Breaking into your donors’ piggy banks



Australia has minted the first-ever Donation Dollar (above).  While the dollar can be spent however the recipient wants, the goal of the campaign is to highlight that it can be donated to charity.  It’s an experiment we’ll be watching with interest; if it raises charitable giving to top of mind, it’s hard to think it will be a bad thing.

Other than this one example, money doesn’t say what it should be used for.  In fact, quite the opposite: here in the U.S., it says “THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.”

But that’s not how we think about money.  In our minds, we have special categories for each type of expense.  Think of it as separate jars into which we are putting our invoice: $1400 for the mortgage, $800 for food, etc.  We experience mental pain every time we must rob from one cookie jar to put it into another, so we try not to do it.

Your donors think this way also.  Somewhere in their minds, there are mental Mason jars with “CHARITY” written on them.  There may even be several such jars: one for each organization they support.

If you think of how your donors mentally account, the implications ripple outward.  This is part of why:

So how do we diminish the pain that a donor feels from robbing from their “entertainment” or “getting dinner from out” or “savings” mental accounts to give to us?  Part of this, as mentioned previously, can be framing the gift against the frivolous.  But another technique that breaks through mental accounting is framing your ask as an exceptional expense.

One quirk of mental accounting is usually there is an “incidentals” budget.  This is a “what happens if my 2004 Saturn VUE* chooses to give up the ghost today” contingency fund that we can dip into.

One study changed the frame on their annual event.  Instead of talking about their walk as an annual event that happens every year, they talked about it as an event that only happens once per year.

You must, there is hardly any difference between the two of these phrases (and it’s always nice to run a test that will slip unseen past your Brand Police).

Yet the results were impressive.  By running Google Adwords with the new, unique, once-per-year framing, study participants said they would participate in the exception version at a 46% rate, compared with 35% for the annual framing.  When they ran the ad for real, people were 11% more likely to click on the exception framing ad.

Similarly, in the mail:

“This mailing is part of a special charity drive that happens only once a year. Alex’s Lemonade Stand is requesting only one donation a year going forward.”

Beat:

“This mailing is part of a regular charity drive that happens annually. The charity is requesting a donation every year going forward.”

Some implications of this research:

  • You may want to test removing things like “10th annual” from the press activities around an event (when it is viable to do live events).  The idea of themes could also be potent as a way of differentiating this year’s event as its own unique snowflake.
  • This could explain part of the effectiveness of techniques like a membership campaign and a better way to frame said campaign: “this is the one special time of the year we ask all supporters to make their membership gift.”
  • This may explain as to why scarcity, urgency, and uniqueness are effective persuasive levers.  It’s challenging to use this framing if you are sending four to 24 letters per year, and your donor knows that.  However, techniques that increase urgency or uniqueness like matching/lead gifts, deadlines, urgent petitions, etc. can help give a reason to open the piggy bank.

Another study showed another route: dip into other buckets.  Monica LaBarge and Jeffrey Stinson published an article called “The Role of Mental Budgeting in Philanthropic Decision-Making,” as well as doing a podcast about it that you can listen to here.  They found that people generally substitute one charitable act for another, not for a non-charitable act.  That is, people substitute sports for movies or church giving for alma mater giving, but they don’t generally substitute movies for church giving.

However, tickets to galas and events can be considered charitable gifts or in other buckets.  One donor to whom the researchers spoke talked about how buying a table for a gala was a business expense because that was his goal in sponsoring.  In the next breath, he talked about giving to an organization through a ticket purchase because he knew the person being honored.  Thus, it’s important to understand how the giver classifies their giving to you.  You may be able to take multiple buckets to maximize your giving.  Outside of individual giving, you may be able to work with business people who support your organization to sponsor in ways that help their business, giving you access to their business budgets.  Focusing just on philanthropic giving caps your upside with your donors.

So go forth and be unique in your messaging; it seems to be a better strategy than appealing from the tried and true if you are looking to expand your share of your donors’ pie.

* This author’s ride of choice, so giving up the ghost is always a possibility.  I’ve given to not driving it farther than I can walk home, which, thanks to a global pandemic, is still 90% of my trips.

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