Wed, January 12 2011

Science of Giving 6: The donation box-How do social norms, price & scrutiny affect what people do?

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Filed under:   Fundraising essentials •

Today, I continue my ongoing blogging of the fascinating book, The Science of Giving, which covers a range of seminal studies about giving psychology.  This is the latest installment in my “Cliffs Notes” version of the book for nonprofit marketing and fundraising folks.

Today, we find out what happens when a clear donation box is placed in a museum.  Do people give when there’s no money in it?  Do people give more when there are bigger bills in the box?  Do people give more when they think other people are watching?  Researchers Richard Martin and John Randal have the answers…

Martin and Randal conducted a series of real-world research studies at the City Gallery Wellington in New Zealand.  Admission to this public gallery was free, but visitors could donate via a transparent box in the foyer.  Through cameras, observation and counting, the researchers determined what happened when the box was empty, when it was sparsely filled and when it was generously filled.  They played with filling it with big bills vs. coins.  And they tried different sign treatments: no sign, a simple thank-you sign, a sign indicating gifts would be matched and last, a sign saying donations were being counted or monitored as part of research into donor behavior.  Then they carefully noted what happened to the donation amounts, the number of people giving, the average donation per donor, and the average donation per visitor.

OK, at this point in the chapter, I was dying to know what happened—how about you?

Here’s what they found in this intriguing real-word experiment.

1. Having some money in the box significantly increased giving.  When the box was empty, giving was at its lowest.

2. People tended to give what they saw in the box, no matter what the sign said.  When the composition of the box was altered, the composition of the donations also changed.  In other words, if people saw bills, they tended to give the same denominations of bills.  If they saw coins, they gave less - ie, coins.

3. The decison to donate appeared to be driven by the “cost” of a favorable social comparison. The highest donation rate (3.4% of people giving) was when the box mostly had 50-cent pieces in it rather than bills or big bucks.  Visitors seemed to have decided whether or not to donate by thinking about how much they wanted to give and then comparing that to what other people seem to have given.  If they didn’t feel very motivated to give and the donation amounts appeared high, they likely skipped the donation.  If it was “cheap” to give because the typical amount donated appeared low, they were more likely to give.  Having big bills might discourage giving if it looked too expensive to participate given the commitment level of the visitor.  As noted earlier,  the lowest giving rate was to the empty box, which only inspired 1.9% of visitors to donate.  As the researchers noted, an empty box is bad for business.

4. As the perceived size of previous donations increased, donation amounts increased.  Big bills netted larger donations, and a larger total amount of money in the box seemed to also increase the size of donations. However, fewer people gave under those conditions.  So it’s a trade-off: when people saw small donations as the norm, more people gave; when people saw big donations as the norm, fewer people gave, but they gave more. 

5. The matching donation (shown with a sign) increased the likelihood of people giving and the amount given.  A one-to-one match boosted the average donation per visitor by 37%.

6. The signs announcing the amount donated was being counted or monitored and analyzed seemed to make people more likely to consider the contents of the box - men more than women.  But it didn’t make them more generous or subject to social norms.

7. People gave more on Sunday.

The bottom line? We sure are social creatures!  When you fundraise, make it clear other people are supporting you, and as my previous post showed, test sharing the amounts others are giving to increase gift size.  If you use tickers or thermometers in your campaigns, don’t show progress until you HAVE progress.  An empty thermometer will probably perform like the empty box.

Happy fundraising.


comments powered by Disqus

<< Back to main