Let's Raise Some Money
Insights from Karen Climer about fundraising and nonprofit organizations

Numbers Make People Think. Stories Make People Act. Are You Looking For Thought Or Action?

April 17th, 2014 by Karen Climer

In my last post, I said numbers depress giving.  One reader wrote in and asked, “Oh yeah!  Says who?”  Keep reading…

The best study about this was done at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 by Deborah Small, George Lowenstein, and Paul Slovic.  It’s been published in some peer-reviewed scientific journals so it must be solid.  (Full disclosure: I don’t read many scientific journals.  I read about it in Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Other Die by Chip and Dan Heath.)

Students were asked to take a survey about technology.  Each person was paid with five one-dollar bills.  After the survey, they were given a letter and asked to donate to Save the Children.

The first group received a letter that contains alarming statistics about Africa.  In Malawi, 3.2 million people are starving.  In Zambia, 2.4 million have no access to clean water.  Millions of children in Angola are without shelter.

The second group received a letter that said: “Rokia, a 7-year old girl from Malai, Africa, is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation.  Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift.  With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

As you might have guessed, the story letter raised more than double the statistics letter.  The statistics letter’s average donation was $1.14.  Rokia came in at $2.38 per letter.  No surprises there.

Now, if you are like me, you’ve spent most of your fundraising career “knowing” that stories and numbers are the winning combination.  We can appeal to the analytical people and the feel-good people in one letter, right?  Wrong!

There was a third letter that included the Rokia story and the statistics.  The average gift was $1.43 per letter.  Holy cow!  By mentioning numbers, giving dropped by 40%!

But, you’re still not convinced.  Neither were the researchers.  They brought in two additional groups.  Both groups received the technology survey, five bucks, and the Rokia letter because it was the proven winner of the three letters.  Before participants received the Rokia letter, these two groups had to do a simple exercise.  One group had some simple math problems to get them in an analytical mindset.  The other group was asked to make a list of “feeling words.”  The average gift for the group that thought of feeling words was $2.34 compared to only $1.26 for the math problem folks.  Just thinking about numbers cuts the average gift amount almost in half! 

That convinced me.  If you want someone to think, give them numbers.  If you want someone to donate, add a story to your numbers.  If you want them to donate a lot, drop the numbers and use the story.

Posted in Communication, Direct Mail

2 Responses

  1. Lisa

    Wow! Thanks for the tip. I’m using the concept in a grant I am writing now!

    Life…it’s all about timing.

  2. Karen Climer

    If it’s a government grant, I would probably throw a few numbers in there. I know that contradicts the research. But government grants are scored with a very specific system. With foundation grants, however, I bet most grants could use far fewer numbers and many more stories than they currently do.

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