The Psychology of Giving: Using Behavioural Science to increase online donations

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Behavioural science is the study of human behaviour – put simply, it looks at how people make decisions in the real world. We make a lot of decisions, every single day – both big and small. To manage that work load, we use mental shortcuts – rather than approaching every decision rationally, sometimes, our decisions are affected by context, our environment and social factors. But how can you leverage this, to boost your charity’s donations?

Avoid choice overload

Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that too much choice can be a bad thing. We can often have a harder time choosing from a larger range of options compared to a small number of possibilities.

In 2020, we put this to the test. We began asking fundraisers to share their page on social media in email campaigns to increase donations – we asked some of our fundraisers to share their JustGiving page on WhatsApp and Facebook, and others to choose between WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Email.

We found that asking supporters to choose between just two options, rather than four, drastically increased the number of fundraisers who shared their page.

Simply put, too much choice can lead to no choice at all. When asking for donations, keep your supporters’ choices to a minimum. Invest in a donation form that’s easy to both use and navigate. Why not try…

  1. Signing your charity up for Swiftaid
    Swiftaid is a new Gift Aid network that removes the need for donors to complete a Gift Aid form every time they donate. Instead, donors simply need to make one Gift Aid declaration per tax year, which is then shared across the Swiftaid partner network.
  2. Creating your very own Giving Checkout donation form
    Giving Checkout is a tailored donation button, QR code and form powered by JustGiving. It’s 100% free to use (there are no platform or processing fees) and it’s proven to help charities boost their donations. Checkout our handy 2-minute video below to find out how how it works.

Reduce anchoring bias

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘first impressions count’? Anchoring is a cognitive bias that means just that – where people depend heavily on the first piece of information that they see.

In an experiment conducted by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, participants were asked about their willingness to make an annual contribution to save 50,000 offshore seabirds from oil spills.

Each of the three groups were asked a different anchoring question:

  1. “Would you be willing to pay £5?”
  2. “Would you be willing to pay £400?”
  3. The final group were not given an amount.

The results: Those who were not given an anchor were willing to pay an average contribution of £64. When the benchmark amount was £5, the average contribution was £20. When the anchor was £400, the average donation was £143.

“It is not surprising that people who are asked difficult questions clutch at straws, and the anchor is a plausible straw.”

– Daniel Kahneman

So… how does this apply to online fundraising?

You can use the results of this study to decide what donation amounts to suggest on your website and future campaigns. Be sure to use realistic amounts – as large, unrealistic figures may discourage your supporters and lower your conversion rate.

Don’t be afraid to aim (relatively) high – if last year’s average donation was £25, try suggesting £5, £30 and £45. That extra £5 can make a big difference and may encourage others to give more. If you’d like to find out what works best for your cause, consider using A/B testing. Group A can see the default donation amounts and Group B can see your latest, updated figures. This way, you can see which set leads to more donations – and which encourages your supporters to give more.

Use the Identifiable Victim Effect

People tend to feel more compassion and a greater need to help when stories contain a specific, identifiable individual, compared to an anonymous group of victims. This is known as the Identifiable Victim Effect.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study to see what sorts of messaging compelled people to support a cause. The participants were given three reasons to donate:

  1. The story of a girl named Rokia from Mali, who is starving.
  2. A description of how many children are dying in Mali of starvation.
  3. Rokia’s story along with statistical information.

They were more likely to donate when given reason 1, Rokia’s story. Interestingly, those given Rokia’s story and statistical information, were the least likely to donate.

So why do supporters feel more compelled to help a singular victim, rather than a larger group of people? Surely, we should be more compelled to help a large group of people – since it affects so many? The opposite is true. Our actions are driven by emotions – and we then use logic to rationalise our behaviour.

The Identifiable Victim Complex happens because we don’t make decisions based on logic. Our brains have limited capacity, making it difficult to feel sympathy for everyone. We become overwhelmed when we feel an emotional response to every tragedy that we hear about. As a result, people are more engaged when reading about the hardship of a singular person and are more likely to shut themselves off when reacting to larger tragedies.

What does this mean for charities?

Want to invoke action from potential donors? Feature a named individual in your campaigns. Humanise them by adding their age, details about them and (where possible), photographs. This drives your supporters to feel a personal connection to your cause – and take action. It’s something your charity can certainly test across your website, emails, social and direct mail campaigns.

Help for Heroes example
Help For Heroes Campaign Example

Resources used in this guide:

Achoring Bias:

CAF UK Giving Report:

Choice Overload:

Fresh Egg:

M+R Benchmarks:


The Identifiable Victim Effect:

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Becky is the Community Manager at JustGiving. She’s passionate about storytelling, and inspiring people to help charities raise more.