Fundraising by the numbers

Fundraising is all about impact.  You want your message to convince donors that your cause is important, that their donation is necessary, and that you will do something worthwhile with their money.

It would seem only natural that, to show some big impact, you want to put some impressive statistics behind your work – dollars raised, lives saved, and so forth.  Right?

Wrong, actually.

It turns out, people aren’t so good with numbers, and numbers (especially big ones) don’t necessarily make people more likely to donate – often, the effect is the opposite.  Katya Andresen shows some great examples of campaigns – see which ones move you to give.  She guesses it’s not the one with the numbers front and center.

Here’s what is true:

  • The more someone cares, the more likely they are to donate
  • The more someone thinks they can make a difference, the more likely they are to donate

In this recent talk, Dr. Paul Slovic explains in some detail, with a lot of research to back him up, just why numbers won’t make people care.  The whole talk is worth watching, as he gets into a lot of the psychology behind donations. He specifically shows that people are more likely to donate to save a single person – 1 child, for instance – than to save 2, or 8, or hundreds.  In fact, the more people you claim to be saving, the less the claim will resonate.

There’s also the drop-in-the-bucket effect: it takes an intellectual leap to believe that your donation (combined with thousands of others) can save hundreds or thousands of people, but it’s fairly easy and intuitive to believe that your own donation can save one person.  Most donors feel more emotional connection with the idea of what their own donation can do.

Slovic talks about caring, in the context of saving lives.  But I think the problem with numbers is more basic than that, in some ways.  It’s easy to say that 5,000 is a big number, and 50,000 is a much bigger number… but most people have no sense of what they really mean.  I can’t visualize either of them, and I’m guessing you can’t either.  I certainly can’t count them on my fingers.  So, on some level, there’s no difference between them.  They’re both “big”; they are too big to easily understand, so the intuitive part of your brain is likely to skip over them, dismissing them as “big numbers.”  (For example, what does it really mean that the USA has a $1 trillion federal deficit?)

Thus, for most fundraising and advocacy efforts, you’ll be better off focusing on a single, real example than your very best statistics.  This is a large part of why organizations like Kiva and Heifer International are so successful – they focus on the small picture, on what you, as an individual, can do to help one real person.  (They have also both taken hits for misleading donors about where their money actually goes – transparency is especially important if you use this model.)

Don’t throw out all your numbers, though.  Slovic’s studies look at low-dollar, one-time donations, often with first-time donors to that organization.  His studies show pretty clearly that numbers aren’t effective in those cases.  But what about long-time donors, or major donors?  They’re already supportive of your work, and are likely more invested in it.  They might want to know the numbers behind your successes, and are more likely to spend the time to understand them.  This is pure, unsupported conjecture on my part, but I would imagine that a few significant, well-framed statistics could well have an effect on your loyal donors.  I’d love to see someone do a study on this.  You could try it out with your donors and see what happens.

There will also be times when you really do need to convey the scope of your work with statistics.  Check out some thoughts on how to put your statistics in context and make them more meaningful.

A few things to think about, with online fundraising and advocacy in particular:

  • Keep the stats to a minimum.
  • When you do use numbers, put them in context as much as possible.
  • When you do use numbers, use as few as possible – the more numbers you include, the less meaningful each becomes.
  • Focus on one example of a person you can help – but make sure you state somewhere whether donations will really go towards that person/campaign/country or whether supporters will be making a general donation
  • Use images with a high emotional impact – but don’t assume that all email recipients will see the image.  Many email clients disable images by default.
  • Reinforce the images by using them on your landing page
  • Call out key, emotionally-charged words and phrases to help make your point (especially to users with images disabled)

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