This phrase has become an unfortunate cliché for saying something but doing nothing. But do people consider prayer nothing?
Two economists decided to find out. Being economists, they wanted to find out how much people valued thoughts and prayers. That is, how much would someone pay to be prayed for (or not to be prayed for)?
As you might guess, it depended on the person—both the person receiving the prayer and the person doing the praying:
As you can see, people who were atheistic or agnostic didn’t want people to pray for them, to the point they would give up money to avoid being prayed for. Those who were Christians would pay to receive thoughts and prayers: more from priests and more for prayers than for thoughts.
Then, they took it one step farther. (This is the part that has implications for how we fundraise.) If prayers have value, do they crowd out monetary donations?
It turns out they do. In an as-yet-unpublished second study, the same researchers asked study participants to donate to hurricane victims. For half the participants she asked them to pray first. Those participants gave on average a dollar less (out of $5 they were allotted for the experiment). Presumably, because they prayed first, they had already given the hurricane victims something of value and thus could give less financially.
A few implications of this research for our fundraising:
– If you ask someone to pray before making their donation, perhaps test without this language. Your mileage may vary from this study because you are likely a religiously affiliated organization and thus have different donors supporting you than the folks in this study. But given these results, you may have an opportunity to maximize your financial donations if you minimize your non-financial donations in the form of prayer.
– Different donors behave differently. This seems obvious (Christians and Atheists Responded Differently to Prayer Requests; Film at 11). But how often do we send the same message the full file, or water down our message because we don’t know who is receiving it? For organizations with a religious component to their mission, for example, we should be able to know who is with the organization because of their faith and who has other reasons, then address them accordingly.
– This is not the only way non-donations crowd out donations. We’d talked a few weeks ago about the generic warm glow. You aren’t just in competition with nonprofits. Instead, you’re in competition with everyone who can make your donor feel like they are making a difference in the world.
The example in that post was a BBB survey that showed that people are buying locally as their “donation” to fight the impacts of COVID-19. There’s another more recent example of the same thing. In the May Cause and Social Influence survey of 18-30-year-olds (not our donors by and large, but a look at the far future of philanthropy), these young adults preferred way to help in the face of COVID-19 was to increase their purchasing of local products and services (25% in the past three weeks). Less than half that number gave to a charity.
Put it together, the studies show the clear need to differentiate among our donors to create a customized experience, taking into account behavioral science, lest we lose the idea of philanthropy to something that can be accomplished with purchases, not gifts.