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Carefully chosen wording can increase donations by over 300 percent

Fundraising letter
Marketing   Based on the psychology of sympathy

A forthcoming study in the INFORMS journal Marketing Science, based on the psychology of sympathy, shows that small changes in the wording of a fundraising letter can increase donations by over 300 percent.

With over a million registered public charities in the United States, fundraising for good causes has become more difficult than ever. Annual events like Giving Tuesday increase overall giving, but also increase the competition for funds around those events.

For their research, the authors of the study, K. Sudhir of Yale University, Subroto Roy of the University of New Haven, and Mathew Cherian of HelpAge, India, found that leveraging psychological theories on sympathy when drafting a fundraising letter can increase donations enormously.

To test their hypotheses, the authors conducted a large scale direct mail fundraising experiment on a cold list of about 200,000 potential donors across India and a warm list of over 100,000 past donors on behalf of one of India's most well-respected charities that serve the elderly.

The authors systematically varied the content of their fundraising letter, leveraging ideas from the psychology of sympathy, randomly among recipients, and measured the number of donors and the amount of donations in response to the different letters.

The main findings were surprising. Donations changed dramatically based on key characteristics of the target of the donation and the appeal.

On the cold list, donations went up by 110 percent if the target was a named individual versus an unnamed group, by 55 percent if the target belonged to the same religion as the donor versus a different religion, by 33 percent if the target fell into poverty versus being poor with an undescribed past, and 66 percent if the annual donation was framed as monthly versus daily amounts.


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