Psychology of Influence: Do Gifts Influence Donations?
Including calendars, notepads, and mailing labels with a fundraising letter are all
examples of the gift technique in fundraising.
The gift technique may reflect the norm of reciprocity. The norm of reciprocity
suggests that if someone helps us or gives us a gift we may feel obligated to do
something for that person in return.
Scientific evidence lends support to the idea that giving someone a gift can
influence donating decisions. Whatley, Webster, Smith, and Rhodes (1999) found
that undergraduate students who were given candy (favor condition) were more
likely to make a pledge than undergraduate students who didn't receive candy (no
favor condition). Also, the average amount pledged (with nondonors included) was
more in the favor condition than in the no favor condition.
Regan (1971) found that people who were given a soda by a person were willing
to buy more raffle tickets from this person than people who were not given a soda.
The participants in the study were told that the raffle tickets were for building a new
high school gym. At the end of the experiment, the participants received an
explanation for the hypotheses and the money was returned to them.
To find out whether this reflects the norm of reciprocity or a general effect of a
favor, Regan (1971) also included another condition in the study. In this
irrelevant-favor condition, people received a soda by one person and were asked by
another person to buy raffle tickets. There was no statistically significant difference
in the number of raffle tickets they were willing to buy between this irrelevant-favor
condition and the condition in which people didn't receive a soda. Thus, the
findings of this study support the norm of reciprocity that suggests that if someone
does something for us we feel obligated to do something for him or her.
Howard (1995) found that people who accepted free recipes from a telephone
solicitor purchased more cookies at their homes from the same organization than
people who didn't receive the recipes (were not asked whether they would like the
recipes). However, if the door-to-door solicitor was representing a different
organization from the telephone solicitation, receiving the free gift didn't tend to
increase the number of cookies purchased.
Boster, Rodriguez, Cruz, and Marshall (1995) found that the norm of reciprocity
may apply to strangers, but not friends. They found that receiving a soda from a
stranger increased the number raffle tickets people were willing to buy. In contrast,
receiving a soda from a friend did not increase the number of raffle tickets people
were willing to buy.
Tom, Powell, and Borin (1987) investigated the influence of including a gift in a
study involving telephone fundraising. There were three conditions prior to the
pledges. The participants were either told during the telephone solicitation that
"even a dollar would help", "even five dollars would help", or these statements were
omitted (pre- pledge control condition). There were also three conditions after the
initial calls. In the gift condition, the participants received a small gift (memo
magnet) with the pledge package. In the phone-reminder condition, the participants
received a phone call that consisted of reminding them of the pledge they made and
requesting a donation. In a post-pledge control condition, the people didn't receive a
gift or a reminder call. The organization was contacted about a month after the
pledge packages were mailed to find out about actual donations.
Tom, Powell, and Borin found no statistically significant difference between the
post-pledge control condition (didn't receive a gift) and the gift condition (received
the magnet) with respect to the number of people donating. The total amount
collected was larger in the post-pledge control condition than in the gift condition.
However, it's unclear whether this difference is statistically significant because they
didn't report statistical analyses for the amount donated with nondonors included.
The findings of some studies suggest that giving a stranger a gift may increase
purchases and pledges. These findings support the idea that we feel obligated to do
something for someone who has done something for us (the norm of reciprocity) if
that person is a stranger.
Including a gift may be a good way to increase donations to an organization.
Nonprofit organizations could include calendars, books, or gift certificates with a
However, one possible limitation of the gift technique is that it may not be
effective for friends. The findings of Boster et al. (1995) suggest that the norm of
reciprocity may not apply to friends.
Based on the findings of Tom et al. (1987), another possible limitation of the gift
technique is that it may not work if the gift is given after the pledge is made. People
may have good reasons for not fulfilling a pledge, and the gift may not change the
decision to not donate.
There may be other limitations of the gift technique. For example, people who
receive the same type of gift numerous times, such as receiving many calendars,
may not feel as obligated to make a donation. They may appreciate a gift less when
they receive many of the same type of gift. More research is needed to investigate
the influence of the number of times people receive a particular type of gift on
Boster, F. J., Rodriguez, J. I., Cruz, M. G., & Marshall, L. (1995). The Relative
Effectiveness of a Direct Request Message and a Pregiving Message on
Friends and Strangers. Communication Research, 22, 475-484.
Howard, D. J. (1995). "Chaining" the Use of Influence Strategies for Producing
Compliance Behavior. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 10, 169-185.
Regan, D. T (1971). Effects of a Favor and Liking on Compliance. Journal of
Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 627- 639.
Tom, G., Powell, J., & Borin, N. (1987). Increasing Compliance Through the Use
of the Legitimization of Small Donations Technique and the Follow-Up
Procedures of Phone Reminder and Gift Incentive. Journal of Direct
Marketing, 1, 40-46.
Whatley, M. A., Webster, J. M., Smith, R. H., & Rhodes, A. (1999). The Effect
of a Favor on Public and Private Compliance: How Internalized is the Norm of
Reciprocity? Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 251-259.