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This week’s Provocateur welcomes guest blogger and colleague, U.K. based Bernard Ross, Director of =mc, an internationally regarded expert in strategic thinking, organizational change and personal effectiveness. Bernard has recently written the book, Change For Good, on decision making science and behavioural economics in a social justice context with Omar Mahmoud, Global Head of Knowledge at UNICEF International. The focus of the book is on applying some of the latest thinking on how to promote behavioural change for organizations concerned with campaigning, advocacy, communications and fundraising.

This week, we’re fortunate to have him sharing his thoughts with us on donor behaviour as part of our Research Series.

Stop Listening To Your Supporters, Why? They’re Just Trying To Rationalize (Tell You Rational-Lies)

Bernard Ross, =mc
April 23rd 2019

Fundraisers are an emotional bunch. They care a lot about the bad stuff that’s happening in the world. And they desperately want everyone to care about it as much as they do. And they’re sensitive. So, they spend a lot of time and effort listening to donors and supporters, being donor-centric.

Unfortunately, this leads them to think the way to understand donors and their behaviour is to listen to them. My thesis here is that if you listen too much to donors you’ll  be at best disappointed, and at worst very distracted. Instead you need to study what they actually do, and be influenced by that.

What follows is five reasons why you shouldn’t just listen, drawn from my book Change for Good, on how behavioural economics should change fundraising.

Henry Ford.jpg

Reason 1: Donors… Don’t Know What They Want

Famously, and perhaps apocryphally, Henry Ford said “If I had asked people what they had wanted they would have said a faster horse.” Apocryphal or not, there’s a strong element of truth in that statement. Yet we persist in using focus groups, online surveys and other forms of contemporary astrology to try and find out what donors or supporters think they want.

The reality is that most donors, like most customers, prefer to operate within the bounds of what they know and would like to see that improved. For example, essentially the same thing made cheaper, better, or easier to use. We are profoundly creatures of habit. It avoids having to use too much brain energy - technically called cognitive load - to make difficult choices.

The worrying implication is that donors will often express support for a campaign proposition when asked about it because it seems like something they should want to do.


UK readers will remember Oxfam’s ‘positive’ Lift Me Up TV campaign. The campaign featured positive images of how the lives of people in developing nations were improving thanks to the work of Oxfam. The ad agency loved it, the Oxfam staff loved it, and the general public in focus groups loved it. At the launch the message was: “At last there’s a campaign which celebrates the success of development work and shows empowered people taking control of their lives.”

Sadly, the campaign proved a real failure in terms of fundraising. And this failure, and others like it, reinforces an unhappy truth that the kind of positive messages that people say they want to see, don’t, in general, actually drive successful fundraising.

It’s the messages of risk and threat of harm that most often do succeed. And we have a name for this in behavioural economics: the loss aversion heuristic.

Let me be clear. Every socially concerned part of me would love positive images to drive fundraising results. And every pragmatic part of me recognizes that it’s hardly ever true. Don’t trust people when they say they want to hear the good news.

We need to deal with the implications of this in terms of concerns to show beneficiaries in a more empowered way - avoiding the ‘poverty porn’ of crying children.

Reason 2: Donors… Make Decisions Based On Emotion Not Reason, But They Don’t Like To Admit It

One of the key tenets of behavioural economics is that people like to believe that they make decisions and judgements based on what’s called System Two – our objective rational worldview – when in fact they mostly make decisions based on System One – our intuitive emotional worldview. For more on this see my more detailed article, Change for Good Behavioural Economics.


The Rokia experiment provides a powerful insight to this. In an experiment for Save the Children, two groups of similar potential donors were asked to support either a specific 7-year-old girl named Rokia who faced starvation in Zambia, or three million children facing starvation in the same country Here’s the exact text for the two appeals. Decide which would be more likely to elicit a gift from you – A or B?

A) Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl who lives in Zambia in Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, 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 and educate her, and provide her with basic medical care.


B) Food shortages in Africa are affecting millions of children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans – one- third of the population – have been forced to flee their homes.

More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance. They need your help now and by donating to Save the Children you can help.

You probably answered A. That’s what most people did in a famous study by Deborah Small, marketing professor at Wharton. Professor Small found that if organizations want to raise money for a cause, it is more effective in donation terms to appeal to the individual ‘heart’ – and focus on individuals like Rokia – than to the mass ‘head’, which might say ‘please help whichever person or persons is most in need.’

Perhaps more distressingly for those of us who are keen to win over hearts and minds, the study also found that if a fundraising appeal highlighted Rokia and then also included data about overall mass need in the country, donors actually gave less than they did when the data was left out. (You may want to read that sentence again. It has some profound implications for anyone trying to change minds and behaviour.)

Sorry. Donors like to say they are both rational and emotional. The truth is that in philanthropic terms emotion wins every time.

Reason 3: Donors… (And Fundraisers) Are Overconfident

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias which encourages people to have a false sense of their own ability or contribution to something. It was first detailed in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University. The effect works in two ways.

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First, people mistakenly assess their ability or contribution as much higher than it really is – literally they think they are capable of things they are not. (If you’ve ever watched the auditions for the X Factor you can see plenty of evidence for this.)

Fundraisers tend to overvalue their own view about what works. (Think: how many of the development director’s ‘great’ ideas were tested in focus groups and came back with a 5-star rating…and then failed?)  And donors tend to reinforce this by overvaluing the importance of their opinion - they see themselves as typical.

Second, and perhaps more important in this context, donors overestimate how philanthropic they are. The CAF UK Giving 2018 Report is useful and put together with good intent. But very often there is a disconnect between the total amount of money donors say they give and the actual income of charities.

The chart below, based on US data, says the same thing but quantifies it. 75% of donors think they give more than the average, when actually 72% give less.

Philanthropic Fantasies

Philanthropic Fantasies


Sorry again. If we listen to donors and don’t study the data we can simply fuel their philanthropic fantasies.

Reason 4: Donors… Don’t Realize Context (Not Commitment) Is The Key To Most Of Their Behaviour

A classic trap that fundraisers fall into is to try and help supporters choose how to help by offering them a range of choices about how to help and explaining clearly what the impact of their choice is. Donors say they want this. But, in fact, a lot of the evidence suggests that context not rational choice is a more important driver of success. A key element in context is social proof – people seeking guidance on what to do by asking ‘who else is doing the same?’  These others might be people like them, or people they admire, or even people in the same setting.

Let’s illustrate this with a famous experiment originally run by Robert Cialdini, respected Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.

He persuaded a major US hotel chain to trial different messages in rooms to see which would have the most powerful effect getting hotel users to reuse their towels. Reuse rates help save the planet and, coincidently, reduce the hotel’s laundry and room cleaning costs. A win-win.

Here are the three messages:


Message 1: focused, as do many of these appeals, on the environmental benefits of reuse. If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel I’m sure you’ll have seen this version. In this case 35% of guests opted to re-use their towels. This was used as the ‘control’ – or baseline – for the experiment.

Message 2: focused on social proof. This missed out the environmental message and stated, ‘most people in this hotel re-use their towels.’ In this case 44% of guests reused their towels. That’s almost 10% more people.

Message 3: here the researchers tested variations of the social proof message over several weeks. They tried to target it even more to ‘people like you.’ They adapted specific messages by mentioning gender ‘women/men’, ‘citizens’, ‘environmentally concerned individuals’, ‘guests in this hotel’ or finally, ‘people who stayed in this room.’ There were five variants in total.

Which message had the greatest impact in changing behaviour? Most fundraisers think the answer is one containing some sense of social identity – often they choose ‘gender’ or ‘citizen.’ In fact, the most effective message was the one saying ‘most people who stay in this room reuse their towels.’ That produced a 49.3% reuse rate – 15% more than the original environmental message. It’s not about the cause, it’s the social proof context.

The reality is more people tend to support you more as it becomes socially acceptable. Just because others do. Not for the cause committed reason they tell you. (Look again at the success of ice bucket challenge – what cause was it for again?)

Let’s be very clear what this means - because you’re not going to like it! The ‘other people in this room’ message produced 14% more compliance than the original environmental message. It’s not about the cause, it’s the social proof context.

Or look at the way in which a number of French millionaires  and companies rushed to contribute to the $1B fund for Notre Dame having, we guess, seen images of need and destruction in Yemen, Cox’s Bazaar, Syria, etc. and not been moved to contribute. But that appeal became a kind of opportunity for shared virtue signalling.

Reason 5: Donors… Mostly Look For Confirmation Of Their Current Views, And They Don’t Look Very Far

People are curious. But in a limited way. We tend to seek out data that supports our current beliefs. In behavioural economics it’s called confirmation bias. It’s a challenge for me to hear Trump supporters claiming that the latest Twitter output from the White House is evidence of his lack of interference in the Mueller investigation. I hear exactly the same data as evidence of his paranoia and childish ill-considered mood swings.

I’m writing that sentence, of course, fairly confident that you, my target audience, share my view that whatever Trump says will be nonsense. We share a confirmation bias about Trump.

Donors also don’t look very far for data. Our brains take up only 2% of our body weight but use 20% of our energy. So, we tend to focus on the ‘salience’ of data – information we can get that’s easy to process vivid, recent, extreme, and ideally negative. It’s this kind of information that makes us worry about shark attacks when we’re on holiday somewhere tropical, when there are more deaths from falling coconuts in hot climates each year than there are from shark attacks.

Let’s take a fundraising example. Not all disasters receive equal media attention: the coverage of an event is often a function of its drama rather than its magnitude. A sudden catastrophe that kills hundreds in seconds will generate more coverage than an ongoing famine that kills thousands every day. It’s important for fundraisers to check not only the media coverage, but their target audiences’ awareness of such coverage.

Around 11,500 people died in the Ebola outbreak of 2014. That’s terrible – but a tiny number compared to the numbers currently dying or at risk in Yemen or Syria. But the income received by agencies like Médecins Sans Frontièrs for Ebola was far in excess of the relative funds given for these greater, less dramatic tragedies.

Photo Credit:  CNN

Photo Credit: CNN


Again, consider the impact of the Notre Dame fire: images of great drama, about a place many of us have seen or heard of, discussed on the media as ‘a great tragedy’, about the loss of a cultural icon. You can see scientifically why it succeeded.

To summarise: supporters see certain types of events as more salient. Part of our job, working with colleagues in communications and eternal media agencies and channels is to work to make our work more salient: easy to understand and front of mind

Supporters just won’t put the effort in to work out what’s really important. They are not really listening to us, or themselves, very carefully.

Let me say it again even though you probably hear it as heresy. Don’t listen to what donors say – watch what they do and focus on that.


If you enjoyed today’s guest blogger, check out Bernard’s latest book Change For Good, a fascinating, challenging and informative read which everyone in the nonprofit and fundraising world could benefit from reading. It can be ordered via and I highly recommend reading it! Bernard is also the co-author with Clare Segal of another must read, The Influential Fundraiser, how to apply the latest developments in psychology and neurology to achieve better fundraising and influencing skills.



Bernard Ross, Director

Bernard is an internationally regarded expert in strategic thinking, organisational change and personal effectiveness. He works in Europe, USA, Africa and South America. His assignments have involved a wide range of not-for-profit organisations over 25 years. Those in the UK include British Red Cross, NSPCC, Macmillan Cancer, and the Science Museum. He has also consulted for a number of universities including Oxford and the Sorbonne. International agencies on his assignment roster include ICRC, IFRC, Amnesty International, Greenpeace International, UNICEF, and MSF.

Andrea McManusComment