12 quirks about the human brain that can make you a better fundraiser

A cognitive bias is a way of perceiving things that often makes no logical sense, but is very powerful nevertheless.

Understanding common cognitive biases will make you a better fundraiser. Here are 12 of them from Neuromarketing, at 12 Cognitive Biases E-commerce Marketers Need to Know — and what they can mean in fundraising:

  1. Availability cascade. (The more you see or hear something, the more likely you believe it.) This is why repetitive messaging is so important in fundraising. By the time you are just sick of seeing your message, your audience is just about starting to take notice of it!
  2. Bandwagon effect. (Once you adopt an opinion, you tend to find evidence that supports it.) This is why those “surveys” work for some organizations. Ask them questions about your cause and values, and when you ask for money, it fits right in!
  3. Confirmation bias. (You seek and interpret facts that confirm what you already believe.) This is why it is so difficult to change people’s minds about almost anything. As fundraisers, we succeed when we make it clear that our cause is aligned with what our donors already believe and care about. (Don’t waste your time trying to change how they think!)
  4. Fear of missing out. (Our strong need to keep up with other people.) A clear deadline — a fast-approaching moment when they won’t be able to make the difference — is critical to fundraising.
  5. Herd mentality. (Our strong tendency to do what we see other people doing.) Strong testimonials from experts, celebrities, and ordinary donors can be very persuasive. It’s also important to show that other people support the cause. And never use the (tempting) point that “you should give because hardly anyone else is giving.” Turns out that’s more of a reason not to donate.
  6. Anchoring. (We rely heavily on the information that’s presented to us.) This is why it’s so important to suggest donation amounts. And to find the right (not too high, not too low) amounts to suggest.
  7. Framing. (The context of information influences how we interpret it.) This is why testing is important; it is far too easy for our own frame of reference to be exactly wrong for most donors. This is one of the biggest challenges in fundraising — learning to frame our cause for them, not us.
  8. Zeigarnik effect. (We remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.) Resending emails to people who opened and/or clicked through the first time can be very effective.
  9. Authority bias. (We attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of the right authority figure.) Another reason to use celebrity endorsements. Also watchdog logos.
  10. Loss aversion. (We usually consider it more important not to lose something than to gain something.) This is why fundraising that focuses on fixing or rescuing something is so much more effective than “keep a good thing going” fundraising. It’s also another reason having a deadline is important.
  11. Reciprocity bias. (We feel compelled to return a favor.) This is why address labels and other freemium-based fundraising is so often effective.
  12. Hyperbolic discounting bias. (We usually prefer immediate payoffs over long-term payoffs.) Make it clear that the donor’s gift will start making a difference immediately.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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