January 27, 2015

Research studies suggest ways to E.A.R.N. donations


Why do people give to charities?  Although individual donors are unique and their perceptions of different charities are far from uniform, research has confirmed some common factors that increase the odds of getting donations.

To make sense of the wealth of data that has been collected over the past decades, René Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking reviewed over 500 studies of giving to charities covering multiple academic disciplines such as social psychology, economics, marketing, and philanthropy studies.

"Philanthropic acts are commonly the result of multiple mechanisms working at once" according to Bekkers and Wiepking. 

In their paper, which appeared in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, the authors identified eight factors that research shows consistently and most powerfully influence an individual's decision to donate:

  • Individual's awareness of the need
  • Direct solicitation of the individual
  • Individual's perception that the benefits exceed the costs of giving
  • Individual's desire to be altruistic
  • Individual's belief that giving will enhance reputation
  • Psychological benefits to individual of giving
  • Individual's values
  • Individual's perception of efficacy - that their contribution will make a difference

Several of these factors - awareness of need, solicitation, and efficacy - relate to how a charity "sells" donors on its mission.  

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of "selling" to potential donors.  As PJ guest columnist Lenann McGookey Gardner noted in our October 3, 2011 issue, "No one in the nonprofit community, in my experience, wants to think of themselves as a salesman." Research suggests that overcoming any reluctance to engage in informational selling activities and directly solicit gifts is critical to a comprehensive fund development program. 

It should come as no surprise that people must be aware of a need before they can decide whether or not to support it.  The greater the need (as perceived by the donor but often explained by the charity), the larger a donation tends to be.   Once the need is clear, it is often important to directly ask for a gift and explain how it will be used to address the need. 

In addition to explaining the need and directly soliciting donations, fund development professionals need to be prepared to help prospective donors see that their contributions will make a difference.  This third factor is more complicated than the first two because there are different aspects to efficacy perceptions.  One concern that can be explicitly addressed is whether the charity can actually accomplish its mission to address the need.  Showing past success of activities to address the need, or a feasible plan, may convince a donor that a gift will make a difference.   

Donors may be wary about how much of their donation will be used to pay for fund raising activities rather than program support.  For example, a study of donations for refugees in Rwanda by Bekkers and Crutzen (2007) found that donations were actually higher when solicitations used a seemingly cheaper plain envelope than when a more costly envelope with a picture of the beneficiaries was used.  Of course, in some cases more costly solicitations are more effective when they can be justified by the prospective donor. 

In sum, although everyone has unique reasons for contributing to a particular charity, research suggests that you can improve the odds of earning a donation if you keep four tasks in mind:

  • Explain the need that your organization fulfills
  • Ask explicitly for a donation
  • Reassure the potential donor that their donation will make a difference
  • Neutralize any concerns about fundraising and other non-program costs


Bekkers, R., & Crutzen, O. (2007). Just keep it simple: A field experiment on fundraising letters. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 12: 371-378.

Bekkers, R. and Wiepking, P. (2010). A literature review of empirical studies of philanthropy: eight mechanisms that drive charitable giving. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 40 (5): 924- 973.

Lynda St. Clair, Ph.D., is a retired management professor and co-author of Becoming a Master Manager, now in its fifth edition.

Comment on this article


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