Using Behavioural Insights to encourage charitable donations among repeat donors
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Special thanks to
- Alex Cooper - Heart & Stroke
- Geoff Craig - Heart & Stroke
- Brady Hambleton - Heart & Stroke
- Dr. Liz Kennan - Harvard Business School
- Teresa Marques - Rideau Hall Foundation
- Dr. Michael Norton - Harvard Business School
- Doug Roth - Heart & Stroke
- Barb Storey - Heart & Stroke
- Dr. Supriya Syal
- Haris Khan
Advisor, Behavioural Insights
Impact and Innovation Unit, Privy Council Office
- Elizabeth Hardy
Senior Lead, Behavioural Insights
Impact and Innovation Unit, Privy Council Office
About the Rideau Hall Foundation
The Rideau Hall Foundation is an independent and non-political registered charity established to mobilize ideas, people, and resources across Canada to tap into our national spirit and help realize our shared aspirations. They work in close collaboration with external partners to support initiatives that strengthen our identity, build capacity, and promote the advancement of a smart and caring nation.
About Heart & Stroke
For more than 60 years, Heart & Stroke has been dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke. Our work has saved thousands of lives and improved the lives of millions of others. You’ll probably run into someone today who is alive and well thanks to the countless Canadians who have supported our cause with their time and donations.
It could be the young boy you pass on the street whose heart defect was successfully mended thanks to life-saving research. Or the woman at the coffee shop whose stroke was treated with a clot-busting drug. Or the father whose hockey teammates saved his life with CPR.
Our vision: Healthy lives free of heart disease and stroke. Together we will make it happen.
About the Impact and Innovation Unit
Privy Council Office, Government of Canada
The Impact and Innovation Unit (IIU) is driving a shift in the way the Government of Canada uses new policy and program tools to help address complex public policy challenges. With a focus on “the how,” the IIU supports departments to build results-driven approaches that work for Canadians. The IIU houses the Centre of Expertise for the Impact Canada Initiative to work with departments in applying innovative financing approaches, new partnership models, impact measurement methodologies and behavioural insights in priority areas for the Government of Canada.
Charitable behaviour is a point of pride for many Canadians and their donations to charitable organizations have helped advance numerous important causes at home and abroad. As part of the Giving Behaviours Project led by the Rideau Hall Foundation, the Impact and Innovation Unit (IIU) at the Government of Canada’s Privy Council Office partnered with Heart & Stroke to run two randomized controlled trials that apply findings from behavioural science to encourage charitable behaviour. The first of these trials tested a series of behavioural insights interventions over email and found that the offering of matching funds resulted in significantly more donations than other interventions. Please view Using Behavioural Insights to Encourage Charitable Donations to view the full results of this report.
In the second trial, Heart & Stroke incorporated a set of behavioural insights interventions into a package sent to previous donors in order to help encourage donations during the 2017 year-end campaign. The 50,767 recipients were randomly assigned to one of six groups and their donation rates were tracked to assess which was the most effective. Changes were made to the outer envelope and the primary letter to test the impact of a set of behavioural insights principles. These included things like the framing of past donation behaviour as part of the donor’s identity and offering social information from previous donors.
The best performing package, which emphasized donation behaviour and listed the year of the most generous donation, had a donation rate 47% higher than the control condition.
All groups that incorporated behavioural insights performed better than the control package and these differences were statistically significant. The best performing package, which emphasized donation behaviour and listed the year of the most generous donation, had a donation rate 47% higher than the control condition.
Overall, the results of this randomized controlled trial suggest that the combination of the outer envelope intervention and the modifications to the letter resulted in increased donation rates relative to control. In addition, this trial found that those who had been donating for more than five years were much more likely to donate during this campaign, underlining the importance of past donors.
Canadians from all walks of life take pride in helping the less fortunate at home and abroad by supporting registered charities through the donation of time and money. In 2013, 82% of Canadians reported making financial donations to a charitable or non-profit organization, giving a total of $12.8 billion1. The sector employs upwards of two million people, accounts for roughly 8% of total GDP2, and provides highvalue goods and services that all Canadians depend on.
