Charity appeals focused on benefits to donors prompt more giving

April 12, 2021

A charity appeal that makes us feel good about ourselves is more likely to generate good responses. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

When it comes to charitable giving, people are motivated more by appeals to the good feelings they'll receive than by messaging about benefits for others, according to a first-of-its-kind experiment using revenue Alaskans receive because of the state's oil and gas industry.

Researchers used Alaska's Permanent Fund dividend — an annual payment state residents receive from Alaska's oil and gas revenue — to gauge how Alaskans' charitable giving changed when solicitations highlighted how a donation would benefit to others or how it would benefit to the donor. According to their findings, published April 12 in Nature Human Behaviour, individuals who received a self-focused appeal were on average 6.6% more likely to give and gave 23% more than others who received no message at all.

The results shed light on what really drives people to give to charity, according to the authors, and could give fundraisers clues as to how they can convince more donors it's the right thing to do. 

"Donors are more motivated by appeals that highlight self-benefits than those that highlight how giving benefits others," researchers John List, James Murphy, Michael Price and Alexander James wrote, noting that the finding bolsters prior results from marketing research, as well as studies investigating the importance of impure altruism. In February, a group of U.K. researchers released a meta-analysis that found that the philanthropy of the world's richest people is mainly self-serving.

List, Murphy, Price and James partnered with Pick.Click.Give., a charitable giving platform created in 2008 by the Alaska State Legislature, to embed a study in the program's 2014 donation season. The program allows Alaskans who file to receive the state's Permanent Fund dividend to donate part or all of their annual payouts to their choice of 613 eligible organizations. 

The research emerged out of collaboration between academics and Alaska-based nonprofit leaders, many of whom connected through workshops designed to communicate relevant research outside academia's ivory tower, according to corresponding author James Murphy, professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"Even though there's a lot of good-quality, accessible academic research being done in this area, the practitioners who would benefit from it weren't actually aware of it," Murphy said. Following the workshops, statewide interest grew in studying the dynamics of nonprofit fundraising campaigns.

The researchers set out to test whether postcards sent to the homes of dividend recipients would prompt more giving, varying messages on the cards to test different types of solicitation. Alaskan households were randomly assigned either to receive no postcard or to receive a postcard highlighting one of two main motivations for giving. 

One postcard featured a message emphasizing the benefits of giving for the giver. The appeal works by the logic of "warm glow" giving, an economic theory that describes the emotional reward of giving to others.

The other postcard featured a message focused on the benefits of charitable giving for other Alaskans, an appeal to recipients' more purely altruistic motives.

The postcards focusing on "warm glow"-style benefits prompted more giving and larger donations relative to the control group, the researchers found, while messages focusing on benefits to others increased only the propensity to give, not donation sizes themselves.

Households in the "benefits to self" condition donated about $1.10 more than they otherwise would have, the researchers discovered, meaning that the 183,215 households that got that postcard raised an estimated $201,536 extra compared to the control group.

"Had all online filers received this message, we estimate that Pick.Click.Give. would have raised an additional $594,136" in 2014, the researchers wrote.

The postcards focusing on benefits to self were particularly effective among "cold-list" households that hadn't donated in 2011, 2012 or 2013, the researchers discovered.

While "warm-list" donors who had given in the recent past were more likely to give, and gave larger average donations than their counterparts who hadn't, cold-list households given the self-focused postcard saw increased donation sizes and a higher propensity to give as compared to the control group. No comparable effects were observed among cold-list households that were sent postcards highlighting benefits to others.

People who received postcards focusing on benefits to self gave more even a year after receiving the message. While that population didn't see their increased likelihood to donate carry over from 2014 into 2015, the group that received the benefit-to-self postcards and did end up donating gave, on average, 99 cents higher than counterparts who hadn't received either message the year prior. 

By contrast, the researchers found, there was no evidence that people who had been sent postcards focusing on benefits to others sustained their heightened likelihood to donate or their likelihood to increase their donations in 2015.

Taken together, the results suggest nonprofits' outreach strategies may notch them significant fundraising gains — even with a strategy as simple as sending mailers with a message that resonates personally, Murphy and James told The Academic Times.

They were surprised to find that the postcards had significant effects to begin with, James said, underscoring just how minimal the mail campaign was.

"Our treatment consisted of just receiving a piece of paper in the mail," he said.

Murphy added, "I wasn't expecting to have fairly large and significant effects, and the persistence that we got from one year to the next was really cool."

Pick.Click.Give. channels funds to nonprofits but doesn't closely resemble those organizations, Murphy said. That unique structure may have dampened the effectiveness of appeals focusing on benefits to Alaskans generally, he pointed out, a dynamic that isn't necessarily true of organizations that can tailor messages to focus on the specific groups and individuals they help.

Still, the findings suggest that messaging dedicated to the "warm glow" are likely to be effective across many contexts.

Most hopeful of all, Murphy said, is that the results represent "lower bounds" on the potential impact of appeals focused on benefits to donors themselves. Had every individual Alaskan received the postcard, he said, statewide giving would have been boosted even further.

The article "An experimental test of fundraising appeals targeting donor and recipient benefits," published April 12 in Nature Human Behaviour, was authored by John A. List, University of Chicago, National Bureau of Economic Research, Australian National University; James J. Murphy and Alexander G. James, University of Alaska Anchorage; and Michael K. Price, National Bureau of Economic Research, Australian National University, University of Alabama.

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