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Improving the Effectiveness of Fundraising Messages: The Impact of Charity Goal Attainment, Message Framing, and Evidence on Persuasion

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Abstract

This experimental study assessed the effectiveness of fundraising messages. Based on recent findings regarding the effects of message framing and evidence, effective fundraising messages should combine abstract, statistical information with a negative message frame and anecdotal evidence with a positive message frame. In addition, building on research into social dilemmas, it was hypothesized that information about charity goal attainment (e.g., the contributions of others) should increase donation intentions. The hypotheses were tested in a 2 (goal attainment: yes/no) x 2 (framing. positive/negative) x 2 (evidence: statistical/anecdotal) factorial design. Abstract information was more effective when combined with a negatively framed message, whereas anecdotal information was more effective when combined with a positive frame. In addition, donation intentions were higher for messages that addressed charity goal attainment issues.
Improving the Effectiveness of
Fundraising Messages: The Impact of
Charity Goal Attainment, Message
Framing, and Evidence on Persuasion
Enny Das, Peter Kerkhof & Joyce Kuiper
This experimental study assessed the effectiveness of fundraising messages. Based on recent
findings regarding the effects of message framing and evidence, effective fundraising
messages should combine abstract, statistical information with a negative message frame
and anecdotal evidence with a positive message frame. In addition, building on research
into social dilemmas, it was hypothesized that information about charity goal attainment
(e.g., the contributions of others) should increase donation intentions. The hypotheses were
tested in a 2 (goal attainment: yes/no)
!
2(framing:positive/negative)
!
2 (evidence:
statistical/anecdotal) factorial design. Abstract information was more effective when
combined with a negatively framed message, whereas anecdotal information was more
effective when combined with a positive frame. In addition, donation intentions were
higher for messages that addressed charity goal attainment issues.
Keywords: Char ity; Fundraising; Persuasion; Message Evidence; Message Framing;
Social Dilemma
Charity organizations are faced with considerable fundraising problems. There is little
doubt that most people feel the work of many charity organizations is important.
Nevertheless, several organizations have concerns about the current state of the
charity market. Charity fundraising has become much harder for several reasons.
Cuts in government expenditure have increased the need for private donations. At the
same time, the number of charity organizations has increased dramatically (Venable,
Enny Das is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Science at VU University Amsterdam.
Peter Kerkhof is also an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Science at VU University
Amsterdam. Joyce Kuiper is a master’s student in the Department of Communication Science at VU University
Amsterdam. Correspondence to: Enny Das, VU University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of
Communication Science, De Boelelaan 1081, 1081 HV Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Email: ehhj.das@fsw.vu.nl
ISSN 0090-9882 (print)/ISSN 1479-5752 (online) # 2008 National Communication Association
DOI: 10.1080/00909880801922854
Journal of Applied Communication Research
Vol. 36, No. 2, May 2008, pp. 161"175
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Rose, Bush, & Gilbert, 2005). Household spending has not kept up with this
increased need for private donations. Finally, charity organizations complain about
the lack of news coverage of ongoing issues and ‘‘unpopular’ problems in, for
example, third-world countries (e.g., ‘Charities, 2001).
This negative trend in the fundraising arena demonstrates the importance of
uncovering factors that contribute to the effectiveness of fundraising messages. Not
surprisingly, there have been several calls for more research into effective promotional
strategies (e.g., Bendapudi, Singh, & Bendapudi, 1996). Nevertheless, research into
the effectiveness of fundraising messages has remained scarce and scattered across
research domains. The present research proposes a persuasive framework that
integrates several lines of research from communication, consumer, and health
domains in order to improve the effectiveness of fundraising messages.
