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Social contagion in giving

Sarah Smith

Nomakeupselfie showed how charitable giving can be contagious. It powerfully demonstrated the potential to harness social networks to spread giving to a good cause.

But recent online experiments suggest that nomakeupselfie may be the exception rather than the rule. Researchers looked at what happened when they gave donors the opportunity to ask others in their social network to join them in supporting the same charity. The donors could ask others by posting on their Facebook wall or sending a message to a single friend (the two options were offered randomly).

More donors chose to post to their wall than to send a private message – but very few did either (7% and 4% respectively). The response rate – measured by the number of those who received the suggestion who made a donation – was also very low at 1.2%, all from the wall posts. Putting the two together suggests that it would take more than 1,500 donors (and their social networks) to yield a single extra donation.

Replicating the nomakeupselfie may be hard, but there are ways that charities can encourage giving through social networks.

First, online individual fundraising is more effective than a simple “ask”. Most of the people who are asked for sponsorship are the fundraiser’s friends, family and colleagues. A survey of JustGiving donors showed that of those asked to sponsor, 96% had been asked by a friend (of whom 67% always gave), 89% had been asked by a colleague (48% always gave), 84% had been asked by a family member (87% always gave) and 70% had been asked by a charity representative (9% always gave). The typical JustGiving donor who links their fundraising page to their Facebook page has 251 Facebook friends and gets nine donations – an implicit “response rate” of 3.6%. In smaller networks, the response rate is even higher. Two things make online individual fundraising a more powerful ask – first, the fundraising activity itself (the fact that someone is not just asking for charity, but running a marathon) and second, the fact that the donations are observable (the fundraiser can see who has responded to their request).

Second, incentives matter. The researchers also looked at what happened when they offered donors incentives (in the form of extra donations) to ask their friends. A $1 donation increased the percentage posting to their wall to 17% (from 7%) and sending a message to 9% (from 4%). A $5 donation increased the percentages further to 19% and 14%, but wasn’t cost effective.

It could be possible to use incentives to greater effect. At a schools charity challenge we held with sixth formers last year, the single best idea was to “pass the match” – to allow a donor to leverage incentives by passing on a financial match to a friend as a way of encouraging them to donate. It’s a clever idea to combine financial incentives with social pressure and one that would be well worth testing in the field.

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