Things You May Not Know About Fundraising (But Probably Should)

Hello non-profit world. By now, if you indulged, your “end-of-the-year fundraising efforts” are probably in the history books. Whether you chose a strategy that appealed to tax ramifications for the giver, or proposed that a donation to your enterprise would make a nifty holiday gift, or just relied on the fact that we all seem to think that people are in a more giving mood around this time of year, you may be sitting back, assessing the results, and thinking “Now what?”.

What better way to kick off your fund-raising strategies for 2015 than to think a bit outside the box? And, when I consider outside the box thinking, I often turn to Freakonomics. If you are unfamiliar with that word, I would be surprised. Starting with their first book, the eponymous Freakonomics which was published in 2005, Steven J. Dubner, a writer and sometime raconteur, and Steven D. Levitt, a well-respected economist on the faculty at the University of Chicago attempt to explain what they call “the hidden side of everything”.  5+ million copies later, the duo published SuperFreakonomics in 2009, and the books and the buzz have spawned a movie, a blog, and an extremely popular podcast. You can find out more about all of these at the Freakonomics website.

I tend to consume podcasts like I do television, by which I mean I rarely listen or view at the time a program is first aired, but I binge on several in a row. My latest TV gluttony occurred with Netflix’s Bojack Horseman which I highly recommend to anyone who is not easily offended by cartoons that are intended for grown-ups. In the car, though, I have been listening to back episodes of Freakonomics Radio. One episode I listened to recently was all about fundraising, and in its inimitable way, the podcast brought to light some interesting information that isn’t necessarily discussed in traditional articles about raising money for a cause or institution. You might find some of these ideas interesting, or controversial, but hopefully useful as well.

A featured guest on this episode was economist John List, who is a fellow faculty member, with Levitt, at the U. of Chicago. One of Dr. List’s interests is charitable giving, and he has an impressive array of research projects and articles on the topic. Whatever else you may think about the good doctor by the time you have finished reading this piece, you can’t say he isn’t well informed, nor thoughtful about this important subject.

Here are a few insights List provided during his on-air conversation for Freakonomics. If you are interested (and I suggest you should be) you can listen to the entire episode right here.

Americans give about 2.2 percent of their personal income to charitable causes each year.

Over the past 40 years, that percentage has increased about twelvefold.

Appealing to altruism (“You can help these poor unfortunate people”) is less likely to help you raise money than appealing to the donor’s self-interest. In other words, people are more likely to give if they are told that doing so will make them feel good about THEMSELVES, or even that they might LOSE something if they don’t donate.

Social pressure and guilt are actually powerful drivers of donation.

When someone sees that a friend, or someone you consider an influential person, has supported a cause, they are more likely to also want to support that cause.

Beautiful women, and more particularly attractive blonde women raise more money (maybe as much as twice as much) than others when they are the ones soliciting money for you. Most of this effect came from donations from men (surprise!) and there was not any observed reverse effect – women giving more money to good-looking men.

Matching gifts are powerful motivators, but a 1:1 match is as good as any other, so there is no need to make it 2:1 or 3:1.

Donors like lotteries, in which their donations in some way may qualify them to win a desirable prize. Think “For every dollar you give us, your name will be entered in a drawing for this big-screen TV”. List, by the way, recommends that you consult an authority on gambling rules in your state before trying this approach, but if it can work for you, offering a prize might boost giving.

As already mentioned, these conclusions are supported by data from rigorous academic research. So, what do you think? Did any of this surprise you? More importantly, does consideration of these research results give you any good ideas for some new ways you might consider boosting donations to your cause in the year to come? As Steven Dubner says about John List “We’d be fools to not follow his advice”. Let us know if you do, and how it works out for you.