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William Hanmer-Lloyd 

How to use behavioural science to drive charitable behaviour

How to use behavioural science to drive charitable behaviour

Using behavioural science, charities can close the gap between people's intentions and actions and drive higher charitable giving as a result, writes William Hanmer-Lloyd

35% of people say they would leave a legacy to charity in their will. Despite this, just seven percent actually do. In another study, 83% of students said they would buy a daffodil from the American Cancer Society, but in the following charity push only 43% did.

The lesson here is that people give less to charity than they believe they will, or claim they want to.

This is not a lost cause, however. There are learnings from behavioural science that can improve our ability to drive charitable giving and get people to give as much as they say they want to.

The ease of response

The ease of response has the most impact when it comes to charitable giving. The theory is illustrated in a study done with Ogilvy and BT that found that mailings to BT customers got different response rates, depending on the method in which the consumer could respond.

Results as followed:

  • Mail-Only: 3%.
  • Phone-Only: 1.8%.
  • Choice of both: 4.7%

Consumer response is almost totally dictated by if their preferred method of communication is available. This suggests that the single greatest factor affecting whether someone buys the product or gives to charity is not the price of the product, or benefit of giving, but how easy it is to do so.

A great example of this in practice is Sumup, who introduced a digital collection plate for parishioners in the Church of England at churches in London, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Peterborough. Simply by making the payment option easier, donations doubled. This shows the incredible impact making charitable giving easy can have.

Social norms

Social norms are group rules that determine what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not for certain groups.  We tend to underestimate the extent to which we are motivated by social norms, basing much of our individual behaviour on how other people act, or on how we perceive they act.

Utilising social norms can significantly impact the level of charitable giving. For example, one study with BIT and Co-operative Legal Services showed how changing the phrasing around legacy giving in wills significantly increased the rate that people donated.

The results are as follows:

  • [Baseline]: Customers not specifically asked to donate.
    • 4.9% sign up to legacy giving
  • [Plain ask]: “Would you like to leave any money to charity in your will?”
    • 10.8% sign up to legacy giving
  • [Social norms]: “Many of our customers like to leave money to charity in their will. Are there any causes you are passionate about?”
    • 15.4% sign up to legacy giving

Charities should consider how to capitalise on social norms when engaging givers or potential givers to drive donations.


We should also consider what mood someone is in when we ask them to donate. Research has shown a relationship between negative mood and altruistic behaviour. When a group of older children were induced into a depressed mood they were found to exhibit increased generosity in comparison to the neutral mood control group. Altruism may therefore act as self-gratification to help improve negative moods.

There are increasing opportunities in media and digital targeting to tap into this by targeting negative moods, when someone may be more likely to donate.

Reframe charitable giving

Finally we should consider how we frame charitable giving. People think in comparisons rather than absolute judgements.

The Art Fund membership recruitment team was struggling to replace lost members, leading to a long-term membership decline. The solution was a simple re-ordering of priorities. In 2011 the charity repositioned membership from supporting the arts with added visiting benefits, to a free art pass with the added benefit of supporting the arts. In response it saw sign ups grow from under 6,000 in 2010 to over 13,000 in 2011 – all via a simple reframing of messaging.

The learnings of behavioural science show us that there is often a gap between people's intentions and actions, and that this often results in lower charitable giving. But fortunately it also shows how by understanding behavioural science we can also grow charitable giving, closing the gap between people's stated intentions and actions.


William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning.

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