A Big Ask Formula for Fundraising: Lessons from Behavioral Science

“If you need something, you can’t just ask. You have to ask and give a reason. If this association has become so well learned that it runs unconsciously, like riding a bicycle, then virtually any reason given for a request should unconsciously trigger a compliant response.”

– Nicholas Epley, Author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel & Want


I just started reading Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want by Behavioral Science Professor Nicholas Epley, and – living up to the publicity it’s received – so far it’s certainly been an interesting and informative read. In it, Epley explores the psychology and neuroscience behind how people understand other people.

One of the studies he discusses in the second chapter of the book got me thinking about how we ask for donations during fundraising campaigns, and that perhaps sometimes there are seemingly obvious components of the “ask” that we forget.

In this particular chapter, Epley explains the way neural associations create habits in our brains, associations so strong that certain behaviors – like answering “fine” when someone asks how you are – become automatic, and we don’t have to think much about them (consciously) before doing them. One example of such neural associations involves responding to requests.

According to the studies Epley cites, when a reason is given for a request, such MindwiseCoveras, “Can you loan me $5, because I won’t get paid until tomorrow?,” we are more likely to comply with the request – even when the reason is not a good one (or even a logical one).

For example, in one study, an experimenter asked other people if she could step ahead in line to use a copy machine. She made this request under three different scenarios:

  • By giving a reason for stepping ahead in line – “because I’m in a rush.” Under this condition, a whopping 94% of people agreed to allow the experimenter use the copier first.
  • By not giving any reason. When not giving a reason for her request, only 60% of people agreed to allow the experimenter ahead.
  • Finally, the experimenter gave another reason for her request, but not a good one – “because I need to make copies.” Surprisingly, 93% of the people she asked agreed to allow her ahead when this “nonsensical reason” was given (Epley, 27).

As we can see from this experiment, neural associations can be quite strong – strong enough to guide knee-jerk behavior even when logic is not present. Using what we learned from this study, I’ve created a formula for making the “ask” during fundraising campaigns.

Giving a reason for the donations we request from donors might seem obvious at first – but because we are often immersed in the cause for which work, we might mistakenly take for granted that people recognize the exigency of our campaign. Perhaps we assume that potential donors already know how hungry children living in poverty are every day. Or, because we work with the population regularly, we assume that everyone knows how difficult life can be for people living with a chronic disease. Whatever our cause may be, we must remember that not everyone (in fact, most people) won’t be as familiar with the importance of our cause as we are, and as such, they may not know the reasons behind our pleas for money.

So my formula has three parts – first, we stress the urgency of our campaign, then we make the “ask,” and finally we end with a reason for the ask. And just because hollow, meaningless reasons worked well in Epley’s sample experiment does not mean that we should give lousy reasons for our campaigns. Making a donation often requires more thought than we give to letting someone in front of us in line at the copier. Therefore, our reasons should also bolster logical arguments for our cause, such that our audience’s brains are engaged at both the knee-jerk, automatic level and the level requiring careful thought.

Using studies borrowed from psychology and behavioral science like the ones Epley cites can sometimes feel a bit like manipulation. But, like Superman, we can use our newfound knowledge and superpowers for good – and for the advancement of the social good our non-profit organizations support.


Centscere Allows Users to Turn Tweets, Posts, and Likes into Charity Donations

Centscere Allows Users to Turn Tweets, Posts, and Likes into Charity Donations

Yesterday I learned of a relatively new social media platform called Centscere, which allows users to sign up and select a charity of their choice. Users then link their payment information to their Facebook and/or Twitter account and agree to pay a nominal donation (as low as 1 cent at a time) each time they perform a certain action like posting a status or liking someone else’s post. Nonprofits can sign up for free and receive a check with their donations every 8 weeks. 

Uniquely Me: 8 Ways Nonprofits Can Use Sociology and Psychology to Improve Their Fundraising Campaigns


“Who am I?” by Hans-Peter Erb (professor of social psychology) and Susanne Gebert (biologist), an article found in the March/April 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind magazine, explores the personality traits and cultural phenomenon that determine how much value an individual places on feeling unique or different from other individuals.

The studies Erb and Gebert reference throughout the article found significant associations between certain personality traits and a need for people to feel that they are unique individuals. In particular, high levels of extroversion, creativity, and openness, as well as low levels of neuroticism, frequently co-occur with a need to feel unique.

But these individual traits are not the only influencers tied to differences in a need to feel, well – different. Cultural phenomenon are also at play. Specifically, a person coming from a more collectivist society (usually Eastern countries) is typically less concerned with individuality and uniqueness than a person raised in an individualist society (think American and other Western cultures).


