The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Eight Ways to Use Giving Psychology to Raise More Money, Part 1

I love to borrow from psychology and science to inform my fundraising strategies. Here are some of my favorite “tricks,” and they really work. [BTW: They’re not manipulations; they’re just smart, research-based tools you should be using]

I’m borrowing primarily from Robert Cialdini, who in 1984 wrote a groundbreaking book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, outlining six principles of influence that affect human behaviors. I’m also influenced by Daniel Kahneman, author of the 2011 Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, which built on these principles and expounded on loss aversion and negative vs. positive framing as decision-making influencers. Finally, I’ve included findings from Cialdini’s most recent book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.

Eight Ways to Use Giving Psychology to Raise More Money, Part 1
Since this is a lot to read, I’ve distilled this science for you into two parts in order to help you connect with the triggers most likely to incline your would-be donors to say “yes” to your fundraising offers.

Even someone inclined to support your cause may not give unless you push the right buttons.

Here are eight triggers with a few suggested strategies (I’m sure you can come up with more) to use these principles with prospective supporters in your offline and online relationship building and fundraising.

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment and Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Authority
  5. Liking
  6. Scarcity
  7. Anchoring
  8. Priming

1. Reciprocity (also known as “Scratch my Back”)

Always think first about how you can help your donors, rather than how they can help you.

If you want gifts you must give them.

People are wired this way. If you do someone a favor, they tend to feel indebted to you. They want to pay you back somehow. This is the ultimate reason why great customer service has such a fantastic ROI, and the top reason customers become repeat customers. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz found in a 1987 study that it doesn’t take much to start the process of reciprocity; even the smallest of favors allow goodwill to be bought with customers, increasing loyalty and retention.

Stop selling all the time. Instead, help.

Think about the gifts you can give.

  • Offline tips: If you ever wondered why direct mailers send you free address labels, calendars, or notecards, this is why. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for plenty of folks. Even if you don’t do large-scale direct mailings, you can apply this principle. Include useful “how to” information in your mailed newsletters and as inserts in your thank-you letters (e.g., “10 Ways to Keep Seniors Safe,” “Tips for Taking Toddlers to the Zoo,” “7 Tips for Planning the Perfect Museum Date,” or “22 Ways to Save Your Planet”). Send folks token gifts (like a coupon for coffee from one of your sponsors).
  • Online tips: There are plenty of nice little gifts you can offer to your constituents via social media and enewsletter links. Consider “how-to” videos;, recommended reading lists, white papers with groundbreaking research, and even simply providing names and contact info to make it easy for folks to advocate on your behalf.

2. Commitment and Consistency (also known as “Foot in the Door”)

People will tend to commit when presented with an idea or appeal that fits their self-image.

In a similar vein, people who make commitments tend to follow through with those commitments—and also to repeat their past behaviors—because of a deep need to be perceived as consistent.

It’s a decision-making shortcut. When we make a decision, we like to feel we made the right one.

If you remind me I made the decision to give to you previously, I’ll want to be consistent with myself. And I won’t have to do all the hard work to determine whether I should/shouldn’t give. Now it’s just a question of how much.

The reason this is called “foot in the door” is that if you can get someone committed even at an entry level, you’re more likely to get them to recommit at progressively higher levels.

By the way, if your donor previously attended an event or signed a petition, you can remind them of this as well. Once folks have committed to you in any way, they are more likely to continue that commitment.

Folks are social creatures bent on creating and sustaining social bonds. If they’ve said “yes” to you once they’re more likely to do so again. Smaller “yeses” turn into larger ones.

Remind folks by thanking them for what they did for you!

  • Offline tips: The simplest thing you can do is remind folks they’ve given to you (or attended your event … or volunteered … or signed your petition) in the past. Truly, donor cultivation is all about the “foot in the door.” Once you’ve got a baseline connection, you guide prospects through a series of “moves” or “touches” that request gradually increasing levels of commitment.
  • Online tips: Begin with asking for “likes” and “follows,” but don’t stop there. You’re after engagement that will convert folks to desired actions. So once they’ve said “yes” to following you, ask them to retweet you or share your video. Then ask them to do something else, like make a pledge or contact their congressperson. And so on. In between these asks, be sure to provide them with valuable content so it’s not all about you.

3. Social Proof (also known as “Monkey See, Monkey Do”)

People do what they observe others doing. It mitigates risk, serving as a built-in decision-making shortcut.

People look to the wisdom of the crowd for help making up their own minds. This is why using testimonials on your website and in your fundraising appeals can be powerfully persuasive.

When folks believe their peers approve of you they’ll be more likely to approve of you as well. Think of this as akin to the power of Yelp.

Showcase what the “in” crowd is doing.

  • Offline tips: Invite prospects to events where they can rub shoulders with their peers. Better yet, ask your current board and committee leaders and existing donors to invite friends to attend with them. People will more likely say “yes” to people they know and like. At the event, have current supporters give testimonials as to how they first got involved with your organization and why they continue to support you. In other words, have them show your new guests why they are very much like them.
  • Online tips: Invite testimonials, and use them frequently. Ask for feedback on your articles. Ask current supporters to “talk” about you in their personal social media channels (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest) and to share your enewsletters with friends via email. Ask volunteers to review their experience on Yelp. Sprinkle supporter testimonials throughout your website (e.g., “This is the greatest investment I ever made.” “The staff really knows what they’re doing and they use my money wisely.” “I know my gift goes directly to help people in need, and I always receive reports demonstrating the impact of my giving”).

4. Authority

Folks inherently trust, and follow, authority figures. These may be folks perceived as experts on a subject or as having social status.

This is why celebrity and expert endorsements are often used to promote products. You can do this as well, and you can also work to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field.

Find your most respected authority figures.

    • Offline tip: Invite respected authorities to attend your events and address the crowd. Caveat: These should be folks who are truly admired, and not politicos who will attend any and every event at the drop of a rubber chicken thigh.
    • Online tips: Establish your organization as a thought leader in your field by initiating discussions on platforms like LinkedIn and G+. Include your staff’s credentials in listings on your website, and perhaps include a short bio of each of your senior staff. Link to published articles and research papers written by your staff. Seek out influencers in your community or area of work and expertise; ask them to promote your content.

Read part 2 to learn about the principles of:

      1. Liking
      2. Scarcity
      3. Anchoring
      4. Priming

I promise if you use these principles they will significantly increase the likelihood that your constituent’s response to your call to action will be “yes!”

Serious about raising more money?

You may want to get my Anatomy of a Fundraising Appeal Letter. It’s filled with everything I’ve learned about what makes a successful appeal over the years, all tucked it into one handy no-nonsense guide. Plus it includes a template and resource guide. All Clairification products come with a 30-day no-questions-asked money-back guarantee.

Eight Ways to Use Giving Psychology to Raise More Money, Part 1The preceding is a guest post by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE. Claire was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification.

Topics: Fundraising Fundraising Strategy psychology