Fundraising, part 2: Givers’ psychology seen as key

By Todd Cohen

Equipping fundraising professionals with research-based tools to help them be more effective in their work is key challenge for the giving sector, says a leading fundraising expert.

And fundraising research needs to take a much closer look at why givers give, says Adrian Sargeant, the Robert F. Hartsook Professor of Fundraising at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

One scholar who is looking at the psychology of fundraising is Jen Shang, an assistant professor at Indiana University who was one of the first recipients of the doctoral degree in philanthropy the school offers.

Shang, who is married to Sargeant, focused her dissertation on public-radio fundraising appeals.

She found that public-radio listeners who phoned their stations during on-air appeals and were asked to give an amount equal to what some of the most generous givers had given the previous year gave 10 percent more on average than they otherwise would have given.

And when the person fielding the call indicated the gender of the person making that higher-level gift the previous year was the same as that of the current caller, the size of the caller’s gift increased by 30 percent.

“It’s because people are not giving in a vacuum, they’re giving in a social context,” Sargeant says. “You’re giving them information about someone else like them, so they’re giving to match that amount.”

And gender, the characteristic tested by Shang’s research, represents only one identity that any given giver has, Sargeant says.

What is important for nonprofit fundraisers is to understand “what identities are important to your donors and prompt those,” he says.

“We know that when you do that, it increases giving, people feel better about their giving when you’ve linked it to an identify you care about,” like being an environmentalist or a dog owner, he says. “If you have a strong sense of identity, you feel good about giving because that’s been prompted.”

Public trust

Public trust, or the lack of it, also is a key factor in charitable giving, Sargeant says.

While Americans overall tend to give more each year, the percentage of Americans who give is declining, Sargeant says, a decline he attributes to erosion in public trust.

Fundraising scandals related to the misuse of funds given to address victims of the 9/11 attacks were partly to blame for that erosion of trust, Sargeant says, as is the fact that roughly 40 percent of nonprofits claim on the Form 990 annual reports they file with the IRS that they spend nothing on fundraising.

“Those sorts of claims tend to educate the public that it’s somehow achievable that everything they give can be applied to the cause and not be spent on fundraising,” he says.

“What we need to do is educate them on the realities of how modern nonprofits operate,” he says. “That’s a way to build public trust and confidence in the sector. You have to be open and honest about how things work. Why hide it?”

Next: Research-based training urged

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