The psychology of giving and other ways to lift DM response for charities.

With so much competition for our time, attention and money, getting people to respond to your charity DM and donate hard-earned cash is always a challenge.

Like pulling together a great Pavlova, making the most out of a charitable appeal requires a good recipe with the right ingredients. Fortunately there are some basic rules and a number of tried and tested techniques that we can apply to get the flavour right.

Here’s a brief reflection on some of the factors that we’ve found helpful over the years.

Getting a foot in the door.

In the late 19th century, the American psychologist William James argued that behaviour and emotion work both ways. Behaving in a certain way can cause emotions, just as well as emotions can influence behaviour. So, if I smile I will feel happy, as opposed to only smiling because I feel happy.

This type of thinking was apparently well ahead of its time, so it was consigned to the back room for decades. However, over the last half-century research has shown it to be true in relation to many areas of our lives. It’s what Professor Richard Wiseman refers to as the “As if” principle.

So what has this got to do with getting charitable donations?

Many studies have explored the application of this affect and its application in influencing support for charities.

Patricia Pliner demonstrated how it could be applied through a study for the Canadian Cancer Society. People were initially asked to wear a lapel pin to publicize the cause. These people were twice as likely to give to the charity when they were later asked to donate as those who had not been asked to wear the lapel pin in the first instance.1

Nicolas Gueguen found that people who were first asked to sign a petition against land mines were over four times more likely to make a donation afterwards than those who got a straight donation request without the petition first.2

Wiseman says these techniques work because a small initial request causes respondents to behave “as if” they support a cause. As a result they are more open to a more significant request – a donation – when it comes.

The “petition first” approach has proven particularly successful for one of our clients at Twenty, resulting in dramatically improved support from people via digital and social channels.

Our gift to you.

In his book, Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes the rule of reciprocation as one of the most potent weapons of influence around us.

This rule says that people feel an innate urge to repay someone in kind when they are given something. And it doesn’t matter about the value of the initial gift, we still feel compelled to repay the favour.

We undertook a trial for the Heart Foundation. Under the context of ‘our gift to you’, our appeal presented a group of donors with nicely personalised set of address labels before asking recipients for a donation. A control group was not sent the gift, but instead was promised the labels if they donated.

Those who received the gift first were more than twice as likely to donate. What’s more, they gave 7.3 times more when they did respond.

The following year a similar gift was rolled out to all people receiving the Heart Foundation’s Christmas Appeal. In this instance, we reduced the cost by sending out unpersonalised gift labels. The donations received beat stretch targets by 136%. Overall, 17% of recipients donated. Even our acquisition audience responded at over 5% – well ahead of norms for targeting “cold” prospects.

“It’s personal, there’s something I can do about it, and I need to act now.”

Dale Carnegie points out in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “when dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”

When writing copy for an appeal communication, it may sound obvious but try to lead on an emotively powerful story. It can be tempting to start with facts and figures, however statistics should be used to support the case only after we have engaged the recipient at a deeper level.

There are no hard rules about what makes for a powerful story, but if it makes you want to cry it’s probably effective. Stories about the plight of an individual tend to be more powerful than those that relate to many. It is thought that when we hear about mass suffering, it is more difficult for us to really comprehend at a personal level and see how we can make a difference.

An example of this, is the case of Ali Ismail Abbas Hamza. Back in 2003 media reports covering the Iraq war zoomed in on a young Iraqi child rescued from Bagdad. He had lost his family and required life-saving surgery. This was a genuinely personal tragedy that moved a nation. People could see how their money would help him, and they knew they needed to act immediately to make a difference. Where other appeals to help victims of this war had struggled, his story galvanized immediate support. In no time over GBP150,000 was donated to The Limbless Association to help him get the emergency treatment he needed in the UK.3

Getting beyond the doormat.

It is still true that there are few channels that work as hard for fundraising as direct mail. It is therefore likely that mail will be a significant part of the mix for many not-for-profits.

There has been a lot written over the years, and many tests have been done on the variables that make up a hard-working mailing. Here’s a few that we consider to be part of the formula to weight the odds in our favour:

  • A traditional format with an outer envelop and letter will normally out-pull cheaper flow-wrap or one-piece mailing options. This may be something to do with the more junk-mail feel of flow wrap often associated with mass letterbox drops for retailers.
  • Long, emotive letter copy works harder than short letters. Lead on an emotive story, then follow through with supporting statistics, explain how donors’ money is put to good use, and ask them to help today. Use repetition to emphasise your key points.
  • Ask, ask and ask again. We cannot afford to be coy about asking for donations. Make sure that the Ask is repeated several times throughout the letter.
  • Include a mailed response form for them to return. A big response form pre-lasered with the recipient’s details with a pre-paid response envelope included in the pack may cost more but will probably work harder. You can suggest they pay for a stamp to save the cost of the return post too.
  • Include a “Lift leaflet” – a flyer that expands on the story and highlights how donated money will be spent. Tests have shown that despite the extra cost of such elements, the uplifts in response are worthwhile.
  • Ensure the letter is personalised and relevant to the recipient. If they are a current donor, treat them as such. Recognize their relationship and how important their support has been to date. Highlight how they have made a difference.

Use the P.S. on the letter to re-iterate how important their support is and to ask them to please act today. People tend to scan a communication picking out headlines, sub-heads and key points so they read the Post Script if it is included. If we have done our work well, they may then go back and read the rest of the copy in more detail.

Remember the reminder!

Studies show that many people who intend to respond to an appeal put it to one side to act on later, then forget all about it. As a result, following up an initial appeal contact is always a good thing to do.

Our own tests have shown that a follow-up will lift results on average by 30% to 40%. A large chunk of costs are absorbed in the initial set-up, so repeating the mailing to the same audience pushed up the final ROI.

Better still, follow-up a mailing with a telephone call. The initial mailing works as an icebreaker to warm up the phone call and provide an easier ‘in’ for the caller.

Have you seen this?

If we are lucky enough to have a broadcast media campaign on TV or other above-the-line media, leave enough time for the campaign to be seen. This will pay dividends in increased response rates via direct channels. It normally means allowing 2 to 3 weeks subject to the level of media spend. It works in the digital space too. Research by BrandScience showed the online component of campaigns pay back 62% more when there is direct mail in the mix.4

Pulling it together.

1) Get a foot in the door with an easy request to start with, then follow-through with a donation request.

2) Give potential donors something as a small gift before you ask them to donate. This will leave them feeling obligated to respond in kind.

3) Lead on an emotively powerful story to draw your recipient in before you move on to facts and figures to support the case.

4) If you are using direct mail, make the most of the format. Use an outer envelope, include a personal letter, ply long copy, and employ a lift leaflet and a big ask form. It will help your cause!

5) Don’t forget to follow-up as many recipients as you can. A repeat mailing will lift results significantly, and a phone call will do even better.

6) If you have the benefit of an above-the-line campaign, allow time for it to reach the optimum number of people before you send your direct appeal communications out.

And remember that every rule will be broken at some point to good effect, so make sure to test, trial and evolve your own recipe for success too. You may also find value in checking out our article on improving your direct response rates.