Matching gifts can come from employers or major donors seeking to spur giving. Past research (and common sense) suggests that donors will respond to a temporary matching gift opportunity by giving more. But, what happens after the match ends? Does the previous matching opportunity encourage continued high donations in later periods? Does giving return to the level that existed before the match? Or, does removing the match cause giving to dip below previous levels?
In an attempt to answer these questions, Dr. Stephan Meier conducted a field experiment at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The university’s official letter for renewing registration contained checkboxes for gifts to two university charitable funds. The first box asked students if they wished to donate 7 Swiss Francs (about $4.20) to a fund offering cheap loans to students in financial difficulty. The second box asked if they wished to donate 5 Francs (about $3) to a fund supporting temporarily visiting foreign students. Every student received the letter every semester as part of the registration process.
To test the effects of a matching gift opportunity, 600 randomly selected students received a special insert with their registration letter. The insert indicated that an anonymous donor would match their gift if the student checked both donation boxes. Half of the inserts offered a matching rate of 25% of the student’s gift, and half offered a 50% matching rate.
As expected, the students receiving matching gift inserts were more likely to give to both funds. However, the semester after the matching gift experiment, things changed. Not only were these students less likely to give than they were during the matching opportunity, they were also less likely to give than they were before the matching opportunity. During the semester after the experiment, those who had never received the matching offer were far more likely to make a gift. Fortunately, the negative “hangover” effect gradually faded in later semesters. Overall, tracking donations for seven semesters revealed that the matching gift offer did not increase the students’ total donations.
The results of this experiment were by no means conclusive. It took place in a specialized setting with small, preset gifts. Nevertheless, it opens some interesting questions for fundraisers. Results from a temporary matching gift opportunity may include donors who are simply “pulling forward” future gifts. Others may grow accustomed to the matching opportunity and require time to re-adjust afterwards. A cautious course may include planning for the possibility of an income dip following a temporary matching gift campaign. (Journal of the European Economic Association, vol. 5, pp. 1203-1222.)