4% Increase in Revenue: The Easy Way
We were listening to a presentation at the NonProfit PRO Peer-to-Peer Conference in Washington D.C. last week when the topic of “suggested fundraising” amounts came up. There is a lot of thought given to registration fees (don’t do it!) and minimum fundraising requirements. Data shows that they depress fundraising, and so “suggested” amounts are a way to try to thread the needle to get maximum revenues.
The Anchoring Effect
Pay close attention to the way you present fundraising amounts to your constituents. If you aren’t careful, you can leave a lot of money on the table. The reason is a psychological heuristic—a shortcut—that is known as the anchoring effect. Anchoring is the tendency to accept and rely on the first piece of information received before making a decision. That first piece of information is the anchor and sets the tone for everything that follows.
What does this mean for your nonprofit? The decision that nonprofits want to influence is how much money people fundraise (or donate). Whatever number you show to people will have a significant impact on their eventual fundraising (or donation). The extent to which humans are influenced by the presence of numbers—any numbers—is almost beyond belief.
In his book, “Predictably Irrational,” Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely describes an experiment conducted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Subjects were asked to bid on items in an auction. The researchers would hold up a bottle of wine, a textbook or a cordless trackball and then describe in detail how awesome it was. Then each student had to write down the last two digits of their own social security number as if it was the price of the item. If the last two digits were 11, the bottle of wine was priced at $11. If the two numbers were 88, the cordless trackball was $88.
After they wrote down the pretend price, they bid. The anchoring effect profoundly influenced the way they judged the value of the items. People with high social security numbers paid up to 346 percent more than those with low numbers. People with numbers from 80 to 99 paid on average $26 for the trackball, while those with 00 to 19 paid around $9.
Ariely explains, “Social security numbers were the anchor in this experiment only because we requested them. We could have just as well asked for the current temperature or the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Any question, in fact, would have created the anchor. Does that seem rational? Of course not.”
Like most psychological phenomenon, anchoring can be used to influence people to do good. One example is the “door-in-the-face technique.” In a 1975 study, researchers asked a group of students to volunteer as camp counselors two hours per week for two years. Not surprisingly, all said no. The researchers followed up by asking if they would volunteer to supervise a single two-hour trip. Half said yes. Without first asking for the two-year commitment, only 17 percent agreed.
There are many tactics nonprofits can employ that leverage the anchoring effect. For example, you can influence people to pick a higher price (think: donation) depending on how their choices are sorted. Psychologists tested that claim in a bar. Researchers presented the beer menu to customers based on price in two ways: from low to high and from high to low.
|Low to High||High to Low|
|Beer 1 $4||Beer 1 $10|
|Beer 1 $4||Beer 1 $9|
|Beer 1 $4||Beer 1 $8|
|Beer 1 $5||Beer 1 $8|
|Beer 1 $6||Beer 1 $7|
|Beer 1 $7||Beer 1 $7|
|Beer 1 $7||Beer 1 $7|
|Beer 1 $7||Beer 1 $7|
|Beer 1 $7||Beer 1 $6|
|Beer 1 $8||Beer 1 $5|
|Beer 1 $8||Beer 1 $4|
|Beer 1 $9||Beer 1 $4|
|Beer 1 $10||Beer 1 $4|
|Average Sale = $5.78||Average Sale = $6.02|
Thanks to doing nothing more than presenting the choices in a certain order, the bar makes an average of $0.24 more every time someone orders a beer. Why does this happen? People read the prices of the beers from top to bottom. In the high-to-low list, they see the higher priced beers first. The initial prices serve as anchors that influence their eventual choice.
Research shows that this finding generalizes to other contexts. Do you have a page where people can donate on your website? Does it look like this?
Changing the order of the beer on a menu results in an additional four percent in revenue. If your website pulls in $500,000 in donations, four percent is $20,000. Would changing the order of suggested donation amounts get you that much? More? It’s worth knowing, and doing the A/B testing to find out couldn’t be easier.
Those are the basics behind the anchoring effect. Structuring what people see before fundraising or donating will make a significant difference in how much people eventually decide to fundraise or contribute. Numbers act like “psychological magnets.” They have pull, but people are completely unaware of how they are being influenced.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.