What marshmallows can teach us about fundraising


From the man who got us thinking about men’s underpants, Richard Sved has found himself thinking about marshmallows this time, and what they can teach us about fundraising.

I like marshmallows. Do you? And do you, like me, work in the voluntary sector? If your answer was yes to both of those questions, then this blog post is for you. If you’re not sure about marshmallows, this may well still be of interest, so do read on.

Marshmallows and fundraising

The marshmallow test and how it relates to charities.

In a study by psychologist Walter Mischel, a child was offered one marshmallow, which they could eat immediately or two marshmallows if they waited until the tester (who had left the room) returned.

Were the children able to hold out, and what can we learn from their responses?

So what does it mean for those of us working for charities?

Let’s consider that we, as fundraisers, are the child seated in front of the tantalising marshmallow, and that the marshmallow itself is a donation. It’s all about delaying gratification, and I think it’s quite a useful analogy.

How often are we able to wait for a larger donation?

A few times in my career, charities I have worked with have received relatively small donations from supporters they were ‘cultivating’, when the reality was they were capable of donating much more. This is sometimes known as a ‘kiss-off’ donation. I don’t think we can completely avoid this happening, but it can be greatly reduced by being absolutely clear about the impact of our work, and the sums we need to do it.

But should we sometimes start small?

Let’s extend that marshmallow metaphor. What if our supporters try the first marshmallow, develop a taste for it, and then decide they want to continue donating? I’ve seen this happen plenty of times. It’s all about building that relationship. If our supporters enjoy their experience, they are more likely to come back for more.

I’ve also seen first-hand how community fundraising events, such as Tommy’s Splashathon and Epilepsy Society’s Purple Day, start small but grow exponentially through iterative experience.

Let’s set longer-term goals

Perhaps the answer can be found in these types of community fundraising events, where the Return on Investment grows year on year. Who knows how many bags of marshmallows our supporters may eventually be worth if we treat them right? Whether we start small and build up value or get the initial ‘ask’ absolutely right, the key is to make supporting our charities a profoundly pleasurable and important experience.

Of course, it’s an art not a science. But when you’re thinking about fundraising, my recommendation is to think at least for a moment about the marshmallow in front of the expectant child.

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Richard has worked and volunteered in the charity sector for over 20 years. Prior to setting up his own company, 3rd Sector Mission Control, Richard led the fundraising function for two national charities. He is also an NCVO consultant, and has worked as the interim Head of fundraising at several national charities. Richard's key strengths lie in charity strategic planning, income generation and communications. He blogs regularly about the charity sector at http://www.3rdsectormissioncontrol.co.uk/what-we-say/blog/