How ‘Pseudo-Sets’ Might Help Your Nonprofit Get Repeat Donations

Harvard Business School researchers teamed up with GlobalGiving, Kiva, and to launch a simultaneous A/B test across all three platforms in order to find out if they could influence repeat giving. They learned that framing matters.


What We Tested

GlobalGiving, together with and Kiva, partnered with Michael Norton and Oliver Hauser at the Harvard Business School to explore how fundraising appeals could be structured in a way that they engage donors (or Kiva lenders) and increase donations. Our previous research suggests that people are motivated to complete tasks when they’re framed as part of a “pseudo-set”—pictured as wedges of a pie chart that fill in with each task completed, for example. Inspired by this idea, we ran a large-scale field experiment across the three nonprofit crowdfunding platforms to test the effect of “pseudo-set” framing in fundraising.

The Big Question

Can we increase donations by framing a donation appeal as part of a larger set of tasks?

Why It Matters

Donor engagement and retention are a challenge for all nonprofit organizations, and the most successful nonprofits are finding ways to make donation experiences interesting, rewarding, and meaningful to donors. But there isn’t much data about what works for nonprofits online. Much of the academic research on giving to-date has been associated with donor acquisition rather than donor retention, because retention research requires nonprofits to collaborate actively with researchers.  Additionally, in the past it has been particularly challenging for online retention rates to approach the retention rates usually associated with direct (snail) mail.

Outside of the nonprofit world, pseudo-set framing has been shown to engage people in completing a variety of tasks; for example: simply presenting a series of boring tasks as part of a set of six wedges of a pie chart increased people’s likelihood of completing all six tasks. We applied this thinking to charitable decision-making, aiming to engage donors and provide them with new insight into their donation experience. To do so, we highlighted worthwhile and impactful projects as different component of the pseudo-sets; on GlobalGiving, we highlighted projects on different continents that donors had not donated to before, to encourage them to complete their donation “set” of continents. We hoped that completing a pseudo-set—knowing that one had given to a variety of meaningful projects—would be rewarding to donors.

Our Method

With generous support from the John Templeton Foundation, three organizations—GlobalGiving,, and Kiva—launched simultaneous A/B tests on the same day, reaching more than 230,000 past donors to test “pseudo-set” framing. Donors in the treatment groups received an email that informed them that their past donation was part of a larger set. For GlobalGiving and Kiva, the pseudo-set consisted of the six continents. On, the pseudo-set was made up of six fundamental school subject areas. The emails invited people to give (or lend) to a different component of the larger set; completing a pseudo-set meant giving to all six components that made up that set.

The Results

We found a significant effect on donations from pseudo-set framing by two of the charities: GlobalGiving and (p = 0.084). We did not find a similar effect for lenders on Kiva. Perhaps the mindset of a socially-aware lender is different than that of a donor on the other two platforms? We don’t know the answer to this question yet, but we hope to find out in future work. Since this was only the beginning of the collaboration between the three organizations and the team of researchers, we hope to learn much more in the future.

“The coordination, execution and teamwork required for this project—making it possible that three organizations pulled off a synchronized field experiment across their respective platforms—offers an exciting avenue for novel, large-scale research that sheds unique insight into the psychology of giving.”

Michael Norton, Harvard Business School

Make It Yours

What have we learned from pseudo-set framing of charitable donation requests? It seems like framing donation appeals as part of a larger set is helpful for some organizations. How can we make it work better? We think it will depend on context and the pseudo-set presentation. The best way to find out what works is to A/B-test great ideas; we think creative pseudo-sets—the more creative, the better—have the potential to make the donation experience more engaging for donors and help organizations retain and engage their donor base. Have you tried a pseudo-set framing in your organization? If so, get in touch—we would love to hear about your experience, or work together on future research.

This project/publication was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

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