figurines or four for $10 of that thing at the grocery store you only need two of, it’s time to put this impulse to more noble a purpose.
Nick Ellinger joined the Moore, where he works to increase the automation and customization of fundraising as chief brand officer, in January 2020. Before that, he was DonorVoice’s vice president of marketing strategy, working with organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Share our Strength | No Kid Hungry, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation to look at their fundraising with a different lens. He developed his direct fundraising muscle running Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s direct marketing program for a decade. He’s also the author of "The New Nonprofit" to challenge fundraising norms.