3 min Read
August 4, 2017

5 Cognitive Biases You Can Ethically Leverage for Fundraising

John Haydon

Supporters believe in your cause, but inspiring them to take action makes the biggest difference—for your mission and the world. Nonprofit marketing expert, John Haydon, reveals your audience’s subconscious biases and offers simple tips for fostering deep emotional connections to encourage giving.

Everyone is prone to making emotional, and even irrational decisions. Also known as cognitive biases, these limitations in reasoning arise the fact that we are emotional animals.

For example, we’re more likely to purchase a car if the sales person offers us a cup of coffee (a reciprocity bias). Obviously, this tendency makes absolutely no sense, but it’s a bias that’s deeply hardwired in our noggins.

Why marketing must be emotional

5 Cognitive Biases You Can Ethically Leverage for Fundraising

Potential donors already believe in your cause, but belief alone is not enough. Posting information on your website is not enough.

You want potential supporters to act – to write a check, donate online, volunteer, etc. To do that your marketing must move people emotionally!

But how do you do this?

The short answer is to (ethically) leverage cognitive biases in your marketing and fundraising strategies.

Here are 5 cognitive biases you can leverage in your next fundraising campaign:

1. Put a positive frame around your ask

The framing effect explains why people make different choices based on the way information is presented or “framed”.

In a famous experiment, researchers presented subjects with a choice between two hypothetical treatments for 600 fatally-ill people. Subjects favored treatments that were framed positively (“200 lives will be saved”) over treatments frames negatively (“400 lives will be lost”), even though the outcome was objectively the same.

Here’s an example of how the framing effect influences survey results:

Cognitive Biases

Takeaway: Frame your message POSITIVELY and you will influence your donor’s actions.

2. Influence action with the power of pictures

Potential donors visiting your website may only skim the text, but the pictures they see have the potential to influence them greatly on a subconscious level.

Powerful studies about images influencing behavior include a furniture store that influenced website visitors using background images of clouds. People who saw the clouds background images were more likely to:

  1. Rate comfort as very important in a survey
  2. Search the website for features related to comfort
  3. Purchase comfortable (and more expensive) furniture.

Another example the image of the woman below. She is celebrating something (a new job, long awaited friend, etc), matching the call-to-action (“celebrate”).

Cognitive Biases

Takeaway: Use pictures that subconsciously reflect your call-to-action.

3. Show them what the Joneses gave

The common saying “keeping up with the Joneses” references our tendency to compare ourselves to our peers.

A study from Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy demonstrated that donors were more likely to give after hearing why their peers did. Even more amazing – donors increased their donation when they learned how much money their peers gave!

Takeaway: Capitalize on this cognitive bias by including testimonials from donors on why they gave on your website.

4. Put a Halo around your website

First described in 1920, the halo effect describes the positive bias that people demonstrate towards the character of organizations when they already have a positive impression of the organization.

Research shows that website visitors make judgments about web pages within 200 milliseconds. Make sure that your webpage is well-designed and loads quickly to create a positive impression that extends to your cause.

5. Ask them to promise to give

One of the easiest ways to encourage giving is to ask potential donors to make a promise.

A study in Social Science Quarterly found that people who were asked to sign a pledge to donate were 22% more likely to keep that promise. Check out how Charity Water asks people to pledge their birthday:

Takeaway: Weeks before your next giving day, ask people to pledge to support. Then convert those pledges into dollars on the big day!