Academic study on thank-you gifts for donations yields unexpected results

A new study on thank-you gifts in exchange for donations has produced counterintuitive results, according to Psychology Today: Receiving a gift unconditionally, such as with a solicitation letter, can have a positive effect, but conditional gifts — an offer of receiving a gift later, in return for a donation — may actually suppress donations.

The research was conducted by George E. Newman, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the Yale School Management, and Y. Jeremy Shen, of Yale’s school of psychology, and will be published in an upcoming Journal of Economic Psychology

Researchers asked study participants who they thought would donate more money to public broadcasting: a group offered a commemorative pen in return for a donation, or a group not offered the pen. Of the respondents, 68 percent thought it would be the group offered the conditional gift. The predicted average amount was $30.89 for people receiving a gift, $22.26 for those not receiving a gift.

But when two separate groups of people were asked how much they would actually be willing to give, either with a conditional gift or no gift, “results ran counter to lay beliefs and the pattern was reversed,” Psychology Today noted (with gift, $19.18; no gift, $28.60).

A non-hypothetical experiment also yielded the same results. Participants were entered into a lottery for a $95 gift certificate, and asked how much of their winnings they would donate to Save the Children. Those offered a tote bag in return donated an average of $18.25, compared with $23.81 among those who weren’t offered anything.

“This has clear implications for the solicitation practices of charitable organizations,” Psychology Today noted. “In order to increase donations, organizations may be better off ‘giving for thanks’ than ‘thanking for giving.’ Unfortunately, the first option is much more expensive and the extra cost of gifts may end up being higher than the potential gain in donations.”

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