The weird power of telling people they don’t have to give

In this past pandemic year, some nonprofits have been adding passages like this to their fundraising messages:

I realize times may be hard for you right now. If so, please don’t feel obligated to donate.

I’ve had a feeling this is smart. It’s authentic — and by that I don’t mean it seems authentic.

It says out loud something we know to be true, but sometimes feel uncomfortable saying: The donor is in control.

And saying so often improves response. Because, psychology tells us, we humans value our autonomy.

But that’s only the start, according to this post at The Agitator: Donor Autonomy on Steroids.

It seems that the standard “don’t feel obligated to give” could go farther, at least in some cases. Like a test done in face-to-face (street) fundraising:

For the control, canvassers said, “I wonder if you could help us by making a donation?”

In the test, canvassers said, “You’ll probably refuse, but I wonder if you could help us by making a donation?”

Guess which version got a 56% increase in the percentage of donors saying yes.

Yes, leading the pitch by actively suggesting that the donor will likely say “no” moved meaningfully more people to say “yes”!

I wouldn’t have believed it either.

It helps me embrace that “autonomy” stuff.

The fact that those particular words had a strong positive impact in that situation doesn’t guarantee that they will work for you. If you have testable numbers, I hope you’ll test this or something like it.

Because I think most of us would welcome a double-digit increase response rate in any situation.

We know donors aren’t obligated to give. Response rates remind us constantly that most of them choose not to most of the time.

But reminding them they are in control is smart fundraising.


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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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About the blogger

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.