How to win the fundraising race

Published with Andrea Dinneen and Claire Lefevre

From June to August, a group of seven researchers and designers are working with Common Cents Lab, a nonprofit focused on improving the financial well-being of low to middle income Americans using insights from behavioral science. We’ll be posting thoughts from our immersion into behavioral science.

We’ve entered the last hundred days before the general election. Following the two conventions, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in a crunch to secure the support of the nation. Sure, they want to see lawn signs, windshield stickers, and Facebook shares — but most of all, they want to increase donations.

Since most of us don’t make political donations every day, our sense of an appropriate donation amount is likely highly malleable. As such, we are susceptible to the behavioral principle of ‘anchoring’ — the idea that we are unduly influenced by the first pieces of information we are presented with. Kahneman and Tversky’s 1974 study on judgment under uncertainty provides a classic demonstration of this effect: Participants spun a roulette wheel that randomly landed either on 10 or 65 and were then asked what percentage of African countries they thought were part of the UN. Those anchored on 10 guessed 25%; those anchored on 65 estimated 45%.

With this in mind, we took a look at the way Clinton and Trump’s donation solicitations are anchoring our donation behavior.

Initial call to action

“Contribute” is the clear call to action on Trump’s home page; Clinton’s home page is busier and does not communicate an urgency around donations.

While both home pages feature red donation buttons in the upper right, Trump’s (bigger) red button anchors potential donors on $150. Given that studies have shown us that even completely arbitrary anchors (like your social security number) have a powerful effect on our frame of reference, there is reasonable cause to believe that the $150 anchor may increase their donation size. Visually, Donald Trump’s website sends a clearer message about the desired user behavior: the green and red buttons draw attention with a consistent call to “contribute.”

Suggested donation amount

The biggest question when making a donation is how much to give. Luckily, the candidates have some suggestions for you.

Clinton’s suggested amounts range from $3-$250; Trump’s minimum is more than triple at $10, and his maximum of $2,700 — the legal limit — is over 10 times Clinton’s.

Consistent with principles of anchoring, research on suggested donation amounts for charitable giving has found that increasing the maximum suggested donation has a positive impact on average donation size. Therefore, Trump’s maximum of $2,700 — the legal limit for an individual donation and over ten times Clinton’s $250 — may well be increasing average donation size. While we don’t have the data to check this assumption, we do know that the Trump campaign has seen a big bump in small donations in the last month.

The minimum amount is a little trickier: While setting the low end too low can reduce donation amounts by anchoring people to a low value, there is a threshold over which a minimum amount is perceived as too high and results in lower donation rates. On this measure, Clinton could be lowering average donations by including a $3 option, but Trump’s minimum of $10 does not seem offensively high.

Make it a habit

Last but not least, both candidates provide donors the option to make their donation recurring. On Trump’s site, this opportunity is presented in the first step, when you are choosing your donation amount.

Clinton’s site fails to effectively encourage repeat donations by hiding the option on a screen where the user is busy entering credit card information and employment status. If you do choose to make it recurring, you can make it weekly or monthly, but it is too late to adjust the amount.

That said, we think the very framing of the option as ‘recurring’ may simply be ineffective. ‘Recurring’ suggests a long-term commitment when the reality is that there are only a few months left. Highlighting the relatively short time voters have left to show their support might be more impactful. After all, regardless of what happens on election day, this is a historic campaign and there isn’t much time left to be a part of it.