Science Corner: Hacking your Donor List

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My 2018 ended with many donation requests, including quite a few actual letters. (Photo by skidder )

Happy New Year and welcome to 2019 to all of you using the Gregorian calendar. If your experience is anything like mine, your 2018 wrapped up with a blitz of requests for end-of-year charitable contributions. I appreciate that year’s end is a crucial time for many nonprofits, as some donors are looking to finalize their income tax circumstances and others are just feeling extra generous because of the holiday season. And there are many worthy causes that could always make use of a few extra dollars, from your local food pantry to relief agencies addressing humanitarian crises like the one current faced by the people of Yemen. So I don’t begrudge any of them for making their pleas, even while finding the aggregate experience a little overwhelming. All of that was on my mind when I came across a study on the psychology of charitable giving and specifically how to pitch campaigns to get greater response.

According to the paper, previous studies have reported that affluent people tend to think more in terms of personal agency. In other words, they are more likely to believe their individual choices influence how their own life has turned out and what the world around them is like, as opposed to community or systemic forces or random happenstance. This is an interesting observation by itself, and seems consistent with my sense of trends in public discourse on topics like social safety net or welfare programs. It makes sense that if you have greater means, your personal experience is more likely to be one where you can exert control over your life, and it is natural–but not necessarily accurate–to extrapolate that experience to others and underestimate the need for such social programs. That’s not a conclusion of this particular paper, but I thought it might still be a helpful perspective to highlight.

What these researchers specifically did was to observe that many charitable solicitations put a focus on collective action–we need everyone to chip in and do their part, and we’ll leave it to you to figure out where you fit into “everyone.” They wondered if a pitch with a focus on individual agency might better reflect how affluent potential donors think about the world and so result in more response. Two versions of a letter were sent out: one that talked about the need for the community to “come forward” and one that talked about the need for an individual to “come forward.” Just that slight change in wording from community to individual led to nearly twice as much financial support on average.

Initially, I was fascinated by that result; I would not have expected the change in wording to have that much of an effect (of course, this isn’t my field, so my expectation means little). But then I started wondering about the ethics of applying psychology in this way. In the past couple of years, various instances of psychological manipulation have been brought to light, mostly to negative reactions. By comparison, this sort of minor phrasing tweak seems benign, and to be fair just about all forms of persuasion could be framed as psychological manipulation. So I think there can be a place for tailoring one’s charity appeals in this fashion. At the same time, some amount of care and transparency may keep your potential donors feel like they are being tricked.

I’d be curious to hear how you navigate requests for contribution and how you feel about applying psychology to optimize those requests. Do you think perception of such research within the current climate matters? And is that just another level of psychology for persuaders to navigate?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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