images of brain, the psychology of fundraising

In the animal kingdom, altruism is considered a Darwinian puzzle—it makes no sense to spend your own resources to help an unrelated party. The more distantly the recipient is related to the giver, the less likely altruism is supposed to occur. However, humans have built and run numerous organizations with donated funds, time, and effort, many of which help people who the donors will never meet.

It feels good to do good, but why do people give, and how do they decide who to give to, how much, and how often?

Here are some tips on the psychology of fundraising and how to maximize your fundraising efforts:

Be Relatable

shaking hands

It might be cliché to say that birds of a feather flock together, but it’s true. People tend to gravitate toward their “in-group,” associating with people in whom they see themselves reflected. These connections don’t have to be major, though; the Minimal Group Paradigm explains that people actually require very little information to forge these types of connections. Similarities can include anything from gender and race to vocation and hobbies.

What does this mean for your fundraising? The more detail you can provide about who your organization benefits, the better chance you have of connecting with donors. Create a relatable narrative for your organization and beneficiaries that focuses on who you are and who it is exactly that you serve, the more specific and vivid the better. Generic details are far less likely to have real staying power—and you want to be remembered. To avoid getting overwhelmed, don’t get caught up in sharing your beneficiaries’ complete life stories; just concentrate on the connections that make them feel human.

Another way to build in-group connections is to offer ways to donate specifically to subsections of larger initiatives. Alumni, students, faculty, and staff are a built-in audience due to their close connection with your institution. Their friends and families likewise share that connection, although one step removed. The wider the circle is cast, the less connected people might be.

By breaking up funds to focus on specific initiatives like women’s leadership, study abroad, or theater production, you might be able to draw people who are less specifically tied to your institution. Furthermore, this helps people feel secure in the knowledge that their contribution will make a specific, tangible difference. It can be more compelling to contribute to a landmark initiative, new program, or rebuilding effort than to the institution at large, where donors would be left unsure of what specifically they helped fund.

Ultimately, building in relatability and scope means building a stronger relationship with supporters.

Humanize Your Need

circle chart with person's outline

Building a relationship with your donors might also mean having an individual be the face, or a face, of your organization. People connect with people, not statistics. While your efforts may benefit thousands, it helps to concentrate on the stories of a few to help you avoid two common pitfalls: psychic numbing and the Identifiable Victim Effect.

In a fundraising context, psychic numbing is a phenomenon where potential donors are overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of people presented as needing help, leaving them feeling emotionally uninvested and powerless to make an impact. The Identifiable Victim Effect refers to people’s tendency to offer greater aid when a specific, identifiable person or group is observed under hardship, as compared to a large, vaguely defined community with the same need.

What does this mean for your fundraising? Focusing in and following the beginning-to-end journey of a single person is a better representation of your efforts than trying to describe how many people are affected. For instance, when fundraising for students facing financial hardship, showcase a specific recipient of a scholarship you’re trying to fund and continue the story with their accomplishments after receiving aid.

Prime Your Ask

question marks

People are more likely to give to an organization they feel connected to, or when asked by someone with a personal connection to the cause, but they are also more likely to give when asked in a way that makes them think emotionally rather than analytically.

What does this mean for your fundraising? If you have a volunteer program, consider asking for time before asking for monetary donations. While volunteers may not further fundraising goals in the monetary sense, people are more likely to give when primed to think about time, which recalls emotional responses tied to experiences, rather than money, which brings out the analytical side of the brain.

Remember, cultivating an emotional response over an analytical one results in greater generosity. By asking for someone’s time, you’re telling them that your cause has an emotional resonance. You also trigger thoughts of personal emotional wellness and happiness. On the other hand, asking for money creates a utilitarian, rational mindset. While giving has been linked to increased happiness, people don’t often think in those terms when thinking analytically.

It’s best to make the ask quickly after provoking an emotional response, as fresher emotions register as more significant. Moreover, saying yes to one ask makes them more likely to say yes again in the future. Volunteer work can be recurring, just as giving can, and may result in volunteers donating and fundraising for your organization as well. Even signing up for an email list can be the first step toward building a strong sense of commitment to an organization or cause.

Interestingly enough, people also tend to engage more when an ask calls for them to be active or even in pain. This is called the Martyrdom Effect. The popularity of races, endurance tasks, and trends like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge demonstrate people’s desire for activity or even self-sacrifice. People who do something rather than just donating also tend to give more, suggesting that they want to have a more active role. It feels more engaging and satisfying to have to expend effort beyond writing a check or swiping a card, boosting that feeling of meaningful personal investment and involvement.

