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Appealing to Potential Donors: When Less Information Is More

Appealing to Potential Donors: When Less Information Is More

Lance A. Bettencourt

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I have just begun providing guidance to a wonderful nonprofit organization, Elizabeth’s Voice. It enables a group of mostly single moms and widows in Uganda to educate, feed, and clothe their children by supporting the sale of their handmade jewelry, baskets, and other crafts.

Out of a genuine love for these women, Amy, the woman who runs the nonprofit, is seeking my counsel on how to generate donations of time or finances from individuals who might like to support Elizabeth’s Voice. As I sat with Amy over coffee on a recent Saturday morning, I pondered the options of what message might be most effective in motivating others to donate to Elizabeth’s Voice. 


Maybe we should appeal to the character and self-image of the potential donor with emphasis on how they could show their love for others by meeting the needs of the less fortunate in the world. Or maybe we should emphasize characteristics of Elizabeth’s Voice itself, such as how the money being donated goes directly to support the women in Uganda.

Both are good options and pretty critical it seems to soliciting donations. Say something to appeal to people’s view of themselves. Check. Provide information about the impact of donations. Check.

Honestly, I would have probably recommended doing both had it not been for a very insightful article I just read. Like other areas of marketing – and life – the research reported in the article makes it very clear that more is not always better; in fact, it may even be detrimental to effectiveness.

Research on Soliciting Donations

The article, “Toward an Optimal Donation Solicitation: Evidence from the Field of the Differential Influence of Donor-Related and Organization-Related Information on Donation Choice and Amount,” published in the Journal of Marketing, presents a series of experiments with two different nonprofit organizations in which (1) donor-related information and (2) organization-related information were either present or absent in appeals for donations.

The results provide clear evidence of the following:

• Donor-related appeals that reflect the actual or desired view potential donors have of themselves are more effective at getting individuals to choose to donate.

• Organization-related appeals that provide the information necessary to evaluate the potential impact of a donation have a greater effect on how much an individual donates.

If the story – or the research – ended there, my original recommendation would be correct. Do both! BUT, there is more to the story…

…because the results also make the following clear:

• Combining donor-related and organization-related information in one solicitation nullifies the impact of each type of information on its own. 1 + 1 does not equal 2 in this case; 1 + 1 = 0

While the researchers do not specifically test why this happens, they speculate that it may have to do with information overload that decreases individual engagement.

Three Experiments – a Letter, a Post, a Booth, Oh My!

The research team ran three different experiments to test their hypotheses concerning the differential impact of different types of information on donation behavior. They tested their ideas in a letter campaign, an online campaign, and even a sign at a booth. The results were largely the same across approaches and two distinct nonprofits.

In the booth study, the booth was set up in an area of high foot traffic with a sign that indicated the nonprofit was seeking donations. The content of the sign was (randomly) adjusted in 30-minute increments for three hours a night over three consecutive days. In one version of the sign, only donor-related appeals were included (“Show your Generosity!”). In a second version, only organization-related appeals were included (“Helping over 20,000 Foster Children.”). In the third version, both appeals were combined.

Of those who passed by the booth across the three days, 12.92% chose to make a donation when the donor-related sign was present versus only 6.45% when the organization-related sign was present and only 6.00% when the sign included both types of appeals.

In contrast, among those who donated, the average donation amount was $21.00 when the organization-related sign was present versus only $9.20 when the donor-related sign was present and only $14.67 when the sign included both types of appeals.

Best of Both Worlds?

While there are certainly some practical insights we can take away from the initial studies, the researchers ran one additional experiment to see if there might be a way to actually get the “best of both worlds.”

Specifically, in an online donation context, the research team ran a sponsored Facebook post that ran three weeks and reached more than 110,000 individuals. The post invited individuals to donate to a nonprofit for foster and adoptive families. Individuals who clicked on the post were taken to a landing page where they could choose an amount to donate. 

In some cases, the initial post included donor-related information. In others, it included organization-related information. The same was true of the landing page that provided the opportunity to specify an amount to donate.

The results showed that the design that was most effective at both getting individuals to donate and getting larger average donations was the one in which (a) donor-related information was provided on the sponsored post that requested a donation and (b) organization-related information was provided on the landing page that requested a donation amount. This design was more effective than a design in which the information order was switched or a design in which the two types of information were provided in both places. 

So matching the information provided with the request being made is key to being able to successfully use both types of information!

How to Create Effective Donation Requests

As the authors conclude, “If the goal of a particular fund-raising attempt is primarily to engage new donors, donor-related appeals should be emphasized” (p. 149). This type of goal may be especially pertinent for a new nonprofit or situations in which the primary goal is to get donors to choose to participate at any level such as getting them to attend an event or sign-up to follow the organization on social media.

“In contrast, if the goal is to increase average donation amounts, even at the potential expense of participation rate, org-related appeals should be emphasized” (p. 150). This goal may be especially pertinent when a nonprofit has reason to believe that individual contributions will be large enough to offset any reduction in choice to donate. It is also a relevant goal for more established nonprofits who have many past contributors who already feel connected to the organization.

Of course, the results also indicate that, when feasible, a two-stage campaign in which the donation request is made separate from the amount request can be successful when the donor- and organization-related information are matched to the request being made.

Lance A. Bettencourt is Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Marketing at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University, and author of Service Innovation: How to Go from Customer Needs to Breakthrough Services.