Why do people avoid fundraisers?

This time of year in a university is pretty full-on. We finished teaching last week, and need to tackle the mountain of assignments to be marked before the larger mountain of exam scripts appears.

So it was with a spring in my step that I escaped campus last week to attend a stimulating conference on ‘Generosity and Well Being’ organised by two of the brightest minds and nicest people in our field: Prof Kim Scharf of Warwick University and Prof Sarah Smith of Bristol University. Kim and Sarah convened a fascinating group of people from different disciplines (economics, psychology, sociology and social policy) from across the UK as well as from the Netherlands, the US and Canada.

On the day I gave my paper (exploring enjoyment as a driver of giving) the programme was dominated by psychologists. This was undoubtedly some psychic balancing of my joy at having a ‘thinking day’ instead of a ‘marking day’, because I sometimes struggle to know what to make of psychological research into charitable giving. As a fundraiser, it doesn’t help much to know that certain personality types are more or less likely to give – unless there’s a database of ‘introverts’ and ‘extroverts’ with their names and addresses, how do we apply that knowledge? I also have issues with many laboratory experiments, which never seem capable of replicating the real world where subjects have opinions about real causes and charitable organisations, and bring with them their own history of donative behaviour. Perhaps they didn’t give in the lab setting because they already make a regular gift to that cause area, or hold a settled view on that particular organisation?

However, the psychologists attending the Warwick conference proved me wrong, not least Jen Shang’s work on how social information can increase donation size . So when a fellow attendee emailed me a link to a paper presenting psychological research on Avoiding the Ask, I read it with far more gusto than normal, and am glad I did. The paper begins:

“If people get joy from giving, then why might they avoid fundraisers?”

Good question! The authors (James Andreoni, Justin M Rao and Hannah Trachtman) conclude that avoidance (which is so easily interpreted as just plain mean) is in fact often a self-regulation mechanism for those who know that being asked will trigger an empathetic response they feel they can’t afford.

The paper presents findings of a natural field experiment, where Salvation Army fundraisers were positioned by store doors and either made no contact with passerby or made a simple polite request for a donation. The results are astonishing:

“adding the simple verbal request of ‘please give’ is about as effective as adding an additional silent fundraiser”.

These are useful findings for fundraisers. Don’t have enough people to shake your tins? Then train those you do have to interact nicely with potential donors and watch the coins start dropping. And tell your collectors not to ┬átake it personally when people swerve to avoid the ask – they’re just scared of their better selves, and those that don’t swerve will give more. Thanks psychologists!

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