Behavioral Science and Fundraising Magic – Lessons from Bridge Conference

I had a fabulous experience at my first Bridge Conference! This annual conference brings together leaders in nonprofit fundraising and direct marketing to share ideas and inspire attendees to think outside of their usual boxes and improve donor engagement.

I was honored to present a workshop called Do the Write Thing: A Creative Writing Workshop for Fundraising Professionals. We laughed, we wrote, we tweeted – I think the participants walked away with some valuable tips on professional writing and some tools to enliven their word choice and storytelling. The outcome: creating more memorable proposals, letters, fundraising appeals, and more. (If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve also blogged on various writing topics).

When I wasn’t teaching, I was attending some great conference sessions, including two on behavioral science and how it relates to donor behavior and decisions. These workshops featured behavioral scientists Shankar Vedantam (you might know him from National Public Radio  or his Hidden Brain podcast)  and Kiki Koutmeridou of Donor Voice.

I am not a data scientist or behavioral scientist. I am sharing my most memorable takeaways with you as a layperson and a fan of this approach (check out the real experts’ web sites to learn more!):

Donors want to feel effective

Frame the case for giving in such a way that the donor can feel their contribution will have some impact. If the need is too huge, and the donor’s gift is too small, they may think: “Gosh, what could my $20 possibly accomplish? I might as well not even give.” If the scale of the problem is too big, behavioral science tells us that giving activity will be impeded.

Empathy systems work better when focused on ONE target

In one of Dr. Vedantam’s examples, people rallied to save one dog that was alone on an abandoned tanker ship floating in the Pacific Ocean. The rescue organization raised far more money to save this one dog than they typically raise to save hundreds of dogs. The story and film of one dog running around all alone on the abandoned tanker activated people’s empathy and moved them to donate.

An identifiable victim pitch outperforms a statistical pitch (by about double)

It has long been an axiom in fundraising: a pitch to save, for example, one particular starving child in Africa will outperform a pitch that talks about the thousands of starving children in the same region. A fundraising pitch with an identifiable victim will raise about twice as much money as a pitch with statistics. A pitch that has both an identifiable victim and statistics barely outperforms a pitch with statistics only. Lesson: stick to pitches where you can talk about one, identifiable person you are trying to help.

Anticipated emotion will impact the decision to donate

People don’t give because they feel a certain way. They give because they want to feel a certain way. Dr. Koutmeridou used the example of a campaign in Alaska related to the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). Alaskans receive their PFD from the government every year; it’s related to mining royalties. One year, there were two different messages encouraging Alaskans to donate their PFD: (A) Make Alaska a better place for everyone, or (B) Warm your Heart. The Warm Your Heart campaign, emphasizing how donors would feel if they donated, had a 31% higher rate of return and a 56% higher average gift than the other campaign.

People have a set completion bias

People like to complete tasks (completion bias), and they especially like to make sets of things whole (set completion bias) – in donating, and in other areas of their lives. For example, in a fundraising pitch asking people to pay for one textbook, versus a fundraising pitch asking people to pay for portions of a set of five textbooks (20% of a set, 40% of a set, etc.), 22% of donors paid the maximum amount to pay for one textbook, but 38% gave the maximum amount to complete a set of textbooks. If you can tie things together in fundraising appeals as a set, and ask people to complete the set, you will likely have higher returns.


The information that the behavioral scientists presented was primarily geared towards individual fundraising campaigns, not towards major gift campaigns or foundation appeals (grant proposals). However, I think that there are lessons here that can be applied to all sorts of areas of fundraising. People are people, and behavioral science tells us that they respond to certain activities and appeals in consistent, predictable ways. Do we make the case for support by supplying statistics about who we will help or by describing one person who needs help? Do we ask people to support one need, or a set of needs? Do we help people anticipate what their donation will accomplish, or how they will feel if they donate? Behavioral science helps us ask questions that could yield huge impacts for our organizations… and the people or causes we aim to serve.