Jedi Mind Tricks; Behavioural Science and Psychology in Fundraising

Jedi Mind Tricks; Behavioural Science and Psychology in Fundraising

James Edison-Pierce is the Head of Development at Traverse Theatre and 2023-24 Professional Fellow on the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Fellowship Programme.

We are all aware of the changing ecology and external barriers when it comes to securing funds. Global crises, the cost of living, and the wake of the pandemic, just to name a few, have impacted how we solicit support. Here are some psychological and behavioural science considerations to help your development activities and make the most of your end-of-year or festive appeals. 


Donors being overloaded may work in your favour.

There is a lot going on in the world and whilst this may seem like the time to soften or ease up on solicitations, it may actually be the right time to refocus and concertedly go in with an ask.

Cognitive load is the concept where the brain when presented with a plethora of stimuli will seek the fastest route to a decision. In a Dual-system theory, when required to make a decision, the intuitive system quickly reaches a decision that the reasoning system can override for a cost (Deck & Jahedi 2015). In what continues to be unprecedented times, many people are feeling the effects of cognitive overload. What this means for fundraisers, is that donors are more likely to make quick calls on whether they will give. To better your chances of securing the gift, make it easy for a donor to make a choice. This can look like brevity of copy, reducing the number of donation options, and being clear in what you want them to do. If a figure or an ask is small enough to not raise alarm or jump out at the donor as extraordinary, is the only option provided and clearly communicated without barriers (e.g. a long click journey) it is more than likely that a donor will oblige. Here is a scholarly write-up on how our bandwidth and different stimuli affect memory and decision-making. In short, streamline your ask and call to action to cut through the noise.


Anchoring Effect

Anchoring bias is the tendency to rely on the first piece of information we encounter. Such information serves as an anchor, and we adjust our next decisions around that reference point. (Andrej Kras) This can be seen with Starbucks' pricing. In charging a relatively high price for the tall size brewed coffee, they can influence the customer to buy a grande, as it is perceived to have more “value” for the price when compared to the small tall. You can read more about their strategies here. McDonald’s is another company that uses anchoring and more in their locations to drive customer behaviours. By first displaying imagery of delicious food sans pricing, they anchor the buyer’s expectations on the potential of delicious food, further building the desire for the product and removing any dissonance about cost. They do not provide information about prices until much later in the customer journey, and by then, you are already sold on the idea of buying the food. More on their methods here.

You can apply this to your campaign or donate page. In presenting the benefits, impact, and transformation first - demonstrating the solution your charity provides - donors are bought in before they even receive information about the amounts being asked. Even these figures can even benefit from anchoring. Listing the numbers in descending order means the first figure they see is the largest. Knowing they most likely have a preference for a compromise, you can ultimately drive a donor to select your middle amount, especially in the leap to the smallest amount is quite large. E.g. 50 35 10.


Utilise the sense of smell

Most people have heard that if you want to sell a home, bake some cookies. The smell of childhood memories filling the house will make you positively associate with it and increase favour.  The olfactory system is connected to the part of the brain known as the hippocampus, an area of the brain widely known for its role in forming memories (Herz and Engen, 1996; Plailly et al., 2019; Saive et al., 2015, 2014; White, 1998; Zucco, 2003) and associations in the absence of explicit memory (Sarafoleanu, Mella, Georgescu, Perederco 2009). You can use this to your advantage. For example, if you are doing a Christmas mailing, you could imbue the scents of the festive season on the cards or letters being sent. 

Imagine opening your post to be enveloped with wafts of warm cinnamon, cosy vanilla or festive citrus. By invoking the positive association of the holidays via smell, you increase the warm reception of your ask. In my time at Music in Hospitals & Care, we did exactly this with our Christmas Appeal and received feedback well after the festive period from a range of stakeholders. This is a tactic even the likes of Disney employ, as they have found harnessing the power of smell creates pleasant memories of your day in their parks. 


The Wrap Up

Whether individuals give to be altruistic, for self-actualisation, or because of ego, we all have one thing in common when it comes to individual giving: we are human and thus receptive. When planning your next appeal, consider influencing a prospect or donor to support your cause by implementing any of the above to make the decision easy, appealing, and enjoyable.