In the previous post, I made a few predictions about how I thought people might feel about different fundraising tactics; and why this might be problematic for charities. I thought it might be nice to supplement those earlier predictions with some data.
To this end, I posted a survey online, using Prolific Academic (a surprisingly user-friendly and efficient data collection tool - and maybe a viable alternative to MTurk; more on this in a later post). I recruited 205 UK-based adults to answer a short survey about their own charitable behaviour, and how they feel about different fundraising tactics. Admittedly, this is a small sample size and based on self-reported judgements and intentions, so we have to be careful about the inferences we draw. Nevertheless, the responses from these participants revealed some interesting patterns.
Let's start with the good news. At least of the people I surveyed, we seem to be a fairly charitable bunch. Of the 205 people asked, only two said they never give to charity. Everyone else gives at least once per year, with the most common category being the monthly donors (31 % of the respondents). As the figure below shows, people give in many and varied ways, with sponsoring a friend and giving to fundraisers being the two most common donation methods.
But what I really wanted to know was: how do people actually feel about different fundraising approaches?
First off, consider one of the most controversial methods currently used by charities: street fundraisers. These are the people you might see standing outside on the high street or outside the train station, wielding a clipboard and trying to engage passers-by in conversation. Some people also call them chuggers ('charity-muggers') but, perhaps understandably, the fundraisers aren't keen on this label. A whopping 93.1 % of respondents in my survey reported having encountered a street fundraiser at some point or other and, perhaps unsurprisingly, most people don't like it. Over 3 / 4 of the respondents stated that they either strongly dislike or dislike being approached by street fundraisers (with a mere 5 % of the respondents saying that they like or strongly like it). Nevertheless, the tactic is at least somewhat effective. Almost a third of those who had encountered a street fundraiser said they subsequently ended up becoming a regular donor to the charity.
Good news? Perhaps not.
More important than how people feel about street fundraisers is how people feel about giving to street fundraisers. For this to be a sustainable fundraising strategy, people should - by and large - enjoy giving when asked by a street fundraiser. Here is where the results should start to worry us. Of those who donated, fewer than half were satisfied with their decision, while a worrying 25 % were manifestly dissatisfied. Common complaints from the disgruntled included feeling pressured into giving, or feeling like they had no choice.
How respondents feel about street fundraising and donor upgrading tactics
Let's park those results for a moment and briefly consider a different fundraising tactic - donor upgrading. This happens when charities contact an individual who made a one-off donation (or did an event for them) to ask them to make another donation or to become a regular donor. Of the 122 people in my survey who said they had made a one-off donation to (or done an event for) a charity, around half reported that they were subsequently contacted again by the charity, usually to ask them to make an additional or a regular donation. As with street fundraisers, people do not like being contacted by charities asking for more money: 37 % of respondents reported being unhappy (or extremely unhappy) that the charity contacted them and a quarter report they would not give to that charity again in the future. Worryingly, this antipathy towards donating seems to spillover into attitudes towards other charities: almost one in five people who charities try to 'upgrade' in this way report that they are unlikely to give to any other charity again. It's not the 4 in 5 I predicted in the last post - but potentially losing 20 % of the donor base is concerning nevertheless.
There is a potential silver lining for charities looking to maintain contact with donors without unintentionally aggravating them. One of the consistent themes coming through in the donor comments was that they like being contacted by charities, when the purpose of the contact is to inform how their efforts have made a difference to the appeal. Positive feedback is, as we all know, rewarding. Perhaps more surprisingly is the finding that people might often be happy to be asked for money once in a while, so long as the ask is not too aggressive. Being asked face to face or on the phone seems to make people feel backed into a corner, or pressured. Of the people who said they didn't mind being asked to give, almost all said they preferred if this was done indirectly - via email - rather than direct face to face or phone methods. Although I didn't explore why this is the case in the current survey, it may be that responding to an email ask feels more like a voluntary donation - and therefore is more likely to elicit warm glow - that more confrontational methods, where the donor feels they have no choice but to give.
The implications of the data collected here seem to generally support the idea that some fundraising tactics might have hidden costs, in terms of losing donors from the shared pool. This further strengthens the claim that charities are - to some extent - in a social dilemma with other charities, competing for their share of a limited supply of donors. Some of the current fundraising tactics seem to be obviously unsustainable, in that they remove donors from the pool altogether. To improve the sustainability of the entire sector, cooperation is the key.
Since the suicide of 92-year old Olive Cooke in September 2015, charities have found themselves the focus of unwanted attention with regard to their fundraising activities. In particular, the use of so-called aggressive tactics has provoked irritation and distrust from the public. Charities have to be able to ask people to give; they can't rely on spontaneous acts of kindness as these simply aren't frequent or sizeable enough to cut the mustard. Nevertheless, fundraisers cannot allow themselves to fall into the trap of believing that worthy ends justify questionable means. Strong-arm tactics might yield short-term gains - but at what cost?
Evolutionary insights can tell us why people give to charity. Cleverly designed experiments have shown that making donations, or helping someone out, activates reward centres in our brain - it feels good to be good. This has been described as the 'warm glow' of giving. However, - and critically for charities - this fuzzy feeling is less pronounced when we feel pressured into giving. So more invasive fundraising techniques, such as door-to-door fundraising or cold-calling an existing donor to ask for more money, can be a big turn off.
One such strategy is 'donor upgrading', where one-off donors (e.g. people who have completed an event for the charity, or made a text donation) then receive a phone call to ask for a regular monthly contribution. It is estimated that around one in five people agree to this request - undoubtedly a boon to the charity. But what about the other four? There is a very real danger that the people who say no (i.e. the vast majority) dislike being pressured in this way and are effectively removed from the donor pool altogether. If I am right, this is clearly a problem for the entire sector.
Charities therefore find themselves in a social dilemma. They are incentivised to use short-term profitable strategies to extract money from donors, but the potential costs of doing so are borne by the whole sector. Over-exploitation of a shared resource in such settings results in system collapse - a tragedy of the commons. The only way to avoid this is to cooperate. For charities this might mean putting aside aggressive tactics that focus on maximising income from donors, and investing more into methods that maximise donor satisfaction and enjoyment from giving. In the short term this may well be costly - but it is essential for the long-term sustainability of the sector.
Just like fishermen sharing the same pond, charities need to harvest their shared resource of donors responsibly and sustainability - a failure to do so can be catastrophic. Insights from laboratory studies giving people similar incentives has shown that cooperation is most likely to flourish in the presence of explicit incentives: carrots and sticks. Nevertheless, in order to be effective, the incentives have to be stringent enough and to apply to everyone. The recent Etherington Report (aimed at increasing trust and confidence in fundraising regulation) notes that current sanctions against charities are ineffective for reasons that seem clear in light of the science: the Institute of Fundraising's (IoF) Code of Practice is too permissive in what it allows and only applies to member organisations. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that short-term income revenue maximisation has been allowed to dominate long-term sustainability in the charitable sector.
It is somewhat ironic that an industry aimed at eliciting pro-social behaviour from others has not yet found a way to work cooperatively among themselves. Nevertheless, the problem is not insurmountable. Charities now have a valuable opportunity to rethink the way they do business, and to find ways to work together to improve the way they use the donor pool. This will mean finding way to more strongly align individual organisations' interests with those of the sector as a whole. There is a wealth of scientific data that can be leveraged to make this happen - and plenty of experts who would love to help. Charities need to cooperate. But will they?