To celebrate this culture of philanthropy, The Rideau Hall Foundation is undertaking Canada’s Giving Behaviour project. The long-term goal of the project is to shine a light on all aspects of the giving behaviour of Canadians as concerns the contribution of time, talent and treasure. Of particular importance, the project is intended to deepen our understanding of the factors that motivate Canadians to give and the barriers that may limit their ability to do so. It is hoped that the project will result in an evidence-based, practical resource that will be used by Canadians interested in promoting a culture of giving.
As part of this project, the Rideau Hall Foundation partnered with the Impact and Innovation Unit and Heart & Stroke to run a series of randomized controlled trials to help determine what works in the application of behavioural insights to encourage charitable giving. The first of these trials tested a series of behavioural science principles such as social matching, overhead aversion and set completion. Almost a quarter million emails were sent to prospective donors and the trial found that the offer of matching funds was a promising way of driving donations. Please view Using Behavioural Insights to Encourage Charitable Donations to view the full results of this trial.
The Giving Behaviours Project also facilitated a partnership between the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and the MS Society of Canada. In their report, From Intentions to Action: The Science Behind Giving Behaviours, BIT outlines strategies for the use of behavioural sciences to help people follow through on their charitable intentions and reports on the results of three trials aimed at increasing charitable donations.
The purpose of this trial was to test the effectiveness of a series of behaviourally-informed letters in eliciting a charitable donation to the Heart & Stroke Foundation and to contribute to the growing literature on the application of behavioural science to charitable giving. The first trial completed in partnership with the IIU and Heart & Stroke was aimed at eliciting donations from individuals who had never before donated to the charity. Behaviourally informed emails were sent to prospective donors and included various behavioural insights principles such as social matching, overhead aversion, and set completion. The results suggest that there was limited engagement among that population with the emails that they received, as measured by open and click through rates. For this second trial, previous donors were contacted, as it was thought that they are more likely to engage with materials from Heart & Stroke, and therefore be more sensitive to small changes to the material.
A randomized controlled trial (RCT) was conducted in which 50,767 packages were sent to recipients that had previously donated to Heart & Stroke. The donors were split into six groups: one that received a standard donation package (control group) and five that received different variations of a modified donation package, with changes informed by behavioural insights (experimental groups). The packages were sent to donors on November 15, 2017.
The donation rates and donation amounts in each group were tracked to assess the efficacy of each letter. Only donations made before January 1, 2018 were considered in order to avoid including donations that may have resulted from other campaigns.
Results were analysed using logit multiple regression models in which the outcome of interest was regressed on each of the condition groups and controls for geography, gender, and previous donation behaviour. This allows the separation of any fixed effects that the control variables may have on the outcome of interest when assessing whether differences were statistically significant.
The package sent to donors included:
- Envelope: The package was sent in a bright red envelope with Heart & Stroke branding that announced the 2017 year-end campaign. See title “Outer Envelope” below, for an image of the envelope, and the changes that were made during the testing.
- Primary letter: The body of the primary letter provided information on Heart & Stroke’s activities over the past years and included an appeal for donations to the foundation. The header of this letter includes information about the donor’s past donation behaviour. See Figure 2 below, for a description of the changes that were made to the content and headers of the experimental letters, and Annex I for a copy of the each letter.
- Other content: The package also included a letter from Heart & Stroke researcher Dr. Kim Connelly, a tax rebate brochure, and a donation slip for credit card information. See Annex I for copies of each of these materials
In order to test the effectiveness of behavioural science principles on charitable giving, the IIU crafted a series of interventions aimed at increasing donation rates. These interventions were focused on three parts of the mail out package: the body of the primary letter, the header of the primary letter, and the outer envelope.
