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.
Perhaps not surprisingly, research on matching donations is equivocal. Some studies have found that matching funds increase the likelihood someone will donate any amount, while others have not.
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.
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.