Fundraisers are an emotional bunch. They care a lot about the bad stuff that’s happening in the world. And they desperately want everyone to care about it as much as they do. And they’re sensitive. So they spend a lot of time and effort listening to donors and supporters.
Unfortunately, this leads them to think the way to understand donors is to listen to them. My thesis here is that if you listen too much to donors you’ll be at best disappointed, and at worst very distracted. Instead you need to study what they actually do.
What follows is five reasons why you shouldn’t listen, drawn from my new book with Omar Mahmoud on how behavioural economics should change fundraising.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias which encourages people to have a false sense of their own ability or contribution to something. It was first detailed in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University. The effect works in two ways. First, people mistakenly assess their ability or contribution as much higher than it really is – literally they think they are capable of things they are not. (If you’ve ever watched the auditions for the X Factor you can see plenty of evidence for this.)
Fundraisers tend to overvalue their own view about what works. And donors tend to reinforce this by overvaluing the importance of their opinion. (Think: how many of the director’s ‘great’ ideas were tested in focus groups and came back with a 5-star rating…and then failed?)
Second, and perhaps more important in this context, donors overestimate how philanthropic they are. The CAF annual fundraising survey of giving is useful and put together with good intent. But very often there is a conflict between the total amount of money donors say they give and the actual income of charities.
The chart below, based on US data, says the same thing but quantifies it. 75% of donors think they give more than the average, when actually 72% give less.
Sorry again. If we listen to donors and don’t study the data we can simply fuel their philanthropic fantasy.
A classic trap that fundraisers fall into is to try and help supporters choose how to help by offering them a range of choices about how to help and explaining clearly what the impact of their choice is. Donors say they want this. But in fact a lot of the evidence suggests that context not rational choice is a more important driver of success.
A key element in context is social proof – so who else is doing the same. Let’s illustrate this with a famous experiment originally run by Robert Cialdini, respected Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.
He persuaded a major US hotel chain to trial different messages in hotel rooms to see which would have the most powerful effect getting hotel users to reuse their towels. This would help save the planet and, coincidentally reduce the hotel’s laundry and room cleaning costs.
There were three versions of the message trialed:
Message 1: focused, as do many of these appeals, on the environmental benefits of reuse. If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel I’m sure you’ll have seen this version. In this case 35% of guests opted to re-use their towels. This was used as a the ‘control’ – or baseline – for the experiment.
Message 2: focused on social proof. This missed out the environmental message and stated, ‘most people in this hotel re-use their towels.’ In this case 44% of guests reused their towels. That’s almost 10% more people.
Message 3: here the researchers tested variations of the social proof message over several weeks. They tried to target it even more to ‘people like you.’ They adapted specific messages by mentioning gender ‘women/men’, ‘citizens’, ‘environmentally concerned individuals’, ‘guests in this hotel’ or finally, ‘people who stayed in this room.’ There were five variants in total.
Which message had the greatest impact in changing behaviour? Most fundraisers think the answer is one containing some sense of social identity – often they choose ‘gender’ or ‘citizen.’ In fact, the most effective message was the one saying ‘most people who stay in this room reuse their towels.’ That produced a 49.3% reuse rate – 15% more than the original environmental message. It’s not about the cause, it’s the social proof context.
The reality is more people tend to support you more as it becomes socially acceptable. Just because others do. Not for the cause committed reason they tell you. (Look again at the success of ice bucket challenge – what cause was it for again?)
Keen to learn more about behavioural rconomics and its applications in the ethical sector? Bernard Ross and Omar Mahmoud’s latest book Change for Good – using behavioural economics for a better world – explains the concepts and uses in more detail. Try Amazon for your copy.