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Knowledge of Others' Giving Can Increase Contributions

(Jan. 23, 2006) A new study has found that telling prospective donors what other individuals gave can increase giving levels.

Field Experiments in Charitable Contributions: The Impact of Social Influence on the Voluntary Provision of Public Goods, conducted by researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University, examined how social information--in this case, how much other donors gave--affects individual donor behavior.

Using a public radio station's campaign drive for the study, the researcher asked volunteers manning the phones to ask callers if they were a new member or a renewing member. Some callers would then be told that another donor had recently given $75 (or $180 or $300, three different amounts were tested); other callers were told nothing. No deception was used in the study, as there were members who had given those amounts on the previous day of the fundraising drive.

Those donors who were told that another member had contributed $300 gave an average of $119.70, while those who were not told about other contributions gave an average of $106.72. The researchers estimate that if all callers had been told about the previous contribution of $300, overall revenue from the campaign for the radio station would have increased by about 12 percent.

Researchers also found that donors who were told about the $300 gift were more likely to give the next year and contribute a higher amount. They also note previous research that found that callers were more likely to make larger gifts if they knew a person of the same sex had given a significant amount.

Limits on Social Information

However, to be effective, the social information provided to donors must be appropriate and relevant to the situation. For example, telling prospective callers to a public radio station fundraising drive that a previous contributor gave $10,000 would not be helpful, as most people do not have the means to make such a gift and the information would be seen as irrelevant for them.

According to the researchers, social information is most effective in situations where donors want to be supportive, but do not know what the accepted behavior is (in this case, the appropriate level of giving). Most people instinctively will look to others' behavior as their model, so providing positive examples (what other donors gave) can yield successful results.

The levels used by the radio station in the study were based on past giving history. Donations of $75 represented the 50th percentile of contributions (half the donations were less than $75 and half were more than $75). Gifts of $180 represented the 85th percentile (85 percent of all gifts were less than $180), and contributions of $300 were the 90th percentile.

Researchers found that using the 90th percentile figure (in the study, $300) yielded the best results.

They also performed a similar experiment in a direct-mail campaign and found that social information can be influential in that setting as well.

A complete write-up of the research can be found at the Knowledge Wharton website (free registration required).

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