It is proposed that several message factors are critical in order to increase the
perceived value of a charity goal and raise donation intentions (Bendapudi et al.,
1996). First, the perceived value of a charity goal depends on message framing*that
is, the decision to focus on the positive consequences of donating or the negative
consequences of not donating*and on message ev idence, which can be presented in
an abstract, statistical way or in a more vivid and anecdotal manner. Second, in order
to raise donation intentions effectively, fundraising messages should also commu-
nicate the likelihood of attaining a charity goal. It is proposed that influencing the
likelihood of goal attainment is particularly important for fundraising messages,
because donors cannot directly monitor the impact of their donation. In the next
sections, we discuss recent findings regarding message evidence, framing, and goal
attainment and then present an experimental study.
Increasing the Perceived Value of a Charity Goal:
Message Evidence and Message Framing
Given the rapidly growing number of charities, a particularly challenging task faced
by charity organizations is to convey to the public that the charity cause is valid,
urgent, and serious enough to compete with other problems salient to the public.
One strategy for influencing the perceived value of a certain problem is to include
evidence (see Reynolds & Reynolds, 2002, for an overview). Message evidence can be
presented in numerous ways, such as by including statistical information, factual
statements, narrative reports, or testimonials. Thus, a charity organization may
demonstrate the urgency and importance of a charity goal by presenting the
following statistical evidence: ‘‘10,000 people will die of star vation if we do not
support them. A different strategy to reach the same goal may be to include a vivid
case history of just one possible victim: ‘This is Indra. She will die of starvation if we
do not support her.
It is undeniable that evidence enhances the effectiveness of persuasive messages
(Morman, 2000; Reynolds & Reynolds, 2002), partly because evidence may make
potential donors more knowledgeable (Morgan & Miller, 2002). However, the
question of which types of evidence are most persuasive appears to be unsolved.
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Some theorists have argued that vivid, narrative case histories are more compelling
than abstract, statistical information because they evoke stronger mental imagery,
reduce counterarguments, and have a stronger intuitive appeal (e.g., Green, 2006;
Green & Brock, 2000; Green, Brock, & Kaufman, 2004; Reinard, 1988; Rook, 1987).
Others have argued and found the opposite*that statistical evidence is more
persuasive than narratives (Allen & Preis, 1997; Baesler & Burgoon, 1994). Still others
have proposed that the relative efficacy of evidence types may be moderated by
receiver characteristics such as judgmental orientation (e.g ., Dennis & Babrow, 2005)
and value-congruence (Slater & Rouner, 1996).
Within the context of fundraising, only a few studies have assessed the effectiveness
of message evidence. One study found that adding images to make the evidence more
vivid enhanced persuasion, thus indicating a positive effect of vividness (Burt &
Strongman, 2004). A study in the health domain examined the effects of narrative
versus statistical evidence on cognitive and emotional reactions to organ donation
messages (Kopfman, Smith, Ah Yun, & Hodges, 1998). Cognitive reactions were
affected more strongly by statistical evidence, whereas emotional reactions were
affected more strongly by narrative evidence. These findings suggest that anecdotal
evidence enhances heuristic processing (Chaiken, Liberman, & Eagly, 1989), whereby
persuasion is the result of mental shortcuts. In contrast, statistical evidence may be
more likely to promote systematic processing, whereby individuals carefully elaborate
on the content of a charity message.
The second persuasive strategy important to the communication of the value of a
charity fundraising goal is message framing. Broadly, a message can be framed in
either negative or positive terms, otherwise known as loss versus gain frames (e.g.,
Detweiler, Bedell, Salovey, Pronin, & Rothman, 1999; Rimer & Kreuter, 2006;
Rothman, Bartels, Wlaschin, & Salovey, 2006). An example of a negatively framed
fundraising message is: ‘10,000 people will die of starvation if we do not support
them. A positive frame would describe the same facts as: ‘10,000 people can be saved
from starvation with our suppor t.’’ As with the literature on the use of vivid versus
statistical evidence, the empirical evidence for the effectiveness of positive versus
negative frames is mixed. Some studies suggest that positive frames are more
persuasive than negative ones (Levin & Gaeth, 1988), while other studies suggest the
opposite (Ahluwalia, Burnkrant, & Unnava, 2000; Davis, 1995; Herr, Kardes, & Kim,
1991). Various theorists have suggested that the effectiveness of positive and negative
frames depends on processing motivation and capacity on the part of the receiver.
