Mental accounting and nonprofit giving

Back in March, we looked at how people have different mental buckets for their expenses.  Certain amounts are set aside for home expenses, car expenses, utilities, entertainment, education, etc.  And there’s a bucket for many for charitable giving.  We talked about this in the context that you can (sometimes) get someone to make a gift they wouldn’t normally make by framing it as an exceptional expense — something they wouldn’t normally budget for.

Since then, there’s been a more in-depth look at mental accounting in nonprofit giving.  Monica LaBarge and Jeffrey Stinson published an article called “The Role of Mental Budgeting in Philanthropic Decision-Making,” as well as doing a podcast about it that you can listen to here.

Some key highlights from how people mentally account for their donations:

  • Generally, people substitute one charitable act for another, not for a non-charitable act.  That is, people substitute sports for movies or church giving for alma mater giving, but they don’t generally substitute movies for church giving.
  • The amount allocated to charitable giving is usually at about 10%.  It’s interesting to hear this, as this is the amount often suggested by religious institutions as the amount to give to them; generally, however, it seems to be a rule of thumb for charitable giving.  Even non-religious givers centered around 10%.
  • Interestingly, tickets to galas and events can be considered charitable gifts or in other buckets.  One donor to whom the researchers spoke talked about how buying a table for a gala was a business expense because that was his goal in sponsoring.  In the next breath, he talked about giving to an organization through a ticket purchase because he knew the person being honored.  Thus, it’s important to understand how the giver classifies their giving to you.  You may be able to take multiple buckets to maximize your giving.
  • The happier people are with their giving to you, the more they are able to give.  This sounds obvious, but when someone enjoys giving to you, they are willing to dip into other buckets (like entertainment) that may not normally be open to you.
  • You may be able to work with business people who support your organization to sponsor in ways that help their business, giving you access to their business budgets.  Focusing just on philanthropic giving caps your upside with your donors.

Much of this comes back to the dictum “know thy donor” — the more you know about how your donors think of you and their experiences with you, the better off you are.

Mental accounting and nonprofit giving

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