Does the Familiarity of the Charity Influence Donations?

By Brad Bell

You may think that a more familiar charity would receive more
money than a less familiar charity.   People may donate more money to a well-known charity than a less-known charity because of a greater perceived credibility.   However, some findings cast doubt on this idea.

Thornton, Kirchner, and Jacobs (1991) conducted three studies
investigating the influence of charity familiarity.  These studies also
involved the investigation of the influence of photographs.  Two of the studies involved door-to-door fundraising, and one of the studies involved countertop displays in stores.  In all three studies, there was no statistically significant difference between the well-known charity and the less-known charity with respect to the amount donated.

The findings of three studies cast doubt on the idea that a well-known charity would receive more money than a less-known charity.  An organization could strive to become better known before asking for donations.  However, the findings from three studies suggest that this may not be necessary.


Thornton, B., Kirchner, G., & Jacobs, J.  (1991).  Influence of a  
 Photograph on a Charitable Appeal:  A Picture May Be Worth a
 Thousand Words When It Has to Speak for Itself.  Journal of
 Applied Social Psychology
21, 433-445.

 Do Gifts Influence Donations?

By Brad Bell

Including calendars, notepads, and mailing labels with a fundraising letter are all examples of the gift technique in fundraising.  The gift technique may reflect the norm of reciprocity.  The norm of reciprocity suggests that if someone helps us or gives us a gift we may feel obligated to do something for that person in return.

Scientific evidence lends support to the idea that giving someone a gift can influence donating decisions.  Whatley, Webster, Smith, and Rhodes (1999) found that undergraduate students who were given candy (favor condition) were more likely to make a pledge than undergraduate students who didn’t receive candy (no favor condition).  Also, the average amount pledged (with nondonors included) was more in the favor condition than in the no favor condition.

Regan (1971) found that people who were given a soda by a person were willing to buy more raffle tickets from this person than people who were not given a soda.  The participants in the study were told that the raffle tickets were for building a new high school gym.  At the end of the experiment, the participants received an explanation for the hypotheses and the money was returned to them.  To find out whether this reflects the norm of reciprocity or a general effect of a favor, Regan (1971) also included another condition in the study.   In this irrelevant-favor condition, people received a soda by one person and were asked by another person to buy raffle tickets.  There was no statistically significant difference in the number of raffle tickets they were willing to buy between this irrelevant-favor condition and the condition in which people didn’t receive a soda.   Thus, the findings of this study support the norm of reciprocity that suggests that if someone does something for us we feel obligated to do something for him or her.

Howard (1995) found that people who accepted free recipes from a telephone solicitor purchased more cookies at their homes from the same organization than people who didn’t receive the recipes (were not asked whether they would like the recipes).  However, if the door-to-door solicitor was representing a different organization from the telephone solicitation, receiving the free gift didn’t tend to increase the number of cookies purchased.  

Boster, Rodriguez, Cruz, and Marshall (1995) found that the norm of reciprocity may apply to strangers, but not friends.  They found that receiving a soda from a stranger increased the number raffle tickets people were willing to buy.  In contrast, receiving a soda from a friend did not increase the number of raffle tickets people were willing to buy.

Tom, Powell, and Borin (1987) investigated the influence of including a gift in a study involving telephone fundraising.  There were three conditions prior to the pledges.  The participants were either told during the telephone solicitation that “even a dollar would help”, “even five dollars would help”, or these statements were omitted (pre- pledge control condition).  There were also three conditions after the initial calls.  In the gift condition, the participants received a small gift (memo magnet) with the pledge package.   In the phone-reminder condition, the participants received a phone call that consisted of reminding them of the pledge they made and requesting a donation.  In a post-pledge control condition, the people didn’t receive a gift or a reminder call.  The organization was contacted about a month after the pledge packages were mailed to find out about actual donations.  Tom, Powell, and Borin found no statistically significant difference between the post-pledge control condition (didn’t receive a gift) and the gift condition (received the magnet) with respect to the number of people donating.  The total amount collected was larger in the post-pledge control condition than in the gift condition.   However, it’s unclear whether this difference is statistically significant because they didn’t report statistical analyses for the amount donated with nondonors included.

Based on the findings of Tom et al. (1987), another possible limitation of the gift technique is that it may not work if the gift is given after the pledge is made.  People may have good reasons for not fulfilling a pledge, and the gift may not change the decision to not donate.

The findings of some studies suggest that giving a stranger a gift may increase purchases and pledges.  These findings support the idea that we feel obligated to do something for someone who has done something for us (the norm of reciprocity) if that person is a stranger.  Including a gift may be a good way to increase donations to an organization.  Nonprofit organizations could include calendars, books, or gift certificates with a fundraising letter.  However, one possible limitation of the gift technique is that it may not be effective for friends.  The findings of Boster et al. (1995) suggest that the norm of reciprocity may not apply to friends.

There may be other limitations of the gift technique.  For example, people who receive the same type of gift numerous times, such as receiving many calendars, may not feel as obligated to make a donation.  They may appreciate a gift less when they receive many of the same type of gift.  More research is needed to investigate the influence of the number of times people receive a particular type of gift on donations.


Boster, F. J., Rodriguez, J. I., Cruz, M. G., & Marshall, L.  (1995).  The Relative Effectiveness of a Direct Request Message and a Pregiving Message on Friends and Strangers.  Communication Research22, 475-484.
Howard, D. J.  (1995).  “Chaining” the Use of Influence Strategies for Producing Compliance Behavior.  Journal of Social Behavior and Personality10, 169-185.
Regan, D. T  (1971).  Effects of a Favor and Liking on Compliance.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology7, 627- 639.
Tom, G., Powell, J., & Borin, N.  (1987).  Increasing Compliance Through the Use of the Legitimization of Small Donations Technique and the Follow-Up Procedures of Phone Reminder and Gift Incentive.  Journal of Direct Marketing, 1, 40-46.
Whatley, M. A., Webster,  J. M., Smith, R. H., & Rhodes, A. (1999).  The Effect of a Favor on Public and Private Compliance:   How Internalized is the Norm of Reciprocity?  Basic and Applied Social Psychology21, 251-259.

Can Listening to Songs with Prosocial Lyrics Influence Donating Behavior?

By Brad Bell

Music is an important part of our lives.  Many people spend a considerable amount of time listening to music.  Listening to music may be beneficial in a number of ways.  One of the ways that it may be beneficial is by increasing helping behavior.  Could listening to songs with prosocial lyrics increase the number of people who make a charitable donation?  In Greitemeyer’s third study (2009), participants listened to songs with prosocial lyrics or songs with neutral lyrics.  Greitemeyer found that the percentage making a donation to a nonprofit was greater for people who listened to songs with prosocial lyrics than for people who listened to neutral lyrics. (1)  Greitemeyer’s finding concerning the influence of listening to songs with prosocial lyrics can be considered one of the possible positive effects of music, and may have important practical implications.  To increase donations, music with prosocial lyrics could be played at fundraising events.  This could be considered a creative fundraising idea.


1.  See the article for other findings.


Greitemeyer, T.  (2009).  Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on prosocial thoughts, affect, and behavior.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology45, 186-190.