If donors hear about or see gifts made by others, does it influence their own gifts? A series of experimental investigations set out to answer this question. Professor Rachel Croson from the University of Texas – Dallas and Dr. Jen Shang of Indiana University created an experiment working with the fundraising campaign of a public radio station (Experimental Economics, volume 11, pp. 221-233). During a pledge drive, renewing members who called were told, "We had another member; they contributed [either $75 or $180]. How much would you like to pledge today?" In addition, a response sheet attached to a letter requesting renewal contributions indicated that the station "received a contribution of [either $75 or $180] from a member like you, and we invite you to join this member in renewing your membership today." When the comparison amounts were lower than the previous year's pledge, the gifts tended to be lower than the previous year's pledge. Similarly, when the comparison amounts were higher than the previous year's pledge, the gifts tended to be higher than the previous year's pledge. This was true in both the phone and mail version of the experiment.
Extending this same idea to personal solicitation, economists at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden worked with Dr. Francisco Alpizar to design an experiment for international tourists at Poas National Park in Costa Rica (Experimental Economics, volume 11, pp. 299-314). After a survey about their experience in the park, tourists were given an opportunity to donate to support the park. Further, some were told, "We have interviewed tourist from many different countries and one of the most common donations has been [2 or 5 or 10] US dollars." The resulting donations were lowest for the $2 reference group and higher for the $5 and $10 reference groups. However, the donations were the highest for the group given no examples. This result was the same whether the donations were made directly to the park official or in a nearby concealed booth.
Finally, Dr. Richard Martin of the University of Regina, Canada and Dr. John Randal of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, used an experimental design to test the effects of donation examples without any personal, phone, or mail solicitation (Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, volume 67, pp. 228-238). Instead, they experimented by changing the contents of a transparent donations box located in the foyer of an art gallery. They tried four approaches. In one, the box held mostly large denomination bills. In another, it contained mostly small bills. In a third, the box contained mostly coins. And, in the final arrangement, the donations box was empty. For each test, over 5,000 visitors to the museum passed by the donations box in the foyer.
The percentage of people donating was smallest for the empty box (1.86%). When money was in the box, more people made a donation when the box contained mostly coins (3.37%). Fewer people donated when the box contained small bills (2.64%) or large bills (2.34%). However, the average size of those donations was the smallest when the box contained mostly coins ($1.69). Conversely, the average donations were larger for the example with small bills ($2.38) and large bills ($2.39). Overall, the highest total dollars per visitor came from the box with small bills. The fewest dollars per visitor came from the empty box.
These three research projects suggest that people are influenced by donation examples. This occurred whether the solicitation was in person, by phone, by mail, or by a donation box. Although examples do exert influence, they can either raise or lower donations. The difficult issue for fundraisers is finding the right comparison amount. And that, like most things in fundraising, requires knowing your donors.