An ode to the mostly filled thermometer

When was the last time you saw an analog, mercury-based thermometer?  Chances are, it was in a fundraising campaign, indicating how close you were to goal.  Even as thermometers go digital, their ancestors are honored through skeuomorphism* to symbolize progress.

But we come here not to bury the fundraising thermometer, but to praise it.

Specifically, we want to praise how the fundraising thermometer, or a specific state of it, can make people more likely to donate.


Cryder, Loewenstein, and Seltman took a look at how the amount toward goal already raised impacts a person’s likelihood of giving here.

They call it the goal gradient hypothesis: they think that people will be more likely to donate the closer a campaign is to goal.

So they tested this with Kiva, the microlending site that you may remember from such hits as “does being more attractive increase your chances of getting funded on Kiva”?  (Yes, it does.)

They found that when an individual fundraising goal was 0-33% complete, the average hourly progress toward goal was 6.7%.  When it was 33-66% complete, progress was 10.8% per hour; for the final third, it was 12.8% per hour.

So, having the thermometer partial full helped increase fundraising efforts.  This would tend to make sense, since the thermometer is a measure of social proof, a potent persuader.  (It’s the same reason that servers will seed a tip jar with larger denomination bills — it helps set the pressure and the anchor)

Hey, I can hear you yawning.  Yes, I know you aren’t going to be going on Kiva tomorrow.  But we’re just warming up.  The researchers then worked with a nonprofit to mail lapsed donors.  They had three separate goals that they were trying to reach and mentioned that one was 10% complete, a second was 66% complete, and the third was 80% complete.  They also had control conditions where no progress was mentioned.

Sure enough, the 10% and 66% conditions were not significantly different from the no progress control.  However, the 85%-to-goal piece significantly increased response rate (from .5% in the control to 1.17% in the 85%-to-goal version).

They even tested the “why” of this with donor surveys.  They asked people if they would be more likely to buy candy bars from a 7th grade fundraiser if the fundraiser was two bars short of goal or 32 bars short.  Two-bars-left won handily.  Additionally, the donors who chose the two bars indicated they felt like they were having a bigger impact and were more satisfied with their donation.

So, since not everyone can be the donation that pushes you over the finish line, how can you use this?

One tactic is to have a silent period of a campaign.  For online year-end giving, I’ve worked with organizations that will set their goal and their thermometer based on what it will take to hit goal starting from November 1, but only announce the goal and the effort on Giving Tuesday.  That way, their thermometer is at least 20% full when the first donor hits the form.

Another is to ask internal audiences (especially board members) to make the first gifts.  Showing them this research may help them feel like their gift is making a difference by getting others to give more freely.

Finally, you can define down your goal.  The 85%-to-goal condition mentioned above was based on being 85% toward buying a GPS unit for an international relief organization.  This is not a high-ticket item.  By setting the goal low, they were able to talk about 85% complete easily.  This type of microcampaign, repeated writ large, can help illustrate impact for your donors.

So keep those thermometers more than half full and you should be on your way to filling it up the rest of the way.
* A design based on an older version of an item to help people understand the newfangled version.  It’s the reason that email programs look like folded envelopes and your video app probably features an old-school movie clapper.

Thanks to Tim Vandevall here for the thermometer image.

If you’d like more nonprofit direct marketing content like this, please subscribe to my free weekly newsletter. You’ll get all of my blog posts, plus special subscribers-only content.

An ode to the mostly filled thermometer

Please share your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s