Thank-you gifts like tote bags and mugs actually make people donate less to charity
Nonprofits try to solicit donations all kinds of ways. This time of year, nothing may seem more natural than to offer a gift as a small enticement for a donation.
But here's the billion-dollar question: Do thank-you gifts actually increase contributions?
Two Yale University researchers tried to answer this question in a recent study of charitable behavior. They looked at how external incentives influence a person's willingness to engage in charitable behavior, to be precise.
The authors, George E. Newman, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale's School of Management, and Y. Jeremy Shen, who recently completed a Ph.D. in psychology at Yale, felt drawn to the topic, Mr. Newman says, because tokens of appreciation—coffee mugs, tote bags, etc.—have become the go-to solution for so many organizations that solicit donations.
Some will be surprised by what they found. Edited excerpts of a conversation with Mr. Newman follow.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Did offering a thank-you gift to donors increase donations?
MR. NEWMAN: We found when you offer a thank-you gift as part of an initial donation request—such as a pen, tote bag, or mug—people end up donating less than if you just asked them how much they'd be willing to donate.
WSJ: How are thank-you gifts inhibiting donations?
MR. NEWMAN: Initially, we asked people to predict the results of the experiment. Overwhelmingly, people thought that thank-you gifts were going to increase donations. It just seems pretty intuitive to us that if you're getting something in return, you're more likely to give.
But the psychology behind the issue is a little more complicated: People seem to be concerned that if they were to accept the thank-you gift, it would create ambiguity about their reasons for giving.
There's actually a very long literature in psychology on this idea, known as the "crowding-out" effect, where a person's intrinsic motivation ends up decreasing once an external incentive is added.
WSJ: Should organizations continue to offer thank-you gifts?
MR. NEWMAN: In terms of making specific recommendations, I would be hesitant to do that because there are so many different factors. In science, you need to be careful when it comes to the boundaries of your data.
For example, we didn't look at people who are already invested in a given cause, or the follow-up effects of offering a gift [before soliciting donations]. We didn't look at whether, down the road, if my NPR mug serves as a reminder of my contribution, maybe I'd be more likely to contribute in the future.
WSJ: What alternative strategies might organizations try?
MR. NEWMAN: There's a lot in the psychology literature saying that charitable purchases—where you buy an item and a portion of the proceeds go to a charity—can be a really effective way of raising donations. More effective, in fact, than just asking for donations.
If you reframe the issue and move people out of the "donation" mind-set, to where they're not thinking about donations but instead about purchases, then it seems to be a win-win: Someone can make a purchase and also contribute to charity.
It's important for organizations to conduct their own research into how best to solicit donations. Our work should hopefully raise a question mark.
Ms. Gellman is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.