Forthcoming study

Avoiding the Ask

It’s something almost everybody does but nobody likes to admit to. Sidestepping charity fundraisers in the street, pretending not to be home when they come calling, ignoring online pleas for donations…people like to think of themselves in generous terms, but in reality, we often go out of our way to avoid being asked for money. A study by WZB researchers Maja Adena and Steffen Huck gets to the bottom of how preserving our self-image influences our charitable giving, and what strategies charities can use to maximize their chances of gaining donations.

While much literature has demonstrated our desire to avoid direct interaction with fundraisers – and the social and emotional pressure they carry – Adena and Huck are the first to ask: To what extent will customers self-deceive in order to preserve their self-image? The quasi-experiment focused on customers wishing to purchase opera tickets, who could additionally donate to a social youth project connecting disadvantaged children with opera. By altering the interface and forcing customers to tick a box confirming their lack explicit rejection of donation, non-donors were forced to admit to themselves that they did did not want to donate, potentially conflicting with their self-image. This apparently small manipulation of the interface had a hugely positive effect on donations, increasing the returns six- or sevenfold.

However, this more insistent online fundraising also led to fewer tickets being sold online in the long-run. One year on, customers had who had faced the online campaign returned to the opera less frequently the following season, and spent on average €16-32 less than those who had not been exposed to the campaign. There is therefore evidence that they learned to “avoid the ask,” sidestepping the online platform and buying tickets at the box office, over the phone, or by mail instead – an important finding for arts companies looking to cut these alternative booking options.

Another means of eliciting online donations is to offer a grid of different value options in the form of charity “tickets.” The researchers experimented with doubling the prices of these donation tickets, but found that this dramatically reduced donation returns.

When it comes to online fundraising, it seems there are two sides to the coin. Arts companies tied with charities may wish to rethink their strategies in the light of the evidence produced by this research. In particular, they need to carefully consider the trade-off between being persuasive in the short-term and ultimately alienating potential customers in the long-term.

About the Authors

Maja Adena is a research fellow at the Economics of Change research unit at the WZB, which is led by Steffen Huck.

The study was first published as a WZB Discussion Paper and was recently accepted by Management Science.

A related study by the same authors has been published in the Journal of Public Economics: Giving Once, Giving Twice: A Two-period Field Experiment in Intertemporal Crowding on Charitable Giving.