May 16, 2017

The secret to persuading wealthy donors? Play to their independence, researchers say

Daily Briefing

    Getting wealthier individuals to donate might be as simple as tweaking the language of the donation request, according to new research in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Ashely Whillans, Elizabeth Dunn, and Eugene Caruso write in the New York Times' "Sunday Review."

    7 lessons for philanthropy volunteers

    Whillans and Dunn—both of the University of British Columbia—and Caruso, a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago, published the studies.

    According to the researchers, prior studies suggest that wealthier people are less willing than their lower-income peers to share their money. One hypothesis for this behavior, the researchers write, is that a person's wealth enables him or her to achieve their goals without help from others. In turn, that cultivates a self-sufficient mindset that is at odds with a more charitable outlook—an outlook that lower-income individuals, who are more likely to rely on and contribute to a communal support network, might more readily appreciate, the researchers write.

    Change the language—not the people

    The researchers first tried and failed to change the beliefs and behaviors of wealthy people, thinking that if they could get them to better appreciate communal values, they could increase their charitable giving. So the researchers narrowed their research to solely focus on changing behavior: Would wealthy people be more willing to donate if a donation request affirmed their perception of being self-reliant and independent?

    The short answer, the researchers write, is yes.

    For instance, in one study, the researchers tested how wealthy people responded to different donation requests posted to a website for the poverty relief organization, Life You Can Save. The researchers found wealthier people (whom they defined as having an income of $90,000 or more) were much more likely to donate when they were greeted by a donation request that emphasized individual achievement, such as "You = Life-Saver," than when they saw a request that emphasized community and common goals, such as "Let's Save a Life Together."

    The researchers conducted two similar experiments with about 900 people recruited from museums in Chicago and Vancouver. In those studies, they came up with similar results, as the messages focusing on individual achievement led to increased donations among wealthier individuals.

    For their final experiment, the researchers requested donations from more than 12,000 alumni from an elite business school. Donors gave around $150 more on average when they were asked to "come forward and take individual action" as opposed to being asked to join their community and "support a common goal."

    'Meet them where they are'

    The researchers acknowledge that "by suggesting that charities might cater to wealthier people's conception of themselves, our research may seem to miss the moral point of charity." 

    But they point out that "what we usually think of as the right reason may simply be the most obvious reason from the perspective of people who are devoted to a cause." They conclude, "Rather than trying to make others see the world the way we do, it may be more effective to meet them where they are" (Whillans, et al.; New York Times; 5/12; Whillans et al., ScienceDirect, May 2017).

    7 lessons for philanthropy volunteers

    7 lessons for philanthropy volunteers

    As philanthropy becomes a more critical component of health care strategy, development teams are relying more heavily on ally relationships. But many foundation boards and volunteer fundraising groups aren't equipped to fully execute on the opportunity and challenge of this more active role.

    We've compiled a brief of seven lessons to help you educate your volunteers on how they can drive the most value in today’s environment.

    Download the Brief

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