by Jeff Small
It is a well-worn and true cliché in the fundraising world that a primary reason many donors give is “because they were asked.” But when it comes to how you ask, the situation gets a bit murkier.
What is the best way to ask a donor that will prompt them to make their best gift for a certain purpose at a certain time? One specific area of confusion and concern we often encounter among even experienced fundraisers is the idea of a suggested gift amount.
Is it rude to pressure them to give that much? What if they planned to give, but I ask for too much and I offend them? Am I asking them for enough? Would they give more if I left the amount unsaid?
These types of questions often lead to significant hand-wringing, and sometimes delayed solicitations as professional fundraisers weigh how much to ask for from their donors. The research on suggesting gift amounts, however, is not as robust as the research showing that the act of asking spurs donations.
That is why I was intrigued by a recent study conducted by two University of Chicago professors in partnership with the development office of the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Their experiment found that suggesting a gift amount had very interesting effects. The study utilized different scripts to solicit random groups of prospects contacted through a phonathon. Some potential donors were asked to give a specific amount ($20) while others were asked to give without a specific target gift.
The study generated the following key findings:
- A suggested gift amount spurred more people to give. While the suggested amount they requested was a relatively low-level investment, it did generate a much higher rate of participation. Approximately 50 percent more of the people called made gifts when they were asked for a $20 donation (3.1 percent vs 4.5 percent).
- Donors gave what they were asked to give – for better and worse. While the suggested donation appears to have prompted more people to give, it also likely did leave some money on the table. The gifts made by the group asked for $20 were more tightly centered in the $20 range, and the average gift among donors in that group was $4 lower than the average gift among the group that wasn’t asked for a specific amount ($19.35 vs $23.92). In other words, donors who would have given more than $20 were content to give only $20 when asked for it.
- The overall impact of asking for a specific amount was positive. While asking for a specific amount didn’t maximize each individual gift, overall the increased percentage of participants giving generated a higher rate of return than not specifying a gift amount.
Obviously these results are very focused on a low dollar gift, and don’t necessarily translate to major gift asks, but it does give us a well-tested hypothesis that suggests not only are people more likely to give when asked, they are also more likely to give you what you ask for if you are specific. This article explores a number of other angles on the topic and is worth a read for those who like experimental philanthropy research.