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Competitive donations

By: Sarah Smith

*The following blog by Sarah Smith is related to her recent publication – Competitive helping in online giving*

In next Sunday’s London marathon, the elite runners will battle it out for the men’s and women’s titles but another competition of sorts will already have taken place on charity runners’ fundraising pages. Each year, millions of pounds are raised in sponsorship donations, most through online fundraising pages which make it easier for fundraisers to raise money – and for charities to claim Gift Aid. But the fundraising pages also create a public platform for giving, with implications for how donors behave.

It will surprise few to learn that donors look to amounts given by other people in deciding how much to give. A large donation (£100+), particularly one made early on, can have a sizeable effect, increasing subsequent amounts given by an average of £10. More surprising, is that at least part of the effect of large donations is to elicit a competitive response by males in the presence of attractive female fundraisers. In biological terms, male donors appear to engage in “competitive helping”.

In a paper out today, we report the findings of a study of competitive helping based on fundraising pages from the 2014 London Marathon. We looked at the responses to large donations and compared how the responses varied by donor gender and fundraiser gender/attractiveness (do male donors increase their giving more in response to a large donation when there is an attractive female fundraiser?) and the gender of the person making the large donation (do male donors increase their giving more when the person making a large donation was another male?). Attractiveness was scored on the basis of external assessments of the fundraisers profile photos and attractive was defined as the top 25% of scores.

The results are striking. We confirm that large donations elicit a positive response among subsequent donors in terms of how much they give. But the increase in giving triggered by a large donation is FOUR TIMES GREATER among male donors responding to a large donation given by another male donor in the presence of an attractive female fundraiser. It is hard to think of another explanation for this, other than a biological mechanism – male donors compete, albeit possibly subconsciously, with other male donors for the attention of attractive females. By contrast, there is no such response among female donors.

What are the implications for fundraisers? Getting generous friends to donate early will help to raise more money. It is also important to choose a good profile picture – and one in which you are smiling. Not everyone can be among the most attractive fundraisers, but our results also show that a picture in which the fundraiser is smiling can be just as effective, boosting donations by more than 10%.

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