7 Evidence-Based Donor Engagement Tips

Take the guessing out of fundraising. Here are seven ways you can use behavioral science to engage your donors and become a more effective fundraiser.


How can nonprofits help donors to build stronger giving habits?

As members of the Charitable Giving Consortium (GlobalGiving, DonorsChoose, Kiva, and Michael Norton from Harvard Business School), we conducted several experiments and worked with researcher Rachel Binder-Hathaway on an extensive literature review of behavioral science, economics, social psychology, and marketing research to learn about ways to influence donor behavior.

We found seven determinants that you can use to influence donor engagement and retention:

1. Leverage peer influence.

Human beings are wired to conform to the behavior of others. Informing prospective donors that people “like them” have given can boost donation rates as well as the amounts donated. Furthermore, highlighting the actions of social “leaders,” especially those with credibility and influence, can encourage giving in others. Providing reference amounts, especially if they’re reasonable for potential donors, has shown to be effective.

2. Make the donation process as simple as possible.

The easier a donation process is, the more likely people are to give, and they may even give more, according to some research. This can be done through donation processes that (1) make recurring donations the default setting, or (2) feature an opt-in option that allows donors to increase future donations by a fixed amount, to account for inflation.

3. Invite donors to make future commitments.

Donors feel a sense of joy and utility through charitable giving, first when the commitment is made, and again when the giving actually occurs. Research shows that inviting potential donors to create contracts (or pledges) for a future giving commitment led to stronger giving outcomes than asking them to “give now.” The strongest outcomes were for future commitments set to occur the week following the pledge. Furthermore, sending a note of thanks just before the commitment is due to take place also increased the likelihood of future donations. A study also showed that asking donors to increase future donations (rather than today’s potential gift) was an effective strategy for increasing donations.

4. Remind me.

One study found it’s helpful to send reminders to donors, however the impactfulness of this method depends on the frequency of the reminders. For example, once a month reminders can be as effective as weekly reminders. Another study tested a ‘give now, and we’ll never bother you again’ appeal was effective amongst individuals who prefer avoiding social pressure. Thus, taking this avoidance effect into account when structuring an appeal can improve donation levels and amounts.

5. Tell a good story.

The “Identifiable Victim Effect” suggests that people are more likely to respond to a charitable ask that highlights a single person in need, as opposed to a group. Studies indicate it wasn’t necessary to use the person’s name in order to prompt people to give, but donors gave more if the person’s name was included. These findings were further explored with a set of appeals that tested whether including or excluding significant details about a cause proved most effective. Researchers found that details help potential donors envision the impact of their donation and feel more empathy; putting a face to a cause increases the likelihood of donations.

6. Make it public.

Will people be more likely to volunteer if they are offered monetary incentives or if their choices will be made public? One study found financial incentives might be more effective for private volunteering opportunities, whereas public incentives (making a person’s choice known) might be more effective in public volunteering channels. Conversely, the study revealed that, amongst volunteers not given this information (private volunteering opportunities), financial incentives tended to be more effective.

7. Design matters.

A nonprofit’s decision about how to group online content can impact how donors use information and compare options. Donors appreciate suggestions about what’s important (as indicated through a designer’s grouping choices) and are willing to follow recommendations made by site architects. It’s best to focus on the details you wish to make “top of mind,” focusing attention on the most important elements of the charitable ask. Decision aids can reduce donor effort, influence choices, and increase donor satisfaction.

For details and references to the studies, download the full literature review or read the other articles in the “Generosity in Practice” series:

Generosity In Practice: Understanding Charitable Giving Research
The Psychology Of Giving: What Rewards Motivate Donors?
Content Vs. Context: The Effects Of Messaging + Framing On Charitable Giving

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Featured Photo: Environmental Education in Morocco by Dar Si Hmad

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