People are twice as likely to donate if offered a selection of suggested charities, says Nottingham University report

A subtle change in the choice environment results in a large change in behaviour, according to a paper published by the Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics at the University of Nottingham

Nottingham University
Nottingham University

People are twice as likely to make charitable donations if they are offered a selection of charities than if they are given no suggestions, according to new research published by the University of Nottingham.

The paper, Defaults in Charitable Giving, published by the university’s Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics, was based on a study of 869 prospective donors who were asked whether they would like to donate a percentage of their earnings to a charity of their choice or select one from a default list of five well-known charities.

The charities in the list were: WWF, the British Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International and Unicef.

The study, carried out by Jonathan Schulz of the University of Nottingham, Petra Thiemann of the University of Southern California and Christian Thöni of the University of Lausanne, found that of the participants who were given a list, 43 per cent chose to donate, compared with 22 per cent of the participants who were provided with a blank field.

The study says: "A subtle change in the choice environment leads to a large change in behaviour. Providing participants with a list of charities doubles both the fraction of donors and the revenue for charities."

The study says that the strong impact of a list on donors’ willingness to donate is likely to be due to the subtle stimulus that reading a charity’s name has on a prospective donor. People might associate the name with a mental picture of individuals in need; when no names are given, by contrast, a prospective donor might refrain from thinking about a specific charitable cause, it says.

"What surprised us was that the simple variation of providing a list with default charities had such a strong effect, doubling donations," Schulz told Third Sector. "The organisations on the list stimulated an emotional response that made people more inclined to donate."

He added: "A very concrete policy implication for fundraising sites is to give individuals a pre-selected list of charitable organisations. This will increase revenue. The flipside is that although the organisations in the list are very likely to increase revenue, the organisations not in the list will lose revenue."

Schulz said the study had found that, paradoxically, it was more effective for individual charities to offer their supporters the opportunity to donate to a specific project rather than giving them a list of different ones to choose from. In this scenario, the cognitive effort of making a selection could deter them from donating, he said.

Commenting on the study, Leigh Caldwell, co-founder of the consumer psychology company the Irrational Agency, said that the focus of the study was slightly artificial because it was unlikely that a fundraiser would ask for a donation without specifying which charity the money was going to.

But he said there were three lessons that could be learned from it: "First, third parties raising funds should always state which charity they are raising money for and, if possible, give donors a choice of where their money should go. Second, it shows the value of being specific. The promise of ‘a donation to charity’ is a vague claim that donors might not trust. Third, a simple lesson – making a decision easier makes it more likely to get a positive result.

"Charities can improve results simply by providing better shortcuts to donation and removing as many barriers as possible. This might, for example, suggest offering a Gift Aid checkbox after a donation is made, rather than before."

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