Cause Marketing Is Slicker Than Ever: Here's How to Fight Back
Are you donating money to the issues you actually care about, or issues you're being secretly nudged into caring about?
Cause Marketing Is Slicker Than Ever: Here's How to Fight Back
Illustrations: The7Dew/iStock
By Ben Paynter / fastcoexist.com

Marketers have gotten pretty good at getting people to buy stuff they don’t need. When it comes to charitable giving that creates a problem: Some campaigns are slick enough to convince people to spend in ways that are wasteful.

That may be a harsh critique of the helping-people space—giving money to any cause is better than nothing, right?—but the point is that donating based on some late night infomercial, direct mail solicitation, or your neighbor’s next charity race is often a knee-jerk response. "The entire charitable giving space of everyday givers is set up for impulsive giving," says Piyush Tantia, co-executive director of Ideas42, a behavioral research firm, which just released a report on what’s really driving philanthropic exchanges.

As their research notes, individual donors vastly outspend foundations or corporations in the U.S., giving 70% of the $350 billion collected annually for humanitarian causes. But when most donors list out the societal problems they want to solve alongside where they’re giving money, those lists don’t match. Most people also say they want to understand how organizations are using their donations. In reality, only 3% do that research before they give.

The reason? There are 1.5 million nonprofits registered in the U.S. To stand out, many have co-opted classic marketing ploys that short-circuit our best intentions. Backed by a Gates Foundation grant, Ideas42 is pioneering research into how to encourage "thoughtful" giving—the equivalent of a money management class for the greater good.

The first step is figuring out how charities may be manipulating you in the first place. Here’s what generally works.

Guided By Groupthink

"Because we are all social creatures, one of the most powerful cues is the perceived social norm," the report notes. For instance, in one study, financial managers trying to convince clients to leave money to charity in their wills prefaced that ask with the statement, "Many of our customers like to leave money to charity in their will." Allocations magically jumped 43%.

Such herd-like behavior can also play out in how we approach things like a translucent donation box for a heartfelt cause sitting on some shop counter. In another study, researchers filled just such a box first with a pile of coins, and then with just few big bills later on. When people saw the coins, many emptied their pockets of loose change. When they saw the cash, there were fewer deposits but they matched the existing denomination.

This may explain how people get trapped pledging money toward an endless cycle of charity races. You know the participant, so there’s social pressure, notes Tantia. And there’s often a digital scoreboard for who is pledging. Per the report, in some cases all a solicitor has to do is mention that another donor recently contributed to their cause and successive donations rise. Mention that it was a similar person to the intended donor—or at least the same gender—the returns hike even more. It’s the charity equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses.

Signaling Success

Because people don’t often research causes, they’re more likely to join groups that appear to be succeeding already. In one test, donors who were told that a group had substantial seed funding were twice as likely to give and dropped six times as much as those told they were giving to a place with a far smaller nest egg. In another, just being told that a major donor had bestowed a "challenge gift"— without sharing any real financial info—made 23% more people willing to kick in.

"These cues are especially powerful when people aren’t sure about whether an organization merits their support, since potential donors who don’t have enough information are more likely to do nothing than conduct their own research and due diligence," notes the report. This might explain the rise of the ubiquitous Progress Toward Goal meter. People like to be associated with winners, so they’re suckered in.

Emotional Enticements

Numerous studies show that humanizing a cause is a great way to get people to rally around it. It turns out that people shown photos of orphans in Sudan will give more than those just shown their silhouettes. If there’s a photo of a group and the names are listed, people will give more than if those suffering are left anonymous. Per Ideas42’s research, it appears that naming and showing one an image of one single "identifiable victim" trumps everything in terms of generating donations and how much they’re worth.

What’s interesting is that this process works especially well if you withhold facts about the cause. An experiment in which people were asked to donate to Save The Children divvied potential donors up into three camps. One received just a picture and description about a little girl in need. The other two included the girl’s profile and more facts about the cause, or no picture and only a fact packet. In the absence of facts, the little-girl-only group still donated twice as much as anyone else. The takeaway: "Deliberative thought suppresses emotion-based giving." No one’s knocking Save The Children. This just supports the idea that people currently prefer to give on gut instinct, not objective analysis.

