What can the Ice Bucket Challenge teach us about fundraising?

Hint: we might not be so altruistic after all

Researchers are looking more closely at what prompted the fundraising success of the "Ice Bucket Challenge," which raised millions for A.L.S research—and the findings suggest some depressing truths about how to motivate others, Ian McGugan reports for the New York Times.

Why do people give?

McGugan cites an open secret: people often give to charity for less-than-charitable reasons. A windfall fundraising haul may have as much to do with the ego boost it gives donors as it does with the merits of the cause being supported.

Thankfully, despite occasionally impure motives, people tend to be generous. For instance, when given the choice, lab subjects choose to give away half of a surprise jackpot to a stranger surprisingly often.

However, researchers also say our proclivity to be charitable can actually make us stingier.

Consider a recent experiment conducted outside of a suburban Boston Bookstore, says McGugan.  Researchers, as members of the Salvation Army, alternated between simply ringing a bell and making eye contact with shoppers and saying "please give today." They also switched between standing at both entrances and just one. People began avoiding the doors with the aggressive solicitor, yet overall, the aggressive strategy raised 60% more money.

Did you know top major gift officers adapt their language and speaking style depending on their audience?

The researchers hypothesize that people know they will not be able to resist the appeal to give, so they avoid being asked. We are "keenly aware of the risk of being exploited" says James Andreoni, a professor of economics at the University of California, who helped organize the experiment.

Leveraging 'the martyrdom effect'

This tendency to avoid being exploited may explain the startling success of the Ice Bucket Challenge: it punctured people's psychological resistance to being exposed to charitable requests and images that depress them, proposes McGugan.

Specifically, Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at Princeton University, says the Ice Bucket Challenge did seven things well:

  1. Its public nature meant people who refused would face damage to their reputations;
  2. Participants got a "helper's high" from aiding others;
  3. It reached mass audiences through celebrity participation;
  4. Peer pressure pushed others to participate;
  5. The 24-hour deadline necessitated quick actions;
  6. Having to post a video or photo of the challenge capitalized on people's narcissism; and
  7. The "challenge" aspect of having to undergo some limited pain—in the form of cold water—made people feel accomplished.

The so-called "martyrdom effect" of having to undergo pain to participate in charity seems to have particular psychological resonance, say researchers. Christopher Olivola of Carnegie Mellon University helped conduct a series of experiments last year and found that potential donors gave more when the experience was painful—like having to run a 5k race.

Yet, he worries the pursuit of novelty to engage people psychologically could get out of hand: "the success of the ice-bucket challenge has raised the stakes, and everyone now wants to distinguish themselves with their own novel twist. The 10-mile fund-raising race becomes a 20-mile race, or a 10-mile race dressed as a gorilla. It’s not clear where all of this is going to end," he said (McGugan, New York Times, 11/14).  

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