Research & Insights

The best language to boost donations

Understanding how to use language effectively for fundraising is critical for non-profits, especially given the importance of annual fundraising events in boosting their financial reserves. But new research suggests that taking a page from the Black Friday playbook might be more lucrative. In charitable giving it seems we can’t resist opportunities that come along “only once a year.”

Researchers Abigail B. Sussman of the University of Chicago, Eesha Sharma of Dartmouth College, and Adam L. Alter of New York University were interested in whether calls for donations to charity that were framed as uncommon and exceptional were more effective than calls which appeared more ordinary. They designed a series of five experiments to answer this question. The results are published in the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

The experiments used participants recruited online through’s Mechanical Turk program. Over a thousand participants were asked to view advertisements for charity drives. The ads varied in whether they described the charity drive as a regular event or as something that happens infrequently. The study’s participants were then asked questions about how they budgeted financially for charitable giving, what factors would influence their donation, and whether they would donate to the charity based on having seen the ad.

For example, one version of the experiment had participants read a flyer for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, an organization raising money to fight childhood cancer. Some of the flyers stated that “This mailing is part of a regular charity drive that happens annually. This charity is requesting a donation every year going forward,” while others read “This mailing is part of a special charity drive that happens only once a year. Alex’s Lemonade Stand is requesting only one donation a year going forward.”

The researchers found that participants who read the flyer describing the drive as “special” and requesting “only one donation a year” were more likely to offer a donation than the participants who saw the flyer emphasizing regularity.

These findings are backed up by another component of Sussman, Sharma, and Alter’s experiment which examined data collected from experimental charity ads ran on Google Adwords. The researchers again found that the ads describing the charity event as “only once a year” were clicked on more than the ads which described the charity event as occurring “annually.”

Sussman, Sharma, and Alter suggest that the difference in clicks and donation rates may be the result of changing how people think about the charity and its potential impacts on their budget. “While it might be important to have charitable fundraisers held on a regular basis, highlighting their regularity (e.g. through the “annual” tag) may emphasize that the donations are both more ordinary and more financially depleting,” they note.

“This approach suggests a concrete method for…increas[ing] donations from new donors that can be operationalized through a minimal difference in the wording of the charitable appeal,” they explain. “It has the potential to be effective in encouraging donations without the risk of limiting donations through the reduction of fundraising attempts.”

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied

Abigail B. Sussman, University of Chicago
Eesha Sharma, Dartmouth College
Adam L. Alter, New York University

Posted: June 24, 2015
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