Tougher Events Yield Bigger Donations: Princeton Study

The Latest Academic Research on Events Fundraising
Reported by Michal Ann Strahilevitz

Research from Princeton University suggests that the prospect of pain and effort in a fundraising event increases the magnitude of charitable donations!

The latest research out of Princeton University, has interesting implications for how we design charity fundraisers. It helps explain why people are driven to participate in fundraising activities that involve a good deal of discomfort rather than engaging in easy and enjoyable events (e.g., picnics) to raise money.

Psychologists Christopher Olivola and Eldar Shafir conducted a series of experiments to examine what types of fundraisers would lead to larger donations, and their findings suggests that painful and effortful fundraising events yield larger donations than pleasant ones. Indeed, their research participants donated more to a charitable cause when the contribution process was painful and effortful than when it was neutral or even enjoyable.

Additional studies they carried out demonstrated that this increase in charitable giving was not due to participants preferring painful-effortful donation activities or to their beliefs about the relative popularity of painful-effortful events (such as marathons) vs. pleasant ones (such as picnics).

Olivola and Shafir call their finding that effort and pain increase donation size the "martyrdom effect”, and they tell me that they believe that this “martyrdom effect” occurs because people anticipate feeling more engaged when they have to work and suffer for a cause (e.g., by running or biking long distances). As a result of feeling more engaged by intense and demanding activities, participants may perceive their participation and donations to be more meaningful.

What does this mean for fundraisers? There is a paradox here. Although we all know that you can target a larger number of participants with “easier” events (such as walks and short distance bike rides), the results of Olivola and Shafir’s research suggest that the average donation size will increase with tougher and more demanding events.

Currently, Olivola and Shafir are extending their research in many directions. For example, they are trying to determine whether painful-effortful fundraisers will yield larger donations for all charities, or whether this depends on the specific nature of the cause that donations are being raised for.

They have expressed a strong desire to work directly with nonprofits and fundraisers to carry out research and to exchange knowledge, information, and ideas. Charities, nonprofits, and fundraising companies interested in collaborating with these researchers are invited to contact Christopher Olivola directly at [email protected].

Michal Strahilevitz is a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University. Chirstopher Olivola is a doctoral student and researcher at Princeton University. Edlar Shafir is a professor of psychology at Princeton University.