With declining state support for public higher education, public institutions must attract more philanthropic support to sustain their operations. While gifts to colleges have risen over the decade, alumni participation in fundraising drives has remained flat – or fallen. These institutions may raise more funds by cultivating donations from a wider donor base. The literature suggests that donor interest is prompted by: (a) the social context in which solicitations are presented; (b) the incentives derived from gift-giving; and (c) the contractual obligations inherent in the gift contract. Seven distinct email appeals – and seven associated websites – were designed to compare the impact of social context, incentives, and contractual stipulations on donor interest in an online giving campaign launched by a public college in New York State. The sample consisted of 17,500 people drawn randomly from a population of 50,000 alumni “non-donors.” Participants were assigned randomly to seven distinct experimental groups of equal size. Each group was exposed to a different appeal and directed to make a gift on an associated website. (Appeals were identical except for the value proposition presented in each one. The websites were identical except for key differences, such as the presence or absence of crowdfunding capabilities). vii Chi-squared analyses of click-through rates were employed to compare the performance of each appeal. Results showed that designs emphasizing economic incentives were preferred to appeals that employed altruistic messaging. Other factors thought to influence donative behavior – such as assurances and social approbation – were found to have little or no impact on the philanthropic interest of alumni identified as “non-donors”.
Greaves, Christopher, “Alumni Giving: Incentives and Group Behavior” (2015). Education Doctoral. Paper 234.