Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Ask for crumbs… and get bread

September 20th, 2010

You’re trying to raise funds for your cause or charity. You’re sending people door-to-door or putting donation boxes in public places. But you know it’s going to be hard to get much support – times are tough and there are a lot of other charities out there. How can you give yours an edge?

This might be hard to believe, but there’s a single phrase that will increase donations — that has been proven to increase donations.

The phrase? “Even a penny will help.”

Yeah, right, I hear you think. If I ask for a penny, I’ll get – oh boy, oh boy! – a penny. Thanks a heap.

Oddly enough, that’s not what generally happens.

Charity collecting boxThe idea was first tested in 1976 by Robert Cialdini and David Schroeder. They sent research assistants door-to-door asking for contributions to the American Cancer Society. In half the visits, the fundraisers asked, “Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?” In the other half, they asked the same question but added, “Even a penny will help.”

This was a tiny pilot study, but significantly more people responded to the “even a penny” request. And their donations weren’t pennies – the average donation was the same as from those who were asked the basic question (the control group). The basic question team collected $18.55 by asking 42 people for donations – but the “even a penny” team got $30.34 from their 42 requests. In 1976 dollars, that difference isn’t too shabby.

donation box at vet Richard Wiseman tried a similar experiment with donation boxes. As he describes in his book, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, he had bookstores put donation boxes requesting donations for the National Literacy Trust at four randomly chosen cash registers in each store. The boxes were identical except that each had a different message: “Please give generously,” “Every penny helps,” “Every dollar helps,” or “You can make a difference.” After a week, the boxes’ contents were counted.

Natural History Museum donations boxIf all the messages were equally effective, you’d expect each type of box to account for about 25% of the total donations. Instead, the “Every penny helps” boxes contained 62% of all contributions. “Every dollar helps” boxes provided only 7% of the total take.

What’s going on?

It turns out that one reason people choose not to make a donation is that they believe that a socially acceptable donation involves more money than they want to give. Stating that a penny is helpful legitimizes a donation of any size. Giving feels good, but the happiness is diminished if we feel embarrassed that we’re not giving enough. If a request includes the information that even a tiny gift will be received with gratitude, it lets us experience the happiness without the embarrassment.

As far as I know, this kind of experiment has only been done with requests for money. I’d love to know if it would also work with other requests. (“Would you help us clean up the park? Even five minutes would help.”) If you know of anyone using this technique in new ways, let me know!

Leave a Comment