Charities should avoid promoting their causes as neglected because this can deter people from donating, according to Michael Sanders, principal adviser and head of research at the Behavioural Insights Team.
Sanders, who was speaking to Third Sector after giving a talk at the Science of Response conference organised by the consultancy Instinctiv in London yesterday, said that if people heard that few others donated to a charity it proved unhelpful in terms of encouraging them to donate.
He said evidence from many field experiments suggested the attitude of most people was that if others were not contributing to charity or a specific cause, they would not do so either. "People respond to the donations of others," he said. "This could be because they see other people donating as a sign that the charity is trustworthy, or simply that they enjoy feeling part of a group."
But the opposite conclusion had been drawn from studies conducted on some sub-sets of the population, said Sanders. For example, he said, senior bankers who were told that only 7.5 per cent of bankers had donated actually increased their donations.
Sanders also told the conference that using celebrities in fundraising campaigns was not a "terribly effective" way of increasing donations to a cause.
"Celebrities are good at bringing forward donations that would have happened anyway," he said, acknowledging that this might be useful in a crowded marketplace.
At the conference, Sanders presented a series of findings from field experiments into charitable giving conducted by behavioural economists. He told delegates that applying behavioural science to charity fundraising could yield huge benefits, but warned them that it could actually cause harm in some policy areas.
The Cabinet Office announced last year that the Behavioural Insights Team, which is also known as the "nudge unit" and was set up in 2010, would be spun out and run as a joint venture by the government, its employees and a third-party partner.