Remind Donors of Their Mortality

And other fundraising tips

This potential donor needs no reminder. (Reuters)

Barack Obama’s re-election campaign was lauded for its Buzzfeed-like attention to digital analytics. Like any good marketers, the campaign’s digital team quantified, among other things, the effectiveness of the emails they blasted out. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your inbox from other people,” the Obama campaign’s email director told Businessweek. Their most successful subject line? “Hey.”

What's the best way to get people to part with their money? Nonchalance, in this case, worked wonders. But that’s not the conventional wisdom in politics, where confidence is key, even if it’s in excess. Between 1900 and 1984, a presidential candidate’s success could practically be predicted by whether the speeches they gave at their parties’ conventions were confidently optimistic. And succeeding in a presidential debate is sometimes as simple as looking composed and self-assured.

But a new working paper out of Harvard’s Kennedy School suggests that Obama’s team was onto something—that it’s okay to not always project poise. In experiments run by the authors, people were more likely to support a given candidate if that candidate was slightly behind in the polls, as opposed to slightly ahead. The researchers also incorporated some data from experiments during an actual 2012 campaign, analyzing emails sent out to supporters of Charlie Crist, the incumbent governor of Florida. Messages that warned Crist was barely trailing his opponent, Rick Scott, raised 55 percent more money than emails that said he was slightly ahead.

Oozing confidence while soliciting donations, it appears, might unintentionally convince a voting base that their help isn’t needed. Republicans spent a good portion of the late summer rueing Democrats’ fundraising edge, and those public complaints may have played a role in their recent financial success—Republican senatorial campaigns brought in more than twice as much money in September as they did in August. Fret, and ye shall receive.

Other research suggests that the decision to donate often has just as much to do with the giver as with the receiver. Social psychologists have a bizarre (and slightly alarming) fascination with how people start to behave differently when they’re reminded of their own mortality, and two marketing professors recently applied this fascination to the realm of charitable giving. They studied whether people were more likely to donate to a cause if they’d recently been forced to think about their eventual demise.

Their search for a correlation here is actually not a non sequitur. When mortality is on people’s minds, previous research has shown, they become more motivated to embody and live out their core beliefs about how the world should be. (The thinking goes that a reminder of personal impermanence inspires a need to prove that one’s conception of the universe isn’t totally meaningless.)

These researchers started off their experiments by presenting their subjects with a lighthearted icebreaker: “Briefly describe the emotions that thoughts of your own death arouses in you.” (The control group was asked only to describe “the experience of dental pain.”) The subjects then performed an unrelated task—just to let the existential anguish really sink in—and after that were asked to donate to a charity they’d never heard of. When the charity’s messaging emphasized that many other people had already donated, those who had been primed to think of death were significantly more likely to give.

(Other findings have similarly found that thoughts of mortality can lead people to part with their money, though toward somewhat less admirable ends. A 1999 study in Advances in Consumer Research concluded that death prodded consumers to desire glamorous products like Lexuses and Rolexes, perhaps because they sensed these products would make them feel more culturally significant. How a marketer might delicately apply a finding like this, however, remains unclear.)

The likelihood of donations to a certain cause also hinges on whether that cause can be presented in a way that’s easy for strangers to latch onto. When, in 2010, an enormous earthquake hit Haiti, the world paid attention, and poured money in accordingly: $1.4 billion was raised to rebuild. In the past few months, the Ebola outbreak, a similarly worrying catastrophe, has received just as much media coverage as the earthquake, yet fundraising efforts have failed to gain traction. Why?

The journalists Zoe Chace and Robert Smith sought to answer this question in a recent episode of the NPR show Planet Money. In short, Ebola’s disadvantage is that it’s unbounded, whereas the earthquake marked a distinct moment in time. “There has to be an event,” Bob Ottenhoff told Planet Money. Otherwise, potential donors have a hard time conceptualizing the crisis.

There was a hope that a risk-assessment report issued by the CDC late last month—the one that said there could be as many as 1.4 million people infected in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January—could function as the type of “event” that Ottenhoff said the cause needed. Two weeks later, there’s no indication that it compelled anyone to start donating.

In a dispiriting example of the human need for a simple access point to make sense of a dire issue, more than 400,000 people signed an ultimately unsuccessful petition to not euthanize the dog owned by a Spanish woman diagnosed with Ebola. Some of the petition’s success can be attributed to the ease with which the dog’s needs could be understood—just look into those pleading eyes. But the Ebola epidemic can’t be boiled down to a single picture, and 3,400 deaths are too abstract, apparently, to bring about compassion and donations. Another petition, one that asked for funding for researching an Ebola drug, didn’t gain nearly as much support.

But, as many heuristics as there are for raising money—don’t forget to remind your donors they will die someday!—it’s important to remember that people tire of any over-used tactics. The same underlying mechanisms may work in a number of situations, but the wording and basic presentation needs to be varied. As Obama’s email director put it, “There was no such thing as the perfect email; every breakthrough had a shelf life.”