What does this mean for your fundraising? Hosting large events like races or relays can be costly, but can also result in substantially higher donations. If such an event isn’t feasible for your organization, you can also involve people and satisfy their desire to play an active role by allowing them to help determine how funds are allocated. Offering a subset of funds to choose from might be one way to do this.

Focus on a Single Message

email messages

Everyone comes to a cause with different motivations. Although we can generalize that people are more likely to connect to stories, some people prefer statistics. Some might give purely because they believe in your cause, while others might give for more incentivized reasons. Knowing what we do about how people connect to in-groups and are motivated differently, it might be tempting to present many tailored stories and describe a variety of benefits in an attempt to draw in a wider range of people.

Don’t fall into that trap.

With too many variations you’ll send mixed signals. It can be good to incorporate stories and statistics together, but too many messages framed in different ways can come across as unfocused. Conversely, using the same pieces over and over again to market your fundraising can make people tune out.

What does this mean for your fundraising? For the best results, pull together a variety of pieces that tell a single narrative about your cause, even if it constructs that narrative using stories from several individuals. Most importantly, keep your values consistent. Specifically, consider whether you want to emphasize egoistic or altruistic values when framing your ask. If you emphasize the benefits for donors, focus only on an egoistic rationale. If emphasizing benefits for the organization, focus on an altruistic rationale.

People want to identify with individuals, but they also want to share values with your organization. A conflict of interest or conflicting message on this point could lead to fewer or lower donations. Moreover, when people receive messages about how wonderful and deserving your organization is but also about how donating to you will make them look and feel good, they know they are being manipulated and are more likely to withdraw. You could instead reach more people by distributing a focused campaign through a variety of channels that appeal to different demographics.

Motivate the Final Countdown

sand clock timer

People love to be part of a winning effort. With the end in sight, success feels more tangible. More likely than not, you’ll have an easier time attracting donors when your goal is close to being reached. This is known as the goal proximity effect.

What does this mean for your fundraising? You need to build momentum to get close enough to your goal for the goal proximity effect to kick in. In the very early stages of your fundraising campaign, seek donors who you know will contribute and advocate for your organization. If they’ve been devoted to your cause in the past, odds are that they still will be. They can help with the early lead that will demonstrate to less devoted donors or people who have never previously donated that this effort is worthwhile and will be successful.

Furthermore, smaller benchmark goals can have a similar effect in energizing people. Set tiers of goals to capitalize on momentum again and again, rather than leaving opportunities on the table. If you have larger donors lined up, consider adding goal levels to unlock those contributions, perhaps in the form of matching contributions or a bonus gift.

You might also have two sets of goals running concurrently, emphasizing funds raised in one series and the number of donors in the other. This can be tricky to balance, as you don’t necessarily want a high volume of lower-level donors, but every donation does push you closer to your goal. By focusing at least in part on participation, you emphasize that every contribution makes a difference. You might even draw a wider circle as participants reach out to their own networks for your cause to ensure that a goal they contributed to is met.

No matter how many tiered goals you set leading up to your ultimate goal, make sure that you have a reachable goal, or several, in mind. The goal proximity effect only helps build momentum until that end is reached, but why shouldn’t you exceed expectations? Contributing when the goal has already been accomplished feels less imperative, so try to keep pushing forward.

Be careful to frame these new goals in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re moving the finish line. No one wants to have successes taken away, and a donor who feels slighted or cheated may be less likely to come back. Instead, detail the ways your reach goal will have an effect beyond your core fundraising efforts. Maybe meeting a particular reach will enable a new scholarship, building, or program, or perhaps it will let you add an important service to the work you’re already doing.

Be specific to motivate these benchmarks just as you would be specific in explaining the benefit of helping early on.

End on a Personal Note

piece of paper with note

Thanking contributors is one of the simplest, most effective ways to express appreciation, and can encourage donors to come back for future campaigns or projects. This can build confidence and momentum toward the next project, but it has also been shown to actually boost donations. Being able to point to something specific that their contribution helped accomplish raises confidence and satisfaction among contributors. That donor satisfaction is incredibly important; it’s a personal benefit for the donor that will likely result in higher or repeated donations for your organization.

What does this mean for your fundraising? As with the other stages, the key here is details. The more you can personalize your recognition—even just sending a note instead of a mass email—the better. Show people the tangible results of their contributions. Just as people like to know the story behind your cause and those helped by it, they want to be part of that story, too.

There are a number of ways to include people in the process of your organization and fundraising, to make them feel personally connected to your goals and the recipients of your efforts. Try linking donations to what they are ultimately used for and what they accomplish. Even a small shift in the way you frame your work can go a long way toward building a successful relationship.

Check out this video from Jenni Cross, CSU Researcher and lecturer, about the PERMA and how that maps to the psychology of donors.