Not everyone is so easily duped. Such tactics have spawned a subculture of "avoiders" who, when confronted by, say, a direct pitch from the Salvation Army will avoid the bell ringer altogether. Perhaps in response, Ideas42 has found at least one charity testing the "Give More Tomorrow" approach. The group called monthly contributors, and asked them to increase donations even more, albeit with a delayed start of two-months or so. It worked far better than asking for more on the spot.

None of these tactics is outright bad. But Ideas42 hopes to find ways to ensure that donors are spending rationally—in a way that gives them the satisfaction of making the most change. "The question is how do these folks make the decisions about where they are giving and can we do anything to help make more informed decisions, more intentional decisions about giving," Tantia says. It’s not enough just to praise someone for being generous anymore—although that’s been shown to encourage even more future giving.

Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.

3.5 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 22,125 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
Welcome to Marinaleda: The Spanish Anti-Capitalist Town With Equal Wage Full Employment and $19 Housing
Jade Small · 17,216 views today · With virtually no police, crime or unemployment, meet the Spanish town described as a democratic, socialist utopia. Unemployment is non-existent in Marinaleda, an Andalusian...
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 13,598 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
Forest Man
16 min · 11,439 views today · Since the 1970's Majuli islander Jadav Payeng has been planting trees in order to save his island. To date he has single handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park NYC...
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 10,329 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
How a Trump Presidency Would Unleash a Torrent of Racist Violence-And Devastate the Left
Arun Gupta · 8,865 views today · The Left should take the Trump threat very seriously.
10 Shocking Facts About Society That We Absurdly Accept As Normal
Joe Martino · 7,607 views today · When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can appear pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 6,639 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Alan Watts: What If Money Was No Object?
3 min · 6,086 views today · How do you like to spend your life? What do you desire? What if money didn't matter? What if money was no object? What would you like to do if money were no object? Spoken...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 5,389 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
Maya Angelou's 3-Word Secret to Living Your Best Life
3 min · 4,735 views today · Dr. Maya Angelou says that in order to be the best human being you can be, you must follow one simple directive: "Just do right." Watch as Dr. Angelou reveals how you can never...
Caitlin Moran's Posthumous Advice for Her Daughter
Caitlin Moran · 3,381 views today · My daughter is about to turn 13 and I’ve been smoking a lot recently, and so – in the wee small hours, when my lungs feel like there’s a small mouse inside them, scratching to...
Do You Have Time to Love?
Thich Nhat Hanh · 2,794 views today · The greatest gift you can offer loved ones is your true presence.
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 2,767 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 2,758 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Better, Not More
5 min · 2,622 views today · As we assess the current state of our world and consider together the elements that are essential to a ‘just transition’, and ultimately, a just economy, we are called to...
Capitalism Is Just a Story - Rise Up and Create a New One
6 min · 2,553 views today · How many of us have a sneaking suspicion that something pretty fundamental is going wrong in the world? We keep hearing about the potentially devastating consequences of...
“You Can Have Your Weak Nominee If You Wish” – the Sanders Endorsement Backfires on Hillary Clinton, Empowers Sanders in One Masterstroke
Saib Bilaval · 2,372 views today · Ultimately, what the Sanders endorsement has proved is what the candidate was arguing from the beginning – that it was not Sanders and his campaign that was holding Hillary...
The International Criminal Court May Start Prosecuting People Who Commit Crimes Against the Environment
Tara Smith · 2,357 views today · The International Criminal Court is not known for prosecuting people responsible for huge oil slicks, chopping down protected rainforests or contaminating pristine land. But...
American Cartel: How America's Two Major Parties Helped Destroy Democracy
Frank Castro · 2,230 views today · Cartel: An association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition.
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Cause Marketing Is Slicker Than Ever: Here's How to Fight Back