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What gets more charity donation?

Ogilvy and Mather, the renowned advertising company, was working with a charity to increase charity donations.

Once a year, the charity would drop printed envelopes through millions of doors in Britain soliciting donations and return a few weeks later to collect them. That year, charity donations were being collected for hurricane relief. They were able to do so as they had a very large pool of volunteers. 

Ogilvy and Mather's strong behavioural science unit suspected that unexpected factors beyond good intentions influenced donation rates. And so they tried a cheeky experiment. Some envelopes were randomly different from the rest;

  • 100,000 envelopes had an additional notice that delivery was made by volunteers;

  • 100,000 came with an additional form that would provide a 25 per cent tax rebate;

  • 100,000 were in better-quality envelopes; and

  • 100,000 were in portrait orientation (where the opening of the envelope is along the short side rather than the long side)

  • the rest of the envelopes were as per normal, acting as a control group.

Which method do you think worked the best? Take a guess

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1.  Additional notice that donation envelopes were delivered by volunteers


3.  Better quality envelopes


2.  25% tax rebate


4.  Portrait envelopes (the ones on the left) as opposed to the traditional landscape envelopes (those on the right)

Most people would have guessed that method 2 would be the most effective. A smaller number might believe it is method 1.

  • Method 2 is the most tangible - it reminds the donor of an additional tangible benefit from donating - a tax relief

  • Method 1 has an emotional element - everyone coming together in different ways for charity - the donor with money while the volunteers with their time and effort.

And the results?

Well, it is not quite what we expect. Those scheming marketers at Ogilvy do have pretty good hunches after all.


Method 2, what seemed the most logical, performed the worst. It received 30% less donations than the control group.


All other methods were similar in results, all outperforming the control group by slightly over 10%, with the better quality envelopes slightly edging out the other two methods. 


The better quality envelopes also had one other interesting characteristic: It attracted fewer overall donors, but a significantly higher number of larger donations above £100

In this site, we discuss extensively how a person's behaviour is shaped by a large number of factors, far beyond what we are conscious of. We like to think of ourselves as logical, intentioned beings, but we really aren't. In this case, it seems pretty ridiculous that the donation rate can be effectively encouraged by the quality and shape of the envelope, comparing favourably with emotional and tangible reasons. What has the envelope got to do with anything?

It turns out that our brains make many decisions every day. It's tiring, and practically quite impossible to think through every single decision comprehensively. To help us, we try to find heuristics, simple indicators that help us make a quick and reasonably-accurate decision so that we can move on with our lives. In this case, the envelope shape and quality are heuristics which trigger our brains into making a decision subconsciously:

  • The more expensive envelope carries a signalling effect, that the other party is willing to invest more for an important issue

  • The portrait envelope is far less common than the normal landscape envelopes and letters we (still) receive, which catches our attention more


Read more about:

- What affects human behaviour? 

- The subconscious human brain

- We want to make decisions quickly rather than accurately

- Do I buy something because it is easier to buy?

- What is most effective in encouraging people to reuse their hotel towels?

- Why we are willing to donate to the one but not the many?

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