Erb and Gebert’s findings got me thinking: how can individual differences in the need to feel unique be used to more carefully tailor donor appeals and nonprofit content? As noted by Erb and Gebert, for-profit advertising has already used such cultural differences to their benefit. For example, studies have found that American ads are more likely to emphasize how a product can make a person stand out from the crowd. The trope of “standing out” is so common, in fact, that a cursory analysis of American magazine and television advertisements will likely yield multiple examples of this difference.

Consider, for instance, this American Lexus commercial:

The transcript of this commercial clearly displays the Western need for individuality and uniqueness: Some things are designed to draw crowds. Others are designed to leave them behind. Introducing the 2014 Lexus IS F Sport. A car designed with one purpose. To stand apart. It’s your move.

So for-profit companies like Lexus have already used this cultural and psychological knowledge to their benefit – now just how, exactly, can it help non-profits? To fully understand the answer to that question, we must first understand who OUR audience is, which will obviously be different for each nonprofit. For more information on discerning your own audience, see my previous blog post on creating “audience-awareness” in your content.

After figuring out your audience, you can use that knowledge to craft stronger content more closely aligned to your audience. Think about who exactly your audience is. Think as locally as possible – your nonprofit might be American, but perhaps it appeals to a specific area of the United States where Eastern immigrants are more common. Or maybe your cause is one that draws a lot of introverts or extroverts. Only from analysis and experience can you determine the unique personality of your organization.

If your audience consists of people who like to “stand out,” think about crafting your content to fit that need:

1. Ensure that easily accessible sharing buttons can be found on all pages of your non-profit’s website, including places where donors contribute to your cause. facebookPeople with a need to stand out may enjoy displaying their own unique contributions to bettering the world, thereby making your cause their cause.

Wheels for Wishes

2. Consider allowing users to earn unique rewards and badges through their personal fundraising campaigns. Blackbaud’s TeamRaiser system, for instance has an option to create ‘milestones’ for your users, and this is where your nonprofit can really use its creativity. For instance, you might create a “1K Club” badge once a user reaches $1,000 indonations. Consider using a resource like Open Badges to easily create unique badges, and, again, ensure that users are able to easily share their accomplishments on social media platforms. To provide a great example of fundraising badges:

An example of fundraising badges from the American Diabetes Association

An example of fundraising badges from the American Diabetes Association

3. If you’re using a fundraising platform like TeamRaiser, allow users to personalize their fundraising campaigns. That might mean allowing them to honor a loved one via their campaign, or just enabling users to have better control of the visual feel of their page so that they may select the colors, fonts, and images that reflect their own personalities.

4. Your nonprofit is special, so make donors feel special by highlighting the unique things your nonprofit does with donors’ money. In other words, why should donors feel proud that they contributed to your organization in lieu of a similar cause? You Heifermight even consider linking the donor’s contribution to a specific, tangible use; as an example of this approach, look to the highly successful Heifer International, which allows their donors to purchase anything from a beehive to a cow to benefit people in developing countries. Not all organizations will have something as unique as a cow to show off, but there is nonetheless a reason your nonprofit exists amongst thousands of other nonprofits.

On the other hand, if your audience consists primarily of people who don’t mind blending in with the crowd, think about crafting your content to fit that need:

1. In your appeals and social media posts, emphasize the greater good that your American Red Crossnonprofit is doing, and how donor contributions improve the collective whole of society or a community. 

2. Ensure that your nonprofit is honoring donor privacy. While we often hear about the need to make donors feel like heroes, not all donors want to be put in the spotlight. For some people, public acknowledgment of gifts may generate feelings of embarrassment rather than pride. Therefore, it is important to make sure donors have the option to remain anonymous if they wish to do so. You might even want to add a simple checkbox on your donation form that donors can select if they wish to keep their privacy:

Alice Peck

3. Craft sample donation appeals that emphasize your cause and downplay the participant’s involvement with the fundraising event. This one might sound a bit confusing at first, but the idea behind it is simple. Let’s say that someone is participating in a long bike tour to raise money for your organization. Often, when we send sample letters to these participants, the letters might begin by stressing the ambitious goals of the participant: “I will be embarking on a 200-mile journey, riding my bike to help….” But, again, not everyone will want to be put in the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have just as much opportunity to fundraise. Instead, try beginning the letter by highlighting the organization and the cause it benefits.

4. Make sure that your donors feel that by donating to your organization, they are part of a community. While you might not want to feature specific donors on your organization’s social media pages, you might want to continuously update followers on the progress they have made towards a greater goal. For example, you might say something like, “Thanks to our generous donors, we are now 60% of the way towards our goal of raising $100,000 for the __________ community!” In addition, giving regular news updates about your cause will ensure donors feel that they are a part of your cause and the people involved with it.

Certainly, these observations are not universal. Not all introverts are unconcerned with their own individuality, and not all extroverts feel the need to stand out. Similarly, all Asians do not dedicate themselves to the selfless collective, and not all Americans are so self-interested. To interpret these findings as set-in-stone rules would be to place unfair stereotypes on individuals who differ from these associations. However, in general. such correlations are common, as the authors of the article argue.

