Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Unexpected Anchoring in Charitable Donation Amounts

An effort to boost donation amounts for a charity succeeds, but not in the way we expected. I’ve been involved with Little League Baseball for many years now. Instead of charging admission during tournaments to cover costs, we “pass the hat.” This is where spectators are asked to toss money into a hat that is carried around at one point during each game.

It used to be that many people would just pull a few pennies, nickels, and dimes out of their pockets, which makes for a lot of coin rolling, but doesn’t help the donation total much. Sending young people with a puppy around to carry the hat improves the haul somewhat, but better ideas were needed.

A recent bright idea was to offer a league pin to anyone who donates $5 or more. At first this didn’t seem to help much because few people donated enough to get a pin. But there was a nice secondary effect; the typical donation became $2 instead of a few low denomination coins. Just mentioning $5 had the anchoring effect of dragging people’s donation closer to $5.

One negative effect was that people began to claim that they had bought a pin at a previous game with the implication that they saw no need to contribute again. And once one person says this, others who hear it often say the same thing, including a few people who never actually bought a pin. Overall, though, the pin idea has been very successful. Perhaps we will stumble onto other ways to exploit human tendencies that are well understood in the retailing world.


  1. A few ideas, not necessarily politically correct, but may be useful:
    - start the hat with a $10 bill in it. Like waiters 'stuff' the tip jar.
    - mention how much the 'big ticket' items cost. People will intuitively compare how their small donation with the much larger amount and may increase their donations.
    - have a likeable parent (opposite gender to majority of spectators) pass the hat around. An adult will likely feel more guilty about tipping a trivial amount to another adult.

    I'm sure there's more ideas. I highly recommend a book - Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini - for a more thorough discussion of principles that you can apply to your situation.

  2. @Fernando: Those are some good suggestions. Thank you. You're right about having an adult involved. We find that the best combination is a puppy, a young person holding the hat, and a friendly adult doing the talking and overseeing the process. It works even better if they block people's view of the game until they give :-)

  3. I've seen on TV where transsexual males in India dress in women's clothing and visit shopkeepers while clapping and making a scene in the shop. Once the shopkeeper makes a donation, they move along to the next place.

    Hare Krishnas offer a flower to elicit donations. I like the puppy idea, but what do you do with the used up puppies?