Picture 3So much fundraising research concentrates on the relationship donors have with charities via direct mail that we tend to forget that cash is still the most common way to give.

The latest data from NCVO / CAF shows that 48% of donors gave cash gifts during 2008/09. And a significant proportion was given via the humble collection box.

A fair amount of creativity is used to make boxes more effective. Sofii features over a dozen examples that show the different ways that fundraisers have tried to increase income. The RSPCA nodding dog is probably my favourite.

But boxes haven’t been completely ignored by researchers. There are a few studies that are worth sharing. Not just because they could help in the design of new boxes, but because they give us an insight into how donors think about giving more generally.

In Quirkology, Richard Wiseman recounts an experiment he undertook to see if he could influence the amount people donated by changing the appearance of a charity box.

He linked up with Borders bookstores and conducted a week long study across the UK. Participating stores received four charity boxes for the National Literacy Trust. All were identical in shape and size but each carried a different message:

  • Please give generously
  • Every penny helps
  • Every pound helps
  • You can make a difference

When the cash was counted up, one box outshone all the others. Every penny helps generated 62% of all donations, while Every pound helps trailed in fourth place with just 7% of the take.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini has an idea why changing just one word could have such a huge impact. As Quirkology points out:

 “Many people are concerned that putting a small amount of money into a box will make them look mean, so they avoid making any donation. ‘Every penny helps’ legitimises even the smallest of contributions. In contrast, ‘Every pound helps’ confirms people’s fears that their donation will appear paltry so they give nothing at all.”

Box colour was also tested and red was found to be the most effective, perhaps because it is eye catching and carries a sense of urgency. This might cause problems for organisations with brand guidelines that preclude its use(when the Smithsonian first put up six-foot oyster-grey collection boxes back in 1993, they were so bland they were ignored by visitors).

Interestingly, the Quirkology experiment also uncovered the fact that London customers were most generous, donating over 20 times more than people in the store with the worst return, Birmingham.

Another experiment worth looking at was undertaken in New Zealand. It was motivated by research that I’ve featured in a previous post on prompting larger gifts through sharing social information.

The experiment took place in Wellington’s City Gallery and ran for three years. Admission to the gallery was free, but donations could be dropped in a large transparent collection box in the entrance hall. The researchers manipulated the social information available to visitors by altering how much money was visible in the donation box. Depending on the day, visitors would see:

  • A few large denomination notes
  • A larger number of small denomination notes
  • A large number of coins
  • An empty box

They found that the money people dropped in the box mimicked what was already in there – notes generated notes and coins generated coins. However, when there were notes in the box, the number of donations fell. When there was cash in the box, the number of donations grew.

In short, the amount of money donated was pretty constant. What was perhaps most depressing was the fact that only 2% of visitors gave anything at all. The gallery could double income simply by charging a ten cent entrance fee.

A synopsis of the study can be downloaded here (PDF) or you can watch a video presentation here.

This experiment usefully demonstrates that when giving is a public act, social norms come in to play. And how those norms are perceived is incredibly important.

When the norm is seen to be a gift of a few coins, more gifts will be generated. But set the bar too high and you move people out of a comfort zone that depresses income. Worst of all is to present a norm that it’s OK to give nothing.

So what lessons can we learn from this that can be transferred to the world of direct mail fundraising?

First off, make your ask appropriate to your audience. I’ve posted before on the massive positive impact that the right financial request can make to the bottom line – click here to read it.

Second, use testimonials to show what other people are doing – giving. Normal people explaining why they have given can significantly increase response rates. I’ve often seen them beat celebrity endorsements. You can read more about my thoughts on the use of testimonials here.

Third, if people don’t read your communications, they won’t raise any money. Relevant and personal wins every creative test I’ve ever undertaken in direct mail.

Finally, giving should be enjoyable. If people get something out of donating to your charity, the cash will keep on flowing in your direction. By the sound of things, the people dropping hundreds of coins in this collection box aren’t finding the process too painful.