Because no audience is entirely homogenous, a mixture of techniques is probably best. Therefore, we can ensure that our campaigns appeal to everyone our content may reach, and in doing so – reach out to a broader donor base. For one final example, look for instance, at the American Lung Association, which skillfully highlights both the greater good and the personal on their, “How Does My Donation Help?” page:

American Lung

What does your nonprofit do to appeal to its unique audience?

A Worksheet for Crafting ‘Audience-Aware’ Social Media Posts

Social Media Content

If you’ve read my ‘About Me‘ section, you know that my educational background is in English Literature. A lifelong devotee of the written word, my insatiable appetite for language and voracious love for reading ultimately lead me to a Master’s degree in English. And my (also lifelong) passion for helping others lead me to want to use my love for language in the nonprofit world.

In the image above, I’ve adapted an exercise I learned as a student learning to write essays to create a worksheet for crafting social media content.

Although I’ll always support fiction and storytelling (see my other blog), I spent much of my undergraduate and graduate education focusing on the art of rhetoric and persuasion. For however much I love a good novel, some practical part of me yearned to truly understand how language can be used to persuade, to change, and to argue in the real world.

In teaching rhetoric and persuasion, many of my professors (particularly at my undergraduate school Marywood University) rightly stressed the importance of something called Audience Awareness. At first glance, the definition of Audience Awareness seems simplistically obvious: understanding who your readers (or listeners) are rsz_platoand, perhaps more importantly for our purposes – what they care about. Hundreds of years ago, classic rhetoricians like Plato and Socrates argued for the importance of audience awareness, and today it’s still a foundation for teaching the craft of writing. And, as I’ve come to learn more and more, both Audience Awareness and social media management are far more complex than they initially appear.

But what has amazed since I began working in the nonprofit world is just how applicable many elements of English and teaching are to nonprofit marketing. I love seeing how seemingly abstract concepts like ‘Audience Awareness’ can make or break things like donor retention, brand awareness, and audience engagement when crafting content for social media posts and email blasts.

Many resources and blog posts offer advice for what does and does not work in generating social media engagement. You probably see posts on a daily basis with titles like, “6 Tips for Effective Facebook Posts.” Certainly, some generalized, universal principles exist.

However, generalizations  for effective social media engagement are only a starting-point. What works for one organization will vary tremendously from what works for another organization.

Take, for instance, this The Nature Conservancyexample from The Nature Conservancy. This post was quite successful. A cursory audience analysis reveals why it’s so successful: followers of this organization are likely to be nature lovers; they are likely to be inspired by images of nature; they know enough about nature to engage with the post; because nature generates feelings of happiness or awe in them, the post is light-hearted enough to engender both inspiration and humor.

I don’t know enough about the followers of this organization to say for sure, but I’m also willing to guess that (in general), many of their followers are educated and possibly of liberal political affiliation. The many successful educational and environmental-advocacy posts on the organization’s page supports my theories on their audience.

Importantly, my guess would be that the same post (even with a different image, of course) might not be as successful for an organization whose cause is to support people with a chronic, incurable disease.

For one thing, scarcity theory (proposed by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir) suggests that when the brain is struggling for insufficient resources fundamental to staying alive – think food, water, social interaction – it has little room or time left to think about anything else. (By the way, as a side note, if you haven’t read Mullainathan and Shafir’s Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, I highly recommend it – especially for people working in the nonprofit world.)

Therefore, while people with a chronic disease are no less creative or fun-loving than anyone else, their minds may be preoccupied with basic needs: money, if they’re struggling to make ends meet while paying for their healthcare needs; companionship, if their disease makes them feel ostracized or lonely; or ridding themselves of physical pain, if their disease is one that causes chronic pain or fatigue.

Certainly, posts that are humorous or inspiring have their place and can, in fact, even be effective coping mechanisms for followers of a chronic disease organization. However, posts that attempt to do the following would be more effective for use on a regular basis:

  • Recognize a common value amongst followers
  • Use that value to fulfill a fundamental need

With that said, I’d like to advise a word of caution: while audience awareness is an extremely effective tool, we have to be careful that it doesn’t lead to stereotyping or pidgeon-holding of a group of people. Not everyone who advocates for nature is educated or a Democrat voter, and not everyone with a chronic disease is money-deprived or lonely. Stereotypes are likely to create the same types of problems (or worse ones) that nonprofit causes exist to remedy in the first place.

But, when used properly, principles like Audience Awareness derived from Classical Rhetoric can be extremely useful for predicting successful social media posts.

Stay tuned for a soon-in-the-future post, in which I’ll work through an example of the worksheet I provided above! In the mean time, feel free to share your own findings, musings, and experiences with crafting content for a nonprofit organization.