How to win in the marathon: by David Reinstein

Photo credit: Brighton photographer

In the run-up to the 2013 London marathon, participants are devoting time to  fundraising for their chosen causes. But what does the evidence tell us about what works?

Why do we ask people to donate when we are running a marathon, and why not so much at other times? Could you ask your friends to give in honour of your holiday in Greece, for instance?

Economists wonder why there is such a strong link between running marathons and charitable giving. Why do marathons appear to provide such a good opportunity for fundraising? First, raising money might be a commitment device for the runner, to make sure he does not back out and put these donations in jeopardy. Running a marathon may signal a runner’s strong commitment to the cause; but if he likes to run marathons anyway this shouldn’t work.

Alternatively, maybe running a marathon is a “gift” to your friends: they should return the favour by giving to your favourite charity. But this seems unlikely.

Or maybe the requirement that someone should run a marathon in order to ask people for money acts as a gatekeeper – this way, they can’t ask all the time.

In any case I offer some evidence and some informed speculation about what might be helpful in raising more money.

Ask people to donate: don’t wait for them to come to you.  

In a recent experiment, James Andreoni and Justin Rao set out to test the theory that altruism is based on the social nature of humans.  They found that when donors were able to communicate with recipients, the size of their donations increased. When a donor could empathise with the recipient of his or her cash, levels of altruism dramatically increased, they concluded.

Ask people to make hard commitments to give “softer” money.

Ask them to give in the future, to give “conditionally” – for example, if you make a certain marathon time – and to give less “tangible money” – for instance, contributing online instead of in cash.

Research evidence suggests people will donate more if they’re asked beforehand to donate, rather than being asked to donate for something that’s already happened. For instance, participants in a survey were told they could win a dinner for two – and they were asked if they wanted to donate part of their prize to a good cause. Those who were asked in advance to pledge potential winnings pledged more than those who were asked after they were told they’d won. In another context, participants donated less when they were asked to donate from cash they had on their desk than when asked to donate from money promised on a screen.

Find a way to recognise your donors publicly. 

Setting up a Virgin Mobile Giving or JustGiving page allows this (and also allows you to claim Gift Aid). People will know that others will see their donation, and they will see what others donated. They want to impress others with their generosity, and might want to set a good example for others. If people can see each other’s donations, ask the more generous people first. People often  want to conform and follow others’ leads.  An experiment I carried out with Gerhard Riener in 2012 demonstrated that when someone – particularly a woman – has her donation revealed to others in advance, others will follow his or her lead in donating more.

Eliminate potential excuses and make it easy for people to donate right away.

People tend to look for justifications not to donate while still feeling good about themselves and preserving their reputation. Avoid questions about the effectiveness of the charity, or stumbling blocks that make it more difficult or complicated to donate. This works against people’s tendency to procrastinate and to make “self-serving justifications.”

For instance, academics at the Harvard Business School found experimental participants who were able to purchase information on the recipients of donations withheld money from those who were not seen as ‘deserving’, yet they did not give more when the information was positive. Consequently, they gave less overall.

Giving people a small gift (like a pin or sticker) may get them to reciprocate towards the charity.

Researchers in Germany found that if they included a small gift – a postcard and envelope – with a request for donations , the amount donated was 17 per cent higher than if they included no gift. When they sent a larger gift – four postcards and envelopes – that figure increased to 75 per cent.

Give a personal and concrete explanation of the tangible needs of the charity.

A large body of evidence shows us that there are strong links between empathy and altruism –if potential donors can identify and sympathise with the individuals they are helping, they are  likely to donate more.


3 thoughts on “How to win in the marathon: by David Reinstein”

  1. Also, I know that Sarah Smith of Bristol and Mike Sanders and Mike Peacey of Bristol each have some interesting work directly analysing patterns in marathon giving on sites like Virgin Money Giving and JustGiving. They are examining how earlier posted donations affect the later response. It is worth looking up.

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