Ep 204: The Psychology of Fundraising

How do you use psychology persuasion techniques to get people to contribute to your cause? That’s what I discuss in this episode of The Psych Files – the psychology of fundraising. I’m trying to help my friend raise money and in doing so I employed a number of persuasion strategies to get people to help him out and I’m sure these ideas will be helpful to you as well. We’ll look at how Robert Cialdini‘s ideas can be applied to fundraising and we’ll look at other topics you may have studied in a psychology class: goal setting, bystander apathy, and the need to generate excitement in order to persuade people to part with their money (social contagion). I’ll also look at the ethics of all this. Is it okay to use these strategies on people? When is it not okay? Hopefully an interesting and useful episode up ahead.

Episodes on Happiness

Persuasion and the Power of Story: Jennifer Aaker (created using a cool tool called Reelsurfer):

Robert Cialini’s Principles of Persuasion Applied to Fundraising

  • Consistency: Remind people of the things they like, things they value, that are similar to idea behind your cause. Ex: Hello sir/madam. Have you ever had a pet? (allow the person to bring up memories of their favorite pet…). Well, we’re raising money for the XYZ Pet agency to… ” people like to be consistent with other things they have said or done in their lives. Also: in the middle of your campaign you might want to return to people who have already contributed: “You’ve contributed before, so clearly you value [our cause] why not contribute again?”
  • Liking: We all are morely likely to do favors for people we like. Projecting a likable persona is important to anyone who is trying to persuade other. Make sure that the people doing the fundraising are likable folks who are, if possible, also similar to the people you’re asking money from.
  • Authority: We feel better contributing to a cause if we hear that some other, well known and knowledgeable person has already endorsed it.
  • Scarcity: Make sure to have time limits on your campaign by which time people have to contribute. You can even set “subgoals” for your campaign: “Our goal by the end of the campaign is X thousand dollars but tonight we’re trying to raise X hundred dollars by midnight. There’s only Y hours to go – contribute now!”
  • Social Proof: Mention how many people have contributed, see if you can get “phones ringing in the background”, everybody is doing it!
  • Reciprocity: see if you can give away even a small, insignificant gift. People feel compelled to return the favor.

Bystander Problem described at the Stay Classy website: “The problem is that the people passing by tend to think, “It’s not a big deal if I don’t help, there are so many other people here that someone inevitably will.” With everyone thinking this way, no one winds up helping. If you put an appeal for donations out to your 500 friends on Facebook, it’s easy for each individual friend to ignore the request because they assume that one of the other 499 people will help you out.”

Tag and Thank“: a) shows you that similar to you (or perhaps even your friends) have contributed and b) adds in a little social pressure: “My friends are doing it so I guess I better because it’ll be embarrassing when I meet them and I haven’t contributed or we’ll have something to talk about when we meet.”

Prime the tip jar”. Priming the tip jar with money is an example of social proof at work. If your cause needs more than just change – and people have contributed $5, $10, $20 or more -then you might want to put large bills in that jar. This creates a social norms indicating that larger sums of money are what other people are doing and is the amount that is “expected” in this situation. More info on how to increase tips can be found in this episode: The Psychology of Tipping

The Fundraising Methods That Worked Best in 2010—and Could Work Best in 2011

Goal Setting Theory and Fundraising

  • Set high but achievable goals
  • Set specific goals
  • Get feedback on how you’re doing toward your goal

Fundraising 101: Tempting alternatives increase willingness to donate

How Indiegogo is a fundraising site similar to Kickstarter (though more oriented toward musicians) which tries to help people set realistic goals: Indiegogo takes 4% of the amount you raised.  If you fail to reach your goal, then they take 9% of whatever you raised. Why? To get you to set a realistic goal.  If you say you’re going to raise $10,000 even though you know you won’t get that much, Indiegogo will take more of your money than if you set a more realistic goal like, say $10,000. Example: goal is too high: $10,000. You raise $5,000. Indiegogo takes 9% = $450. Goal is realistic: $5,000. You raise $5,000. Indiegogo takes 4% = $200. “If I put in a lot of effort to raise money I’ll be rewarded (by the money of course), but I’ll also avoid a punishment (the 9% I’ll have to pay Indiegogo)”


  • Foot in the Door: “Thanks so much for contributing $5! Clearly you share our values about…we’re almost closing in on X$, since you’ve contributed 5 would you consider contributing $10? (connections to Cialdini’s idea of consistency as well)
  • Door in the Face: “Will you contribute $100? No? Okay, how about $20?

Those with the necessary social leadership skills might find it easier to use their persuasion skills during a fundraising campaign. These skills give you a better understanding of how people react to different scenarios. If you have earned a Bachelor of Arts in Human Services Administration, for example, you would have the management and organizational skills needed to run a campaign and appeal to people in the right way. A degree such as this helps you to better understand your donors, giving you the opportunity to better relate to everyone that you speak with as you raise funds for your cause.

Emotions and Fundraising

  • Emotional Contagion (Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson): plan a big event with lots of people and get them excited (have a band perhaps).

Ethical Considerations with the Use of Persuasion Techniques for Fundraising

  • Ask Yourself: What’s your intent?
  • Ask Yourself: Will what you’re doing make that person feel good about their interaction with you? Or will they feel bad about it?
  • Are you using the techniques to move people to do something that they might have already done? Or that they feel good about having done?

