Matching Donations—The Real Story
Matching donations is a tool that is regularly employed in nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Most of us believe that this appeal works, but without much empirical evidence. It’s mostly a gut feeling.
To determine one way that matching funds might work, a team of researchers, led by a Tufts University economist, looked into whether making people feel important by having them unlock matching funds for the nonprofits they support would increase their donations. Their research was published in the academic journal, “Games and Economic Behavior.”
To explain what “feel important” means, researchers use the example of NPR, longtime users of the matching gifts scenario. When your NPR station says, “We need 20 donors by the end of the hour to get $500 in matching funds,” if you could know for sure that 19 people would respond and donate, you could believe in your power to personally activate the match.
However, if you could be certain that only 18 people will call in, then even if you make a donation, the goal of 20 won’t be met. And if you were certain that at least 20 other people will call in, you would realize that you could be the 21st donor or the 22nd. In those cases, your gift would still count, but you wouldn’t be helping to make a match.
The researchers reasoned that by manipulating with different thresholds and changing the number of donors needed to unlock matching funds, they could change how important potential donors would feel.
In their study, an education nonprofit mailed five different types of letters asking prospects for donations. Everyone on its mailing list randomly received one of the five letters. They included a traditional dollar-for-dollar match letter—meaning that if donors gave $10, the charity would automatically receive $20—and a control-group letter that simply told people about the nonprofit’s mission and asked for a donation.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.