Making donors feel like active decision makers can help your bottom line.

That’s the outcome of a recent study that explored how donors behave when given a choice to guide the direction of their donation.

Catherine C. Eckel and Jonathan Meer of Texas A&M University conducted an experiment involving fundraising efforts at a University.  Prospects were divided into a control and test group. The control group was given the opportunity to donate to an unrestricted Annual Fund. The test group was given the opportunity to direct some or all of their donation towards the academic college from which they graduated.

The researchers found that there was little difference in the probability that individuals in both groups would make a donation. But donations were significantly larger when there was the option of directing the gift. Further (and even more intriguing to me), the value of the option did not come directly from use, as very few donors actually chose to direct their gift.

In the New York Times, Robert J. Schiller, an economist at Yale, argues that this experiment shows that non profits could benefit by more concretely involving their donors in the non profit decision-making process.

He outlines something he calls a “participation non profit.”  He writes;

“Such an organization, which might run a school or a hospital, would offer to sell shares instead of requesting donations. The share sales would really be donations, but would be framed differently and come with rights that would change the whole giving experience.

Shareholders could vote their shares at stockholder meetings, as they would in a traditional corporation. The organization would pay some kind of dividend, too, though this would go into a restricted account, to be used only for a charitable purpose of the owner’s choosing.”

I don’t buy Schiller’s approach for a number of reasons. Mainly, I don’t believe “corporatizing” the non profit giving experience is necessary to make people feel a sense of belonging and participation.

But I do think non profits need to take a good look at how we are making donors feel part of our work. Active participation and decision-making can happen in a number of ways including:

  • Meaningful ways to volunteer — like Audubon’s citizen science program.
  • Direct engagement with beneficiaries — like the International Rescue Committee’s effort to have resettled refugees call donors to thank them for their support and engage them in conversation.
  • Crowdfunding opportunities, which allow donors to contribute to a single project with a very concrete outcome.
  • Participation in program and campaign development via an online discussion group with internal staff.
  • Phone and in person meetings with program staff and other internal stakeholders.

Further, we must remember that the offer to participate is the most important part, not necessarily the donor taking us up on that offer.

How do you make donors feel part of your work? Tell me in comments.