Also Mentioned in this Episode

  • I used a new and very cool writing/brainstorming/thought organization tool called Ginkoapp during the recording of this episode. What a neat tool. Check it out.

Ep 188: Psychologists Are Keeping You From Getting the Flu

Didn’t get the flu this past winter? Thank a psychologist. What? Well, it could be that a psychologist was involved in helping health care professionals to do what they know they need to do (but sometimes don’t): wash their hands. The issue here is persuasion and motivation: how to we get people to do something – and keep doing it? Health care workers like doctors and nurses can fall prey to the availability heuristic: they can easily remember times when they didn’t wash their hands and they didn’t get sick so they might develop an “illusion of invulnerability“. How do psychologists get involved to solve this problem? Listen to this episode and find out.

Wash Your Hands to Avoid Illness

Resources for this Episode

…messages aimed at health care professionals should be most effective when they emphasize how hand-hygiene practices can protect patients’ health rather than personal health – Grant and Hofman

Ep: 167: The Fat Trap – How Not to Get Discouraged About Difficulty Losing Weight

Guess What? Bad news: if you’ve ever been overweight and you’re trying to lose weight it’s even harder than you think. Yikes. Pretty de-motivating. As psychologist Matthew Edlund wrote recently, Weight: Why Simple Answers Won’t (Can’t) Work. However, let’s see what motivational psychologists would have to say about this. How to keep from throwing up your hands at the whole effort.

Resources on the Difficulty of Losing Weight

  • The Fat Trap by Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times, December 28, 2011.
  • Episode 126 (video): SuperNormal Stimuli: Is This Why We’re Overweight? There are many reasons why it is difficult to lose weight, but have you considered how supernormal stimuli might be one of them? In this episode I discuss some of the ideas in the books Waistland and Supernormal Stimuli by Dierdre Barrett. Is it possible that the old saying Everything in Moderation might just be wrong?
  • Episode 57: Expectancy Theory, Goal Setting and Getting in Shape
  • . Trying to get in shape and lose weight? What’s the psychology behind getting in shape? Well, first forget the psychobabble. I examine two established theories of human motivation – goal setting and expectancy theory. Join me for a different perspective on weight loss, exercise and fitness.

Ep 152: How Do You Change Your Behavior? Interview with Scott Milford

How does Behavior Modification work? Find out in this episode as I interview Scott Milford, author of the Behavior and Motivation website. If you’re about how to apply Psychology to everyday life then this is the guy to show you how he does it. In this episode we talk about how to get kids to practice the piano, but you’ll quickly see how this approach could be applied to all kinds of other life challenges. Scott developed his approach over many years of working with young people both at the piano and with at-risk adolescents in school. See how Psychology can be put to work!

Resources on Token Economy

  • If you’d like to learn more about the behavior modification system Scott Milford discussed in this episode, or more about how he applies motivation theory to other aspects of life, check out his Behavior and Motivation website.
  • While on Scott’s site, check out his special Report, called, “Getting Results with Token Reward Systems“, which is available to subscribers of the site. The Special Report covers not only how to motivate yourself, but also how to motivate children and students. In the report Scott shares a real-life examples of how to use a token economy for each.
  • Here’s Scott’s Facebook page
  • Here’s where you can follow Scott on twitter
  • My tips on how to use a Token Economy system (along with a few tips from Scott’s system as well):

Episode 142: How To Make Jobs More Satisfying and Motivating

Do you have a dull job? Wonder how it can be made more motivating? That’s the challenge – how can we make jobs that are typically not much fun (like an assembly line job) more interesting to do? There is a lot of research on this important topic (check out The Five Drivers of Happiness at Work from the Wall Street Journal).

And Dan Pink wrote a good deal about this in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (you can hear him talk about work motivation in this interview called Dan Pink on the Modus Operandi of Motivation). This is one of the challenges facing I/O psychologists and in this episode I discuss the Job Characteristics theory by Hackman and Oldham and apply it to assembly line jobs in China where your iPhone is made and where a record number of suicides have occurred over the past few years. Can we use job redesign to make such jobs more tolerable?

1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?

5 Characteristics of Jobs that Affect Motivation

  • Significance: do the workers feel that the work they do every day is important in the grander scheme of things? To some workers it’s clear that their daily work is important (say, nurses), while others (say, assembly line workers who put together cell phone components) may not feel that their work is important. However, you can help cell phone assembly line workers get a connection to the significance of their work by reminding them of how important cell phones are to the global connections they enable between people and the role cell phones play (through photos and messaging) in changing the world. Here’s an article on the important role that leaders play in helping their employees find meaning in their work.
  • Identity: as opposed to putting one tiny piece onto something that other people put tiny pieces onto, it’s important for workers to be able to identify a whole task that they themselves created. Is there a way to redesign a job so that workers can put their names on something and say with pride, “I created that”?

  • Variety: nothing kills motivation faster than monotony. How can you increase the variety of things that workers do? How can you let them tap into their skills or build new skills so that work can include some variety from day to day?
  • Feedback: employees need to know how well they’re doing their jobs. This helps with imparting a sense of pride as well. Feedback can come from a car that rolls off the assembly line and works perfectly (low defects) or it can come from a boss who tells the worker how well he/she is doing.
  • Autonomy: many employees benefit from having some say in how things are done. What aspects of the job can be supervised or redesigned based on input from employees? What decisions can they make on their own?