Interview: Michael Sanders on making the most of the 'science of charity giving'

Understanding donors is vital, Michael Sanders of the Behavioural Insights Team tells Susannah Birkwood

Michael Sanders
Michael Sanders

Behavioural economics has been much talked about by fundraisers this year. Some of the best-attended sessions at the Institute of Fundraising National Convention, the International Fundraising Congress and events hosted by the Market Research Society and the marketing firm Brightsource focused on what is being called "the science of charitable giving".

Tips at these events ranged from telling charities to avoid saying their causes were neglected because this could deter people from donating, to advice about the ineffectiveness of using celebrities in fundraising campaigns. Most fundraisers are fascinated by this relatively new stream of advice, but only a minority are integrating it into their campaign strategies.

Michael Sanders, head of research at the Behavioural Insights Team, known as the "nudge unit", hopes this will change. He has recently given dozens of talks to charities about carrying out their own behavioural research in-house, and he says he's received a lot of interest.

The nudge unit was part of the Cabinet Office, but in February it became a mutual owned jointly by its staff, the government and the innovation charity Nesta. Sanders is currently conducting research into how to get people who are influential in their communities to persuade others to give.

His team studied companies that had formed fundraising partnerships with charities. It found that getting managers who were particularly generous to ask their staff to donate resulted in a gift from 42 per cent of people, compared with only 6 per cent when charities or the firms' CSR departments made the ask. "It was a big increase," he says. "Employees don't really care about the CSR departments, but they do care about their bosses. There is a hierarchical element to this, but we found the ask was most effective when the people directly above the managers were asking people to donate."

Sanders has also carried out research into how to get people who have signed up to do fundraising on behalf of charities to follow through. His team found that giving people testimonials from other fundraisers who said they found fundraising a rewarding and enjoyable activity was more likely to get those people to do the same than just telling them how easy it was.

Indeed, 60 per cent of people who had signed up to do fundraising, but had not followed through at first, did go on to do so when they were told how enjoyable other people had found it, compared with 50 per cent of those who were offered practical advice about what to do next.

Findings such as this could be useful to fundraisers who want to boost engagement among volunteers, or those who want to maximise the potential of employee fundraising efforts. The reality, however, is that many charities believe they have neither the time nor the resources to prioritise approaches such as these - even if they could bring increased success rates on a number of fronts.

Sanders believes that the size of a charity should not be an obstacle to taking advantage of this kind of research. Small charities that want to apply the latest behavioural insights to their fundraising programmes should group together with other organisations and conduct research as a team, he says. Another option, he says, is to contact leading researchers in the field, such as himself, Jen Shang at Plymouth University, Sarah Smith at the University of Bristol or Beth Breeze at the University of Kent, who will conduct research on charities' behalf in exchange for data about their donors. "Typically, we would want to help them with an experiment and then have the data about who gave and how much."

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