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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Brian had a very emotional charity that he ran in a very businesslike way. Without the emotional component people will not give to charity. But how do you use the emotional side, how do you inspire the right kind of emotions? That requires some experience and research. Before you do anything on a big scale, run some tests and see what works best in getting the response you want.

What would you say to people who feel that fundraising is just a numbers game, that it’s all about the amount of activity and solicitations you perform and eventually you’ll reach your goal?

That’s the very wrong approach. From the data we collected, it’s not how you get people to give money.

It’s all about finding the right emotion, striking the right key. The game of numbers is a very uninformed game. You are fighting everything instead of targeting.

What would you say to major Jewish organizations like federations and synagogues that are struggling to raise the funds they need and that many people depend on?

Don’t only give the major donors attention. Get all your donors involved, make the guys that give $20 equally in charge. Ask your members what to do with the money, instead of dictating or having a private budget. Have a meeting to give people an opportunity to make suggestions, make it inclusive. We found that really useful.

Treat a donor like a customer, as opposed to someone you just need to get something from. Big donors get very personal treatment, the spirit is very inclusive. If you give everyone the same kind of power, they will be more inclined to trust you.

Philanthropy seems to be going in the direction you recommend, with donors becoming more data-driven in making decisions. Is that something you’ve observed, and do you support that trend?

You have to measure success, not show me someone who will tell me we were successful, but convince me the money is being used in in the right way. I focused on charities but it’s also true the other way around. If I give you money, I want to know how it’s being spent.

What do you say to a not-for-profit that says, “We took your advice and it’s not working for us — we’ve seen no increase in our donors either way, no meaningful increase in contributions, et cetera?”

We don’t come and say, we know exactly what you need to do. We come and say, we know something about what works based on data, but you need to test it. If it doesn’t work, then we adjust.


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