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University of New Haven Business Researcher Says: Using Sympathy in Fundraising Appeal Increases Donations 300 Percent

Release Date:
11/22/2016 4:55 PM
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WEST HAVEN, CONN. – Just days before #GivingTuesday and at the start of the biggest fund raising push of the year, a University of New Haven business professor has advice for fundraisers: Generate sympathy for your charity’s cause with the right words and visuals.

Subroto RoySubroto Roy, professor of marketing at the University of New Haven, in a paper coauthored with K Sudhir, the James L Frank Professor of Marketing at Yale University and Mathew Cherian CEO of HelpAge, India, said in the highly regarded INFORMS journal Marketing Science that small changes in the wording of a fundraising letter can increase donations by more than 300 percent.

With over a million registered public charities in the United States, fundraising is highly competitive and special events such as Giving Tuesday – this year on Nov. 29  – only intensify the competition.

“The study relied on principles of psychology,” Roy said. The five-year study was the first large scale field study done on live fundraising campaigns. It used a “cold” list of 200,000 potential donors and a “warm” list of more than 100,000 past donors of HelpAge, one of India’s most well-respected charities that serves the elderly.

The authors systematically varied the content of their fundraising letter, randomly among recipients, leveraging ideas from the psychology of sympathy, and measured the number of donors and the amount of donations in response to the different letters.

The findings were surprising. On the cold donor list, donations went up by 110 percent if the beneficiary was a named individual compared to an unnamed group; by 55 percent if the beneficiary belonged to the same religion as the donor; by 33 percent if the beneficiary fell into poverty versus being described as poor with an undescribed past, and 66 percent if the annual donation was framed in monthly versus daily amounts.

When a letter used all of the tactics, there was a 300 percent increase in donations.

For past donors from the warm list, the percentage increase in donations was smaller, but the incremental dollar amounts raised were equally impressive.

Founded on the campus of Yale University in 1920, the University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. The university enrolls nearly 5,000 undergraduates and about 1,900 graduate students.