Unpacking Why and How People Donate

Economist Uri Gneezy Says Fundraising Is No Numbers Game

Human Nature: In ‘The Why Axis,’ Uri Gneezy quantifies idiosyncracies.
Courtesy of Ur Gneezy
Human Nature: In ‘The Why Axis,’ Uri Gneezy quantifies idiosyncracies.

By Amy Schiller

Published November 05, 2013.
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Your research focused mainly on direct mail strategies. How does your research apply to major gifts fundraising, which is by nature more personalized and idiosyncratic?

We focused on math-driven charity. When you deal with big donors, of course you have to take a more personalized approach. It’s impossible to get empirical data on that. But you still do research to determine what a donor will care about.

There are a few basic psychological elements: Instead of giving to an abstract cause, make a specific request. Help the donor identify with the people who will benefit. People give more to people who they relate to. You give based on what your charity reflects to you about yourself.

What tactics did you find surprisingly successful?

The “pay what you want” approach, where you can choose what you want to give or to pay for a product, knowing that a certain percentage will go to charity, was much more successful than simply naming a price and saying half would go to charity.

That tactic is very powerful. It says to the donor, “You have the control. You decide how much to pay. We, the organization, are exposing ourselves to risk.” The fact that you are not taking a paternalistic approach, not saying, “This is what you should do,” and instead giving them control, it makes the donors more inclined to give and to give more.

The same thing happened with “one and done” — the box to check to say, “Please don’t send me any more mail this year.” Many of the people didn’t circle it, but it reassured them that the organization wasn’t just after their name for the list, and that they could have some control over the relationship with the organization.

One of the case studies in your book concerns Brian Mullaney, co-founder of Smile Train [a nonprofit that trains doctors to correct cleft palates in the developing world]. Mullaney had a deeply personal motivation for his nonprofit work, namely his sister’s childhood illness, yet he was rigorously detached in evaluating the data on donor behavior. What is the balance between emotion and analysis in charitable giving?


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