Making Donation Amounts Variable

Imagine if the donation amount in cause marketing was variable. How would that affect participation and results for the company and the cause?
For example, we’re all familiar with the cause-marketing campaign that asks you to send in Yoplait carton lids to donate 10 cents to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Imagine, instead, that the donation amount varies based on the degree to which people participate. 

Perhaps if someone sends in less than 10 lids, the donation amount per lid is five cents, which happens to be the amount Yoplait donated in the early years of the promotion. But if someone sends in 50 or more lids, the donation amount was 15 cents per lid. 

Why might Yoplait want to make the donation amount variable? 

One reason is entirely practical. Yoplait has long been gigged because it collects analog lids in a digital age. Yogurt rival Dannon puts a code on its lids and requires only that you submit the codes online to generate a 10-cent donation to National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.

Last year, Yoplait donated $2 million to Komen based on lids redeemed, meaning that it handled no less than 20 million lids. I have never seen anything about how Yoplait physically handles 20 million or so lids, but I suspect they just weigh the mail and do some calculations. Nonetheless, the idea that people are putting a 45-cent stamp on five-cent envelope to redeem, say, five lids beggars the imagination. 

So giving people incentive to aggregate lids (their own and those of friends, family and neighbors) before redeeming them makes good sense.

But the larger reason why a variable donation might make sense for Yoplait is that … if properly designed … it would give them a chance to see who their most loyal customers are. And Komen could get a real strong read on who is most moved by their cause.

It’s easy to think of other situations when variable donations might make sense. Cinnabon, the cinnamon roll purveyor, had problems with the Foursquare coordinates associated with many of its stores. After it had corrected the data errors, Cinnabon offered $1 to Operation Gratitude for every Foursquare check-in during the month of October 2011. Operation Gratitude sends care packages to military personnel deployed overseas. 

But imagine if Foursquare had offered a flat 10-cent donation for every check-in but it matched the first dollar of every donation that a Cinnabon/Foursquare patron made to Operation Gratitude during the promotional period. 

Variable donations would give cause marketers all kinds of new possibilities and options.

The kind of variability I’m suggesting is frequently used by experimental economists in laboratory settings. In experimental economics, you might be given a number of choices to make using real money and given certain rules and circumstances. Such tests are designed according to standard game theory.

One such game is called the “dictator game,” and it’s sometimes used to test altruism in people. For instance, if someone started with $10 and for every dollar they gave, some anonymous partner would get $5. In such cases altruism could be said to be “cheap.” If, however, your anonymous partner got just 20 cents for every dollar you gave up, altruism would be very costly to you.

And, indeed, in tests set up like what I just described, experimental economists find that … in the main … people are more altruistic when it’s “cheap” to be altruistic than it is when it’s expensive.

Varying the amounts of the donation dollar in cause marketing could allow you to influence more than one kind of favored behavior at the same time.
You could vary the amount based on whether someone also volunteers for a cause, to cite one example. It’s easy to imagine other variable donation scenarios meant to influence someone to utilize their social media network on behalf of the promotion or the cause. You could certain encourage in-kind donations as well.

The Canadian company Sole sells orthotic insoles or “footbeds.” One of the causes Sole sponsors is the shoe charity Soles4Souls, which donates shoes to the needy. So it’s always on the lookout for gently worn shoes to pass on to those in need. Suppose, then, that when you buy a Sole footbed, Sole donates $1. But if you buy a Sole footbed plus donate a pair of gently-worn shoes then Sole donates perhaps $3 to Soles4Souls. 

Now there are unanswered questions to variable-donation amounts in cause marketing, none the least of which is, would it work? And, would it benefit both the cause and the sponsor? It’s also fair to ask if could be effectively communicated. 

All the examples I’ve suggested are thought experiments, of course. But it appears to me that there are enough potential benefits to variable donation amounts to test it in a real world cause marketing promotion.

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