Advancement and Fundraising Higher Education Marketing and Advertising

Better Giving Through Science

By Sean Carton \ December 20, 2021

In my last post I took a broad look at the research into what motivates people to donate their hard-earned money to causes that they care about. But that was all theory. The next step is to figure out how to put those findings into practice. 

That’s what this post is all about.

While there’s been a literal ton (if printed out) of research on why people give, it seems that there are five key things that motivate donations:

  1. If you want people to give, you must first ask for a donation. The science is very clear on this. But asking people is one thing: getting them to donate is another. 
  2. Trust in an organization is vital. Who’s going to give money to an organization if they think they’re going to squander it?
  3. Altruism is a major motivation for many people who donate to charity. People want to make the world a better place, but that impulse might not be as pure as we’d like to think.
  4. Social factors drive a lot of giving behaviors, although it’s not as simple as just peer pressure or a desire to look virtuous to others.
  5. Financial factors play a big role in stimulating giving, especially the tax benefits that people receive for donating. The fact that most giving takes place at the end of the calendar year makes this pretty clear, but the research also shows that saving money on taxes is in no way the only reason people give.

However, it’s important to note  that none of these principles will, in and of themselves, motivate anyone to give. Factors such as targeting, design, messaging, and the brand of the organization itself all play synergistic roles in moving donors from attention to action. That being said, I would argue that if you really dig deep into what these marketing factors do, you’ll see that they still fit into the framework of these five principles. “Targeting” means picking the right people to ask, and usually what makes them the “right people” is their trust in the organization doing the asking, their social connection to the cause, and their innate altruism that leads them to believe that opening their wallets can have an impact. “Design” influences trust (good design is more trustworthy) and aesthetics can stimulate social connections and spur altruistic behavior. “Design” can also influence usability, leading to more effective asks and a better understanding of the positive financial implications of the donation while communicating trustworthiness. “Messaging” is a complement to design, and “brand” is a big influencer of trust and can increase the likelihood that a potential donor even notices — much less reads — any ask that shows up in their inboxes, social media feeds, or on the websites they frequent.

As with any form of communication, an appeal’s success rests on the synergies of targeting, design, and writing, and how they work together to address the motivations of potential donors. It doesn’t appear that there’s any definitive research that matches particular motivations with particular audience groups; in other words, it’s hard to say who will respond to altruistic appeals, appeals to social pressures, etc. The safest approach is probably to employ features and tactics that appeal to all those motivations throughout the donor journey: they aren’t mutually exclusive. They don’t have to be applied to one particular medium either. In fact, effective fundraising employs a wide range of media, from direct mail to online appeals via email, social media, and through the web. In fact, considering that the Blackbaud Institute found that only 13% of total fundraising came from online sources in 2020, it’s safe to assume that successful fundraising campaigns have to employ a wide range of media to be successful. That being said, the ideas in the rest of this post were specifically developed to be as medium-agnostic as possible.

Let’s get started.


One factor that the research says must be present in order for people to give is trust. People don’t give to organizations they don’t trust. So how can organizations engender trust in their donors and potential donors?

  1. Show, don’t tell. As we saw in the first post in this series, the cornerstone of trust is follow-through. Trust is built when organizations do what they say they’re going to do. The best way to prove that your organization is trustworthy is to show that you’re doing what you are promising to do. Be as explicit and transparent as possible and clearly communicate your outcomes. This doesn’t mean hitting your potential donors with a wall of data. Use tools like infographics, well-designed charts, and clear, concise explanations of the path that a donor’s dollar is going to take from their wallet to the beneficiary. If what you show can be blacked up with reputable third-party verification, all the better.
  2. Brand is a key communicator of trust because brands are signifiers of experience. When you encounter a brand in any of its many forms, that experience is shorthand for all the experiences you’ve had with that brand. If a brand is trusted, those expressions will be, too. That’s why it’s so important (assuming you have a trusted brand) to be consistent in how your brand is expressed. If people are unsure about what brand they’re encountering because something is “off” — visual signifiers, copy quality, tone, etc. — they’re less likely to ascribe the positive features of your brand to what they’re seeing. A poorly designed piece of collateral, a solicitation phone call from an untrained volunteer, an amateurish webpage, or even a donation form that doesn’t work correctly all can contribute to disconnecting your brand from the positive associations your audiences may already have with it.
  3. A utilization calculator based on actual data outcomes can help potential donors immediately experience what their donation could do and might even encourage them to give more when they see the impact their donation could make.  This only works online, but there’s no reason why a print appeal couldn’t include several scenarios depicting impact based on established outcomes data.
  4. A live help/chat feature on your website staffed by knowledgeable staffers or well-trained volunteers can help add additional trust to an online giving transaction. This is especially true if those people can provide help with tax documentation, answer questions about how the donation will be utilized, or consult about more esoteric issues such as planned giving, in-kind donations, or matching a donor’s interests with the organization’s initiatives. Even the most tech-savvy of us can still get nervous about online transactions: having a human available can help elevate trust and drive donations.


