What surprising factor nudged people to donate?

In late October 2012 Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Caribbean and parts of the north-eastern United States and Canada. Thousands of homes and businesses were damaged and more than 180 people died.

Following the event, fundraising appeals took place to help those affected by the disaster.  When the psychologist Jesse Chandler analysed the donations he discovered something intriguing.

He found that people were more likely to donate to a Hurricane Sandy appeal if their first name began with an S. Similarly he found that people whose names began with the letter R, such as Rachel or Richard, were 260 percent more likely to give to the Hurricane Rita appeal than people whose names began with a different letter. In fact the same effect has been found following every hurricane that he studied, going back several decades.

If you were asked to predict the factors that might affect the chances of someone making a donation, would it have occurred to you to include the first letter of their name?

I recently read Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking Fast and Slow, which includes a range of surprising findings about the reality of how humans make decisions. Above all it helped me move beyond the prevailing wisdom that just presenting a sensible case will enable people to make a good decision.

As fundraisers, how can these ideas help us?

  1. Kahneman’s research shows us that because thinking takes up effort, if something is remotely hard to work out, most donors tend to have less patience to follow through than is generally realised. As Thaler and Sunstein point out, real people make decisions less like Spock and more like Homer. However simple you think the process is for giving to your charity, research shows that some people who care and wanted to help are probably giving up. How could you test this? How could you make processes even simpler and clearer?
  2. The Initial Effect reminds me never to forget how important people’s names are to them. Research shows that we tend to like the letters that occur in our own names more than other letters. And in one experiment to encourage people to donate a day of their salary, when they received an email from their chief executive addressed to ‘Dear colleague’, encouraging them to consider it, 5% agreed. When they received an email which included their own name eg ‘Dear Mandy’, this success rate rose to 12%.  So when we are writing or talking to someone, however bad we might think we are at remembering names (and most people think they are pretty rubbish at it), any effort to use names (and get them right) is valuable.
  3. Kahneman’s book reminds me that an understanding of the mental short-cuts for how people do make quick decisions is vital if we are to help people support the causes they care about. The environment will always provide barriers to reduce chances they will take action.  A basic understanding of Cialdini’s influence principles can help you remove the barriers, enabling people to support the causes they care about.