Most of these studies report that negative framing is more effective under high
processing motivation (Block & Keller, 1995; Maheswaran & Meyers-Levy, 1990;
Rothman, Salovey, Antone, Keough, & Martin, 1993), especially when the
opportunity to process is unconstrained (Shiv, Britton, & Payne, 2004).
The combination of low motivation with high opportunity to process is typical of
the situation in which most charities find themselves. Given the numerous charities
that try to capture the public’s attention, the base rate of motivation to process a
fundraising message will be low. Althoug h there are charitable goals that capture
everyone’s attention, most charities promote goals that are not as salient as, for
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example, a devastating tsunami hitting a major tourist resort. On the other hand, the
opportunity to process information about charities and their causes is not highly
constrained: the fact that most people do not think about charities too much is
likely to be the result of choice rather than opportunity. Thus, in the case of charity
fundraising, positive frames may generally exert a positive effect on persuasion.
However, the effectiveness of message framing is likely to be contingent upon
another message factor*evidence. As argued above, abstract, statistical evidence
enhances elaborate message processing, compared with anecdotal evidence (Kopfman
et al., 1998). Accordingly, message framing and message evidence are likely to exert
interactive effects on message processing and persuasion. Specifically, statistical
evidence will enhance elaborate processing and increase the effectiveness of negatively
framed fundraising messages. Conversely, anecdotal evidence will decrease message
processing and enhance the effectiveness of positively framed fundraising messages.
This leads us to our first hypothesis:
H1: The effects of message framing on the perceived value of a charity goal will be
moderated by the type of message evidence. When the evidence presented is
statistical, negative framing of a charity’s cause will be more persuasive than
positive framing. When the evidence presented is narrative, positive framing
of a charity’s cause will be more persuasive than negative framing.
Motivating Helping Behavior: Communicating the Likelihood of Goal Attainment
Thus far, it has been argued that message evidence and framing may increase the
perceived value of a charity goal and, accordingly, positively affect persuasion.
However, communicating the value of a charity goal may be a necessary, but not
sufficient, factor in increasing donation intentions to charity. Specifically, to motivate
the public to donate money, effective fundraising messages need to address the
likelihood that the charity goal can be attained. Importantly, charity goals bear
considerable resemblance to a social dilemma. In a social dilemma, an individual is
typically faced with the choice between self-interest and the interest of the collective.
Potential donors to charity organizations are faced with a similar problem.
Consider the classical parable of the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968). A
number of herdsmen graze their herds on a common pasturage*the commons.
Each individual herdsman will profit from adding more animals to his herd because
this will improve his individual profit while the costs of grazing the animal (e.g., the
damage done to the commons) will be shared by all. Adding more animals to his herd
thus appears the most rational thing to do for all individual herdsmen involved.
However, if all herdsmen decide to do just that, this will lead to the collapse of the
commons: the commons will be overgrazed; the animals will not be able to eat; and
the herdsmen will be ruined. The tragedy of the commons is an example of a social
trap, in which behaviors that are gratifying for the individual in the short term imply
long-term punishments for the collective. A social fence exists when the short-term
aversive consequences of an act keep us from performing this act, even though it
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would entail long-term benefits for the collective (Messick & Brewer, 1983). Thus, in
the case of a social fence, the short-term rational choice is to do nothing rather than
to do something.
Donating to charity has characteristics similar to those of a social fence. Keeping
your money to yourself instead of giving it to charity seems like a rational thing to do.
Moreover, if all the people who have seen a certain fundraising message, for example
to help the victims of a sea-quake, decide to choose the cooperative option of
donating money, then not much is lost if one person decides to keep his money in his
pocket or spend it on a new CD. However, if all people make this rational, individual
choice, nobody will donate money, and the victims will be lost. Of course, charity
goals cannot literally be defined as a social fence because a collective goal in some
faraway country hardly ever has a negative impact on the donator personally.