As I explained in the previous post, philosophers and social scientists have debated the meaning of “altruism” for centuries — including whether or not it even exists.  But even if altruism is hard to pin down, appealing to your donors’ desires to make the world a better place can be a powerful motivator. 

If you’re a development or advancement professional, you know that already. Even if you aren’t, whose heartstrings haven’t been tugged by a direct mail piece featuring a picture and name of a hungry child hungry or an SPCA spot featuring pictures of abandoned pets while Sarah McLachlsn’s Angel plays in the background? But appealing to altruism doesn’t have to be so heavy-handed or downright manipulative (darn you, SPCA!). Here are some ideas for engendering altruism in your prospective donors.

  1. Testimonials are undeniably powerful, especially if they’re delivered using video or even just audio online. Yes, this can come off as somewhat manipulative, but giving people a choice of which testimonials they want to view can help match donors with the messages that resonate with them in a way that’s very difficult to do in any other medium. You can even combine these testimonials with data on the specific outcome of the person giving the testimonial, not only stirring altruism but building trust as well.
  2. Demonstrating need can be a powerful motivator, especially if you use creative methods available to you online. Show an animation or a simulation of the need in order to bring it home and make it real to potential donors. Allow them to “play” with an imaginary budget so they can see the shortfall for themselves and understand  how additional funds can fix it. Whatever you can do to give donors a feel for the need they will be meeting can be a powerful way for them to identify with the beneficiaries of their gifts.
  3. Give donors choices by matching interests to giving opportunities. Engage them with a questionnaire that helps match their interests with the needs of your organization and help guide them to a cause they care deeply about. You can even do this in print by providing a number of choices based on how you’ve segmented your mailing. Building connections can help drive altruistic behavior.


Social forces and connections can be powerful drivers of donations. The simplest form of “social pressure” is the tried-and-true “thermometer” graphic that demonstrates to donors that others are giving. But this kind of appeal is just the start. Technology offers a whole host of ways to engage the social aspect of giving.

But please note: engaging with “social” motivators doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use social media. In fact, as the research showed us in the first post, the “Braggarts Dilemma” — something we’re all familiar with on social media — can actually decrease giving and, I’d propose, damage your hard-won brand integrity. While allowing your donors to “share” the fact they’ve donated or even challenge others in their social circles to donate can be powerful, these same tactics can be damaging if overused. Here are some ideas for how you can effectively harness social motivators in your campaigns.

  1. Focus on first-time donors. If someone’s an avid supporter of your organization and uses social media, you can be sure that their friends already have heard plenty about their involvement — and their donations. Don’t let the braggarts demotivate others: provide social media sharing features only to first-time donors so they can reach out to new audiences and spur new donations. If some of their online “friends” already give, that’s great: they’ll probably soon be the recipients of some powerful social reinforcement. Likewise, if you have access to a network of donors and non-donors, provide donors with a notification that the non-donor has given (with their permission, of course) and let the congratulations flow!
  2. Enable people to donate and compete as a group. Alumni associations — especially at elite schools — have used this tactic for years, reporting total donations by class in order to spur competition. But just because your organization isn’t an Ivy League school doesn’t mean that you can’t allow people to self-organize into groups to compete against other groups. Communicating progress offline is a bit more challenging, but there’s no reason your website can’t include a group “leaderboard” that’s updated regularly and allows donors to self-identify with a group when making a gift.
  3. Couples deserve special attention. Research shows that newly married men give more, especially if their spouses are aware of their gifts, so give people the ability to share information about your organization with their significant others. The same research has also shown that, at least in heterosexual couples, women are often the catalyst behind family donations, so why not focus on women in the household when building your lists? 
  4. Take advantage of local connections. If you have a database of potential donors, let them know through email or text that someone in their neighborhood has given — with permission and all appropriate opt-outs, of course.


As research and long experience tells us, financial motivations in the form of tax incentives are powerful things. While they don’t spur charitable giving on their own — people still have to decide what organization they want to give to — they do influence when and how much people give. Here are some ideas on how to appeal to the more financial-incentive-minded donors.

  1. Reminders can drive giving. Yes, everyone knows about giving at the end of the year. But why not spur donors to give earlier by reminding them of the tax benefits they’ll receive?
  2. Updates about changes in tax laws can drive donations, too. Sending updates to tax laws that may impact end-of-the-year financial incentives to your current donors can be a good way to get them to at least pledge a donation earlier than they might have otherwise.
  3. Alternatives to credit cards such as PayPal, CashApp, and even cryptocurrency could help move some off the financial fence. Anything that can make giving easier is going to drive donations.
  4. If possible, reminding people of the personal financial benefits of a gift can be a powerful motivator. Even though such reminders are  the opposite of altruism, if you can help people understand how a gift benefits them, you can appeal to their financial motivators.
Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation
Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.