Maximizing Your Campaign Using Research

You put out donation canisters in all kinds of locations, but did you put them high enough to really maximize your yield?

High enough, you ask? What does that mean? 

Well, using experiment design that a fifth grader could have carried out for her grade school science fair, researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill reported in a paper called “Rising up to higher virtues: Experiencing elevated physical height uplifts prosocial actions” that “moral high ground” is more than a metaphor. 

That is, putting prospects on a pedestal may actually make them more pliable to your philanthropic persuasions. In coming to their conclusions, Lawrence Sanna et al., conducted four experiments:  

  • In one, charity collection canisters were placed at the top and bottom of escalators. The canisters at the top of the escalators collected twice as much as those at the bottom. 

  • In the second experiment, participants who were led up to a stage to answer questions in a personality test spent almost twice as much time completing a second, unexpected and unrelated task as those led down to an orchestra pit.

  • In the third, those same people were asked to dish out hot sauce to a fictional second volunteer said to hate spicy food. Those on stage allocated less than half the hot sauce that those in the pit did. 

  • In the final experiment, participants were asked to play a computer game that called for them to replace fish from a lake fished by a second player. Participants who had been shown video prior to the game filmed from an aircraft returned more fish to the lake than those who saw footage shot from an automobile.



Pretty cool, right? If we want to successfully appeal to the “better angels of our character,” as Lincoln so memorably put it, we should start by elevating prospects eyes and intent heavenward.

However, there was a severe problem with Sanna’s paper. So worrisome was his data, that the Journal of Experimental Psychology, which published the paper in 2011, has since retracted it. Sanna has had seven papers retracted in recent years, according to the website 

Now at this point it would be really easy to be cynical about academic research on topics like altruism. But stay with me for a minute because there’s a bigger lesson here: if your job description includes fundraising, you should constantly be questioning received wisdom about what works and what doesn’t. 

Often, we’re put off by the bother of testing. But Sanna’s experiment design was so simple and straightforward and easy to administer, it almost beggars the imagination. I mean, seriously, moving a collection canister between the top and the bottom of an escalator ain’t exactly rocket science. You can do this!

Whether or not Sanna, et al. cooked their data, there are plenty of variables in your favorite appeals that could be easily tested including: time of day, colors used, people asked, genders, ages, season of the year, amounts asked for, premiums, rewards, thank yous, etc. 

Email and direct mail fundraisers run these kinds of split and A-B tests almost constantly. Most sophisticated webmasters do the same. And they frequently have software with fancy dashboard displays to prove what works and with whom. But all you need is a little bit of skill with Excel and the patience to test only one or two variables at a time.

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