Heart & Stroke had developed a standard letter to send out to potential donors during this campaign. This letter was sent to recipients in the control group during this trial. Impact and Innovation Unit researchers applied a set of behavioural science principles to the letter to be sent out to the experimental groups, and the modifications are outlined in the table below.
|Modification||Behavioural Science Rationale|
|The letter was simplified and made shorter||Research by the blog site Medium suggests that time spent reading a given blog post peaks at about seven minutes, with readers tending to either skim or stop reading longer posts3. Given the limited attention spans of readers, the aim of shortening the letter was to ensure that more readers finish it.|
|Past donation behaviour or identity was made more salient||In RCTs conducted on American voters, researchers framed voting as the implementation of a personal identity (being a voter) or simply as a behaviour (voting). Framing the action as a part of the subject’s identity significantly increased the proportion of subjects that voted4. The altered letters sought to replicate this finding by either making the subject’s identity as a donor, or their past donation behaviour, more salient.|
|Statistics were made more personal and concrete||While both letters used the same statistic to convey the severity of heart disease and stroke (one Canadian dies every seven minutes from the two causes), in the experimental conditions the IIU used numerals instead of words in the sentence, added a figure of deaths per day, and tied this statistic to the personal lives of the subjects in order to make the statistic more concrete and salient to readers.|
|A national goal for the campaign was added||It was hypothesized that informing donors of the national fundraising goal for the campaign would be seen as increasing transparency between the charity and the donor. The $1.6M fundraising target was framed as a common goal between the donor and the charity.|
|Small donations were legitimized||Legitimizing small donations while soliciting donations has been shown to increase donation rates5.|
|Underlining was removed||Rather than attract attention to specific parts of the letter and potentially encourage skimming by readers through underlining, it was hypothesized that removing underlining would make it more likely for potential donors to read the entire letter with the same amount of attention.|
Primary letter header and text
The header of the primary letter provided a space to highlight the recipient’s past donation behaviour. Different aspects of past donation behaviour were tested across conditions, potentially including how long they have been donating, their most generous gift, and the year of their most generous gift. These headers were also changed to test whether emphasizing previous donations as part of a donor’s identity (ex. Campaign donor since X) or simply a past behaviour (ex. Donating to this campaign since X) were more effective in eliciting donations.
In the control condition, the header read ‘Campaign supporter since:’ and lists the year of the first donation. In smaller text, the header also thanks donors for their most generous gift and mentions the year of that donation.
In the Donor Behaviour conditions, the header read ‘Donating to this campaign since:’ and lists the year of the first donation. In the Donor Behaviour with Year condition, the year of the most generous donation is listed, while in the Donor Behaviour Without Year condition, the year of the most generous donation is not mentioned.
The remaining three conditions frame past behaviour as a part of the donor’s identity. In the Donor Identity without year condition, the header reads “Campaign donor since” and lists the year of the first donation along with the amount of the most generous donation. The Donor Identity + # of years condition reframes the statement to read “Campaign donor for” and lists the number of years since the first donation along with the amount of the most generous donation. The fifth test group, Donor Identity + Social Matching, repeats the same header text as in the ‘Donor Identity Without year’ condition, but adds a social matching intervention to the body of the letter. A similar intervention was included in the earlier email trial that the IIU and Heart & Stroke partnered on, and was repeated here to see if its inclusion had different effects when included in a hard-copy letter with recipients who had previously donated. The social matching intervention can be seen in Figure 1 and a summary of the letter header interventions is included in the Figure 2.
Figure 1 - Social matching addition
Figure 2 - Letter headers by condition
|Condition name||Header box|
|Donor behaviour with year|
|Donor behaviour without year|
|Donor identity without year|
|Donor identity + # of years|
|Donor identity + social matching|
The interventions outlined above would only be visible to those who opened the package, and so text was added to the outside of the envelope in order to reach the broadest possible percentage of recipients. In the control group, the bright red envelope announced the 2017 year end campaign and included a deadline for donations to be eligible for a tax deduction.
In all the test conditions, large white text was added to the front of the envelope that framed past donations as either past behaviour or part of the donors identity. Mirroring the language of the letters, both Donor Behaviour groups received envelopes that read ‘Thank you for donating’, while all three Donor Identity groups received envelopes that read ‘Thank you for being a donor’.
