Throughout human history, we have always found ways to share our love and compassion for other people, express our empathetic feelings and support those in need.

In the digital era, where the internet rules our lives and millions of people spend much of their day online, digital fundraising is fast growing in popularity. Recent figures suggest that over a five year period (January 2010 to December 2014), the average online donation in the UK has risen by 20%1.

This is certainly a positive sign; however the evolution of behavioural science together with new research contributions offer ways to improve charity messaging and can transform the way we ask for donations.

So what are the major factors that motivate people to give to charity?


People’s need to feel good about themselves plays an important role in the donation decision process2. Especially, it seems to affect people with medium self-confidence who are more willing to engage in activities that will boost their self-esteem. Charities can benefit from this by trying to use language that can trigger emotions of pride and satisfaction and make self-image concerns more salient.

PDSA Sponsor a Dog screenshot

Social proof

We are highly influenced by other people’s behaviour and this effect of social influence also applies to philanthropic giving. Whether it is our desire for public recognition or the natural human competitiveness to be the most altruistic, the truth is that donations made in public and information on how much other people have given will lead to increased generosity3.

A recent study4 powerfully shows how people are motivated to donate more money after a large donation is made and that the earlier the large donation occurs the better for the overall revenue.

Charities can benefit from this effect by encouraging early, large donations and making sure that these donations are made publicly visible.

Andy's Aces for Unicef cmapaign

Save the world, one person at a time

We feel empathy when we hear the story of a particular person. When many lives are at risk, the use of an identified individual with a name and a powerful image will automatically elicit feelings of compassion and altruism5. Telling a story behind ‘’sympathy snapshots’’ can provide an opportunity for the public to relate to the experience6 and may lead to increased helping behaviour.

Charities can use this effect by ensuring that a powerful image and a true story of an affected individual are accompanying any campaigns, in order to trigger sympathy.

Save the Children campaign screenshot

Giving more tomorrow

We tend to value the future less than we value the present; therefore we may put off small activities until tomorrow even though they cost little effort now but have larger benefits in the longer term. In the same way, if someone asks us to give up a share of today’s income, the pain of paying will immediately turn us off of the idea. However, things would be different if we had to commit to a payment in the future or when we get our next pay rise7; this would reduce the pain of what is known by behavioural scientists as ‘’loss aversion’’.

Charities can use this principle to great effect by encouraging people to increase their contribution at some point in the future rather than immediately--asking them to agree to a donation amount that will be processed in the future.

Charitable donation form screenshot


When we make a choice, we often rely too heavily on the information –the “anchor”- that is offered in order to make a decision8. Once an anchor is set, we make estimates by adjusting away from that anchor and we normally pick the middle option as a compromise – a phenomenon called ‘’extremeness aversion9’’.

For example, Oxfam is offering three pre-set options for people who want to support the refugee crisis. It’s set at £35, £60 and £100. £35 might feel a bit on the low side while £100 is quite on the high end for the average person. Hence people are sort of directed to the £60 option. This is also the pre-selected value in the ‘’Own amount’’ box, giving another helpful nudge in that direction.

Refugee crisis donation screenshot


In social psychology reciprocity refers to responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. Drawing on people’s inherent desire for fairness, the need to give back when we receive something, reciprocity has proven to be an important concept for wider donation work and has successfully been used to increase charitable donations10.

The BIT’s11 recent trial showed the effectiveness of this principle in getting significantly more people to become organ donors. They tested the effect of including different messages on a high traffic webpage on GOV.UK that encourages people to join the NHS Organ Donor Register. During the trial, 1,203 more people registered under the best-performing message, compared to the control group. The message draws on reciprocity by asking: “If you needed an organ transplant would you have one? If so please help others.”

The results suggested that, if this message were to be used over a year, it would lead to 96,000 more people registering as organ donors.

When it comes to donating, we must, of course, first decide whether to respond at all, followed by the decision about the amount we want to donate. As with many other things in our lives, what we intend to do doesn’t necessarily mean that we end up doing it. Hence, as much as we would love to satisfy our philanthropic self and support those in need, we often fail to deliver on our intentions. These simple behavioural tools can be powerful ways to increase charitable giving and goal attainment.

However, we should stress that testing these ideas will help you determine which are the most suitable for your target audience.

Charitable donation reciprocity form

If you have any questions or you are looking for the best way to apply or test any of the above ideas, do not hesitate to contact us on [email protected]

1. According to Blackbaud’s Online Giving Index, which is the sector’s benchmark for online giving in the UK and is published in partnership with the Institute of Fundraising.

2. Cueva, C., & Dessi, R. (2010). Charitable Giving and Self-Signaling. Working paper.

3. Shang, J., & Croson, R. (2009). Field experiments in charitable contribution: The impact of social influence on the voluntary provision of public goods. Economic Journal.

4. Smith, SL., Windmeijer, F., & Wright, EW. (2015). Peer effects in charitable giving: Evidence from the (running) field. Economic Journal, vol 125, pp. 1053-1071.

5. Kogut, T., & Ritov, I. (2005). The” Identified Victim” Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual? Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, 18(3), 157.

6. Breeze, B., & Dean, J. (2012). User views of fundraising. A study of charitable beneficiaries’ opinions of their representation in appeals. Alliance Publishing Trust.

7. Breman, A. (2011). Give more tomorrow: Two field experiments on altruism and intertemporal choice. Journal of Public Economics, 95(11), 1349-1357.

8. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124-1131.

9. Simonson, I. & Tversky, A. (1992). Choice in context: Tradeoff contrast and extremeness Aversion. Journal of Marketing Research, 29 (August), 281-295.

10. Alpizar, F., Carlsson, F., & Johansson-Stenman, O. (2008). Anonymity, reciprocity, and conformity: Evidence from voluntary contributions to a national park in Costa Rica. Journal of Public Economics, 92(5), 1047-1060.

11. The Behavioural Insights Team is a social purpose company whose mission is to help organisations in the UK and overseas to apply behavioural insights in support of social purpose goals.