Rich donors 'give more when messages make them feel powerful'

A report from Harvard academics says affluent donors give 82 per cent more when nudged by fundraising messages that emphasise their personal ability to make a difference

(Photograph: Getty Images)
(Photograph: Getty Images)

Affluent donors give more when fundraising messages make them feel powerful, according to a study by academics at Harvard University.

Researchers found that people gave an average of 82 per cent more when approached with fundraising material that emphasised their personal ability to make a difference rather than a communal message suggesting they were one of many people making a difference together.

The study, which led to the report Agentic Appeals Increase Charitable giving in an Affluent Sample of Donors, by Ashley Whillans and Elizabeth Dunn, looked at 12,316 graduates of an elite US business school where the average starting salary for graduates was $100,000 (£78,880) a year.

During a fundraising campaign for the business school in 2015, the graduates were sent two emails and a letter prompting them to donate, either through an "agentic" message designed to make them feel powerful or a "communal" message.

Previous studies suggested that wealthier individuals typically "report higher perceptions of control over daily events and show a greater desire to make decisions for themselves", the study says.

"In essence, money enables people to achieve their goals without help from others, and thus wealthier individuals typically adopt agentic self-concepts, striving to stand out and master their environments on their own."

By contrast, the study says, "charitable giving is typically framed as a communal activity that involves joining together to benefit others", which clashes with the way wealthy people see themselves.

The study found that the type of message made no difference to how likely someone was to donate, but those who viewed the agentic messages gave an average of $18.47 – 82 per cent more than the average of $10.13 given by those who received the communal messages.

Of the 494 people who did donate to the campaign, those who viewed the agentic message gave an average of $431.70, 60 per cent more than those who got the communal messages, who gave an average of $270.30.

The agentic messages were particularly effective with people who had already donated $6,653 or more to previous fundraising campaigns, the report says.

"This study provides evidence that agentic (vs. communal) messages can increase donations among the affluent in a large-scale, real-world fundraising campaign," the study says.

"Given the high cost of fundraising— $1 for every $6 collected —it is critical to understand how to encourage donations among those with the greatest capacity to give.

"Rather than simply encouraging everyone to work together, our data suggests it helps to highlight the unique role that each individual can play."

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