Figure 3 - Control envelope
Figure 4 - Donor behaviour envelope
Figure 5 - Donor identity envelope
|Control||Group 1||Group 2||Group 3||Group 4||Group 5|
|Name||Control||Behaviour with year||Behaviour Without year||Identity Without year||Identity with number of years||Identity + Social Matching|
|Year of Most Generous Donation in the letter header||Listed||Listed||Not Listed||Not Listed||Not Listed||Not Listed|
|Emphasis on Identity or Behaviour||N/A||Behaviour||Behaviour||Identity||Identity||Identity|
|Primary Letter||Original||Rewritten with behaviour emphasis||Rewritten with behaviour emphasis||Rewritten with identity emphasis||Rewritten with identity emphasis||Rewritten with identity emphasis, including social matching|
|Header||Campaign Supporter Since…||Donating to this campaign since…||Donating to this campaign since…||Campaign donor since…||Campaign donor for…||Campaign donor since…|
|Header Emphasis||Year and value of most generous gift||Year and value of most generous gift||Value of most generous gift||Value of most generous gift||Value of most generous gift||Value of most generous gift|
|Envelope||Blank||Thank you for donating||Thank you for donating||Thank you for being a donor||Thank you for being a donor||Thank you for being a donor|
Text version - Donation rates
|Behaviour with Year||9.57%|
|Behaviour without Year||8.95%|
|Identity without Year||8.70%|
|Donor Identity + # of years||9.53%|
|Donor Identity + Social Matching||8.67%|
All experimental groups performed better than the control and these differences were statistically significant. The best performing package, which emphasized donation behaviour and listed the year of the most generous donation, had a donation rate 47% higher than the control condition.
In addition, the donation rate to the ‘Donor Identity + # of years’ condition was significantly higher than the other groups that emphasized just donor identity. This suggests that presenting the length of the donor relationship in the number of years since the first donation helps to drive donations when compared to simply displaying the year of the first donation.
Text version - Average donations
|Behaviour with Year||$42.51|
|Behaviour without Year||$49.18|
|Identity without Year||$44.35|
|Donor Identity + # of years||$45.75|
|Donor Identity + Social Matching||$44.91|
While there was some variation in the average donation amount by test group, none of these differences are economically or statistically significant. This result suggests that while the interventions in the test groups may have resulted in differing donation rates, they did not have an impact on the amount donated.
Donation rates by province
Text version - Donation rates by province
The highest donation rates were measured in New Brunswick and British Columbia, and the lowest in Saskatchewan and Quebec. The absolute values of the differences are not necessarily large enough to suggest that different approaches are required for different provinces.
Analysis was conducted to understand the interaction between test groups and provinces. While some interventions did work marginally better in some provinces than others, these differences are not statistically significant or substantial enough to inform recommendations.
Length of relationship and donations
The length of the donor relationship was found to be a significant predictor on the likelihood of a donation. Controlling for all other observable factors, compared to those who have been donating for less than five years, those who had been donating for more than five years, were approximately twice as likely to donate.
Conclusion and lessons learned
The results of this randomized controlled trial suggest that the combination of the outer envelope intervention and the modifications to the letter resulted in increased donation rates relative to control. This finding is in line with the results of the Behavioural Insights Team’s trial with the MS Society of Canada, in which changing the colour of the envelope to a bright green was found to increase donation rates. Assuming that a significant portion of recipients throw away the package without opening it, the outside of the envelope is a key opportunity to draw attention and have the recipient engage with the contents of the package.
Another key insight from this trial is the importance of long term donors. Donors that had been giving for longer at the time of the trial were much more likely to donate during this campaign. This result suggests that while the recruitment of new donors is important, special consideration should be given to the retention of existing donors over long periods of time. If donors form habits around giving to a particular organization, it could result in a reliable source of donations for charitable organizations.
Framing past donations as part of a donor’s identity did not result in significantly different donation rates compared to simply framing it as past behaviour. However, strengthening the link between a donor and a charity by tying the charity to a donor’s sense of identity is a promising avenue for increasing charitable donations that could be tested in future trials.
Annex 1 - Contents of mail out package
Behaviour with year letter
Behaviour without year letter
Identity without year letter
Identity + # of years letter
Identity + social matching letter
Letter from Dr. Connelly
Tax benefit slip
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
©Privy Council Office, (2019)
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Étude de cas de l’unité de l’Impact et de l’innovation - Recourir à l’introspection
comportementale pour solliciter des dons de charité parmi les donateurs précédents.
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