Follow the Leader: To Raise More Money, Tell Donors About Other People's Giving



To increase giving to their causes, charities should inform existing and potential donors about what others are contributing, according to new research from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University.

The research, part of a larger $3 million effort supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to understand gender differences in philanthropy, examined how information on other people’s donations affects giving by men and women to nonprofits serving women and girls.

Among more than 2,500 Americans who completed a survey containing varying messages about how other people support female-focused charities, the researchers found that when people learned others are giving to help women and girls, they are more likely to donate to such causes themselves. Further, when survey respondents read messages about the rising popularity of women and girls’ causes, their intentions to give to such causes rose even more significantly.

“Messages focusing on the positive future of charitable causes can increase people’s desire to give,” the researchers wrote.

Gender differences also emerged regarding how survey respondents were affected by other people’s support for charities serving women and girls. Giving by women was strongly tied to their perception that other females were supporting women and girls’ groups, while men’s giving was linked to the conviction that both sexes donate to charities supporting women and girls.

Why was men’s giving to support women and girls more affected by donations from the opposite sex? “One possible explanation is that men believe women have greater knowledge and understanding of women’s and girls’ issues,” the researchers wrote. “As a result, they may view women’s giving behaviors as a particularly important social signal of the value of these causes.”

The new research is not the first study to find that informing existing and potential donors about other people’s gifts improves fundraising results. Jen Shang, a professor of philanthropic psychology at the United Kingdom’s Plymouth University, conducted research released in 2009 on fundraising by American public radio stations. In Shang’s study, existing and potential donors for each radio station were told that another person had donated $75, $180, or $300.

People informed of any gift by another person were up to 32 percent more likely to make a higher average gift (from $93.97 to $121.12) than those who got no such information. ($86.11). Donors informed of others’ giving were also more likely to make a repeat donation the following year. And the size of the other person’s gift also mattered: People informed about the $300 contribution by another donor made a bigger gift than those informed about lesser donations from others.

Like the Women’s Philanthropy Institute survey, Shang also found that gender influences how donors react to others’ giving. Shang examined how donors responded to learning about a $240 radio station gift by another person of the same or opposite sex. People informed about such a gift by a donor of their own sex gave more ($141.88 on average) than those who learned about $240 given by a donor of the opposite sex (an average of $105).  

What fundraising lessons can be drawn from these studies?

First, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute found that a trend of rising giving to a particular cause strengthens people’s intent to give. So if you can truthfully demonstrate growing support for your work, by all means do so. It may well inspire bigger donations.

Second, when letting people know about gifts from others, try to cite an example from an individual of the same gender as the existing or potential donor. Both studies found that people, female donors in particular in the more recent study, are more motivated by gifts from people of the same sex.