Solving a Charitable Giving Quandary


Nonprofits have struggled raising funds for large groups. Research from Michigan Ross may have found a solution.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Ads seeking charitable donations follow a familiar and successful formula: showcase one individual or a single animal to illustrate the cause at hand.

That's no accident. A single child falls down a well and donations pour in. Thousands of individuals are displaced by a flood and funds dwindle by comparison. This bias has long bedeviled organizations trying to aid large, faceless groups who are victims of perennial problems (like poverty and hunger) or devastating disasters (like earthquakes and floods). New research from Michigan Ross professor Katherine Burson shows there may be a solution to what many consider an intractable problem.

Burson, assistant professor of marketing, has studied human biases and how they explain behavior. Three experiments showcased in the paper "All For One: The Influence of Entitativity on Charitable Giving" show that charities could pull in more donations for a large population without highlighting a single individual. Burson ran the experiments with Ross PhD student Robert Smith and David Faro of the London Business School.

Facing the Facts

While holding a single entity up as the "face" of a charitable effort is effective, it's not always an accurate representation of the financial transaction. The money donated isn't all going to that specific individual. The key to overcoming this bias in a large group is highlighting some cohesive, positive traits that elicit an emotional response, according to the paper.

For example, a group of endangered animals evokes a different reaction in donors when those animals are presented as a unified herd.

"We want that bias to be there because it's pro-social," Burson says. "And pointing it out to people backfires. But it would be nice if we could get people to give to larger populations without always having to pull out an individual."

Burson ran two experiments that showed when large numbers of victims are shown to form a single entity — a family or herd — people can make a strong emotional connection. That is, the victims are perceived as entitative — they belong to a single unit. That's a discovery that can give nonprofits a productive marketing tool. 

Tighten Up

The first experiment created a hypothetical scenario in which gazelle on a preserve were being killed by hyenas. Participants were asked how much they would donate to help build an $8,000 protective fence. The presentation of the number of gazelle was manipulated for different audiences: a single animal, 200 of them, or a herd of 200. Donations for a herd of 200 gazelle were higher than for 200 unrelated gazelle.

"This suggests that people are more likely to help tight social groups than loose ones," Burson wrote. "These results are consistent with our theory that entitativity affects people's perceptions of victims and emotional reactions."

A second experiment showed how the presentation can backfire if potential donors view the victims negatively. In this case, participants who were paid $15 read that a $300,000 education and training center was needed for children in Africa. The recipients were presented as a single child, six children, or six siblings.

Participants were asked how much of their $15 they would be willing to donate to fund the education and training center. Some were told the children were in a prison for committing crimes. Others were given a positive portrayal of the children. Both the negatively portrayed and positively portrayed children were viewed as more entitative when presented as siblings. But in the group portrayed as child prisoners, donations were significantly lower when portrayed as siblings than when portrayed as unrelated.

That's an important distinction for nonprofits to keep in mind, Burson says.

"You're never going to get the same amount of donations for people with negative characteristics, but one thing you certainly don't want to do is make them seem like a coherent unit," she says. "That's important to remember as we apply this marketing lever."

Funds and Flocks

So far, Burson has seen this type of marketing work well on the product end. For example, microloan provider Kiva makes it possible to donate to a group instead of an individual. And Heifer International, which solicits donations to provide animals for the rural poor, offers donations for flocks of chicks, ducks, and geese. Heifer also bundles together animals and items that don't make a natural unit, such as a trio of rabbits and a basket with bees and seeds.

"It's the same strategy, but it's using the lever with the donation itself and not the victim," she says. "It's the thinking that there's more value in a unit than a bunch of disparate units."


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