Donation Psychology: “Even a Penny Will Help”

When it comes to donations, there are all sorts of things a person could do to justify not giving money to a charity. When you work hard to earn money, it’s not an easy decision to turn around and give that money away to someone you may never even meet.

So it makes sense why someone would avoid making a bunch of large donations to charity. But what about small donations? Certainly giving a couple dollars wouldn’t destroy your financial standing, right? Even so, a person might avoid a donation because after all, “What difference will my measly dollar make in anyone’s life?”

The “Even a Penny Helps” Strategy

One way to counteract this roadblock is to assure people that small donations have value to the organization. In other words, legitimizing small donations can nudge people to give.

macro-387110_640-webThis strategy was first tested by Robert Cialdini and his colleagues in the 70s. They went door-to-door on behalf of the American Cancer Society, asking for donations. They used two very simple appeals that only differed in one tiny way. At the homes who would receive the “legitimizing” appeal, the requesters said:

I’m collecting money for the American Cancer Society. Would you be willing to help by giving a donation? Even a penny will help.

The other homes that were approached got exactly the same greeting, just without the last sentence.

This tiny change in approach had a considerable impact on donations. In the control cases, where the experimenters just asked for a donation to the charity, about 29% of people made a donation. However, when they simply legitimized small donations, 50% of people made a contribution.

Even $1 Helps? Even $5?

donateiconIn a follow-up study, these researchers added a new condition in which they instead told potential donors that “even a dollar will help.” These results again showed an advantage of the “Even-a-Penny” strategy, compared to the basic donation request (58% donating vs. 32%). The “Even-a-Dollar” version had a success rate somewhere in the middle (47% donated in that condition).

In the 80s, another group of researchers tried to replicate Cialdini’s results and test yet another version: “Even $5 will help.” Their results showed that there wasn’t much difference between the $1 and the $5 version of the message—63% and 57% of people made a donation in response to each request, respectively—but both were clearly more successful than just making a donation request alone (27% of people made a donation in response to the simple request).

A Caveat: It’s Just About Agreeing to Donate

If you are in a position to ask people for donations, this information will surely help you secure more contributions to your organization by legitimizing smaller donations. It’s worth noting, though, that this strategy doesn’t increase the amount that people give—just how likely they are to give something.

In all of the studies I’ve reviewed in this article, adding “even a penny will help” or any of its variants didn’t affect how much money people donated. This isn’t necessarily a concern, however, because the donation request still pulled in more donations.

As an example, consider the first study reported by Robert Cialdini and his colleagues. They approached 84 people—42 were just asked for a donation and the other 42 were also told that “even a penny will help.” For people who chose to make a donation, the average amount they gave was the same in each group, but still, the “even-a-penny” version of the request pulled in $30.34 in total donations whereas the basic request pulled in $18.55.[1]  Keep in mind this was the 1970s. I would suspect the same study would pull in a greater amount of money today. Inflation, people!

Overall, this set of results points to a clear and simple way to increase donations to your cause: legitimize small donations. After all, “even a penny will help.”


Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   Keep in mind this was the 1970s. I would suspect the same study would pull in a greater amount of money today. Inflation, people!

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