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The psychology behind the decline in giving and what you can do about it

It’s no secret that the number of people in Canada who give has been declining since 1990. This means charities and nonprofits have had to rely on a decreasing pool of donors for their fundraising and operational needs. But, the bigger question is why are fewer people donating than ever before and what can we do about it?

As a former psychology major, I wondered if any social psychology theories could help explain this phenomenon. During my research, I realized that my intuition was right. So, here are three social psychology theories that may point to why Canadians are donating less:

Social loafing

Have you ever been assigned a group project and noticed that some of your group members put in less effort than other group members? This is known as social loafing: the tendency for people to put in less effort because they are aware that there are more people to contribute to the same project or goal.

Now, imagine you send out a generic email asking for a donation. One of your potential donors receives the email and realizes that it was sent to numerous people. Based on the email content, there doesn’t seem to be much urgency to donate. So, your donor decides not to donate because “someone else will” eventually. This is social loafing in action.

What you can do about it

When you request a donation, it’s important to clearly articulate the donation’s impact (that every penny counts) and your financial need. Let your donors know that donations are low. Your donors may be more willing to help if they know how and why their contribution will make a difference.

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort when you realize there’s an inconsistency between your attitudes and/or behaviours. So, you rationalize the attitude or behaviour to make yourself feel better.

For example, say someone donated once because they believe in your cause, but they decide against donating again and become uncomfortable. So, they justify their decision to make themselves feel better through objections like, “I needed the money more” or “my small donation won’t make much of difference.”

What you can do about it

Again, communicating the impact and value of a donation may motivate your donor to take action. But, consider taking it one step further by putting yourself in your donor’s shoes; tell your donor your organization understands not everyone can contribute monetarily. And instead, offer alternatives to cash donations such as volunteering or in-kind donations. Your donor may be more likely to give if they feel understood.

Social exchange theory

Social exchange theory is how we evaluate our relationships based on its costs and benefits, what we think we deserve, and whether there are better alternatives.

For example, if a friend doesn’t return your texts or calls, or cancels plans more frequently, we may wonder whether the friendship is worth our time. And if the costs outweigh what we put into the friendship, we will be more likely to end it. And it’s no different for your donors who will evaluate whether their social exchange (i.e., their donations, volunteer time, etc.) is reciprocated by your organization.

What you can do about it

Do you have a donor retention strategy? If not, now is the time to build one. And if you already have one, think of new or more ways you can thank your donors. For example, share your successful volunteer stories or your mission success stories that tell your donors how they helped to make a difference.

And when you ask for another donation, don’t start with big requests like legacy giving or large sums. Instead, build trust through the foot-in-the-door technique by asking for something small. As a result, your donor will be more likely to consider the big ask later on.

Are you looking for more funding ideas or resources? We can help!

Adrienne Vansevenandt

Volunteer Alberta

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