Nevertheless, a common feature of charity goals and social fence dilemmas is that
they both depend on the goodwill of many contributors, not just a few, to solve a
problem. Thus, both problems are of a social nature and involve the behavior of
others.
When individuals are faced with a social dilemma, two factors are vital in the
decision to contribute to the solution of a social problem (Klandermans, 1992). The
first factor concerns the value the social problem has for that individual. For instance,
a person will not donate to an environmental organization like Greenpeace if he does
not really care about solving environmental problems. Second, as we have seen,
message evidence and framing can increase the perceived value of the problem
addressed by a charity*however, even if individuals feel that a charity goal is
extremely important, they are not likely to contribute unless they think that donating
to the charity goal should help solve the problem. Thus, expectations about the
likelihood that the charity goal can be attained constitute a second vital factor in
individual decision-making about social problems. Indeed, several studies have
shown that individual giving is driven by factors related to the instrumentality of
the gift. For example, Sargeant, West, and Ford (2004) show that active givers give
more when they perceive the charity organization to be effective. Frey and Meier
(2004) show that contributions to charity are more likely when there is evidence that
others contribute as well (so-called ‘conditional cooperation’; see also Fischbacher,
Ga¨chter, & Fehr, 2001).
To date, most empirical studies of charit y advertising have focused on the
perceived value of a social problem rather than on the likelihood of goal attainment.
This is surprising, given the importance of influencing goal attainment for charity
organizations. For instance, Smith and Berger (1996) propose that donors cannot
directly monitor the impact of their donation and, thus, have to trust charity
organizations to spend their money wisely. In the current study, we propose that
there are ways to influence expectations about goal attainment in a persuasive
message. Specifically, three expectations are vital to the decision to contribute:
expectations about the number of participants, about one’s own contribution to
the probability of success, and about the probability of success if many people
participate (Klandermans, 1984). Communication about the likelihood of goal
Effective Fundraising Messages 165
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attainment should be undertaken with care. If people believe that nobody else will
help solve a problem, they will be unlikely to donate money themselves because,
without the help of others, the problem can never be solved. Conversely, if a member
of the public thinks that many other donors are already contributing to solve a
problem, he is unlikely to donate because the chances are great that the problem will
be solved without his individual contribution. Fundraising messages should, thus,
underline the importance of each individual contribution for reaching a charity goal
and explicitly state that others are already contributing.
H2: Messages that contain information about the likelihood of goal attainment
will induce higher donation intentions than messages that do not contain
such information.
Method
Overview
This study manipulated message framing, ev idence, and goal attainment commu-
nication in a fundraising message for the Dutch Leprosy Foundation. It was
hypothesized that effective fundraising messages would influence the perceived value
of the charity goal and expectations that the goal can be attained. Specifically,
message framing (positive versus negative) and ev idence (statistical versus anecdotal)
were expected to have interactive effects on the perceived value of a charity goal. We
further hypothesized that, in order to raise donation intentions, fundraising messages
should include explicit information about the likelihood that a fundraising goal can
be reached. Thus, explicit referral to goal attainment issues (present versus absent)
was expected to exert a direct effect on donation intentions.
Design and Participants
The hypotheses were tested in a 2 (goal attainment: yes/no)!2 (evidence: anecdotal/
statistical)!2 (framing: positive/negative) between-subjects factorial design; 160
participants took part in the research, of which 71 were male and 89 were female. The
mean age was 32. Two participants were removed from the analyses because of
outlying values on the dependent measures (SD!3).
Procedure
Passersby in the vicinity of the university campus of a large city were asked if they
were willing to participate in a survey about the work of the Leprosy Foundation.
Upon agreeing, participants were asked to read one of eight fundraising messages for
the Leprosy Foundation that varied in terms of evidence, framing, and goal
attainment. Other message factors, such as content and length, were held constant
across messages.
The statistical evidence messages focused on information about the number of
leprosy patients. For example:
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Every minute a patient with leprosy is detected. This makes for a total of 600,000
patients a year, 10 to 20% of which are children. The leprosy bacteria can harm
nervous tissue, often resulting in serious consequences. Because the skin becomes
insensitive, wounds remain undetected and therefore become infections that cause
disability. Damage to the nerves, muscle paralysis, damage to the eyes and blindness
can be the result.
The anecdotal evidence messages told the story of one young leprosy patient:
Jit suffers from leprosy. This contagious disease will impair his nervous system.
This may lead to numbness of his skin, the inability to feel wounds underneath his
feet, and serious infections that may cause disability. In addition, Jit fears muscle
paralysis that may damage his eyes.
Messages with a negative frame focused on the negative consequences of not
donating money. For example: ‘When patients are not treated quickly, all these
horrible consequences may become reality ... Messages with a positive frame
focused on the positive consequences of donating money. For example: ‘With an
intensive medicine treatment, leprosy can be cured; a timely treatment can prevent
the horrible consequences of leprosy from occurring.’’
Communication about the attainment of the charity goal was varied, and explicitly
addressed goal attainment expectations (cf. Klandermans, 1984). Expectations about
the number of participants already contributing to the probability of success were
addressed as follows: Thanks to our 165,000 supporters, 150,000 patients are
detected and treated each year. Expectations about each individual donor
contributing to the probability of success were addressed by demonstrating that
one single donation can make a difference:
Of course a lot of money is needed to continue all projects. It only takes 50 Euros
[approximately 70 USD] to detect, treat and rehabilitate one patient. For the even
smaller amount of 15 Euros [approximately 20 USD] a patient can be helped.
Half of the messages addressed goal attainment; the other half did not. After reading
the message, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire that contained our
dependent measures. Finally, participants were thanked, debriefed, and dismissed.
Measures
Participants responded to all items on five-point scales (e.g., 1#‘not at all’ to 5#
‘very much’’).
Manipulation checks. After completing the questionnaire, three items assessed
perceived message abstractness*that is, how abstract, vivid, and factual the message
was perceived to be (a#.68). Two items assessed the extent to which participants felt
the message was framed in a positive or negative way (e.g., ‘The text focuses on the
positive consequences of donating to the Leprosy Foundation’) (r#.59). Three items
assessed expectations about goal attainment (e.g., ‘‘My individual donation to the
Leprosy Foundation can directly help reach the foundations goals’’) (a#.66). Three
items assessed the extent to which participants thought that other people would
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contribute to the goal (e.g., ‘‘If I donate to the Leprosy Foundation, I will probably be
the only one’’) (reverse coded; a #.71).
Persuasion. Three constructs were included to assess the perceived value of a charity
goal. First, participants were asked to answer five statements regarding the perceived
relevance of the charity’s work (e.g., ‘Compared with the work of other charities that
come to mind, the work of the Leprosy Foundation is much less necessary/much
more necessary’’). Second, attitude towards the charity organization was assessed by
asking the participants to rate their attitude toward the Leprosy Foundation on six bi-
polar scales (e.g., bad"good, negative*positive) (a #.71). Third, attitude toward the
message was assessed by three items measuring how persuasive, informative, and
interesting the message was (a #.71).
Intention to donate. This was assessed by one item: ‘I am going to donate money to
the Leprosy Foundation this year’ (responses: 1#‘definitely not’ to 5#‘definitely
will’’).
Results
Manipulation Checks
A unifactor ANOVA on the perceived abstractness of the message revealed an effect
for message evidence ( F[1,158] #44.68, pB.001, h
p
2
#.22). Anecdotal evidence was
perceived to be more vivid and less abstract (M#3.26) than abstract evidence
(M#2.63). An effect of message framing was observed (F[1,158]#68.88, pB.001,
h
p
2
#.30): a positively framed message was perceived as more positive (M#