Fundraisers should learn to lean on science

As a volunteer street fundraiser of the ‘fancy dress and bucket’ variety, I have spent hundreds of hours collecting cash donations from the public. Within the volunteer fundraising community, there is a lot of collective wisdom about how to raise the most money. However, the evidence to support these ideas is based on overall impressions and recalled experiences. How can we know what really works?

My background is in science, where there is a saying: “The plural of anecdote is not anecdata,” meaning scientists pay more attention to direct measurements than to second-hand stories.

I am therefore always pleased to read about rigorous scientific research into what really influences people’s giving. There have been many papers written on these questions. One is of particular interest, because it has direct applications to fundraising techniques.

The study in question, published in 2011 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that people coming off the top of an escalator in a US shopping centre were more likely to make a donation to charity than those at the bottom. This suggests that people may get charitable feelings just from moving upwards. Researchers point to the influence of “metaphorical thinking”. For instance, things at the top of lists are usually the best or most important.

However, this finding is at odds with some of the popular ideas within the volunteer fundraising community. The first thing new collectors learn about is choosing where to stand. Especially important, according to the theory, is people’s line of sight. This makes a lot of sense: if people can’t see you, they can’t donate. As it turns out, on most escalators, looking down at someone is a lot easier than craning your neck upwards. So it seems logical to ask for donations at the bottom of an escalator.

To illustrate this, the highest ever one-day total raised by a single collector is, as far as I know, more than £3,000. This was at the bottom of a set of escalators. Yet it seems unlikely that this remarkable amount was reached just by good placement. Other factors, like public awareness of the cause, must have been involved. Indeed, in the collector’s own words, “[I] achieved this mostly not through my own skill… [There were] station announcements every 60 seconds and six weeks of advertising by Marie Curie Cancer Care.”

On the other hand, it is generally accepted that the best collecting spot in the country is at the top of the escalators coming up from the Waterloo & City line at Bank tube station, where people often raise more than £2,000 in a day. Again, though, this might be connected to how much money Bank commuters tend to have, rather than their heightened – literally – sense of morality.

Overall, it is clear that reconciling people’s anecdotal experiences with contradictory evidence from scientific research is not easy and that there are many factors affecting the success of a collection. Charities already pay attention to how their money is spent. It seems obvious that they should want to collect it efficiently, too. Perhaps charities should start applying the results of this kind of research in their fundraising.

Alex Brown is studying for a MSc in Science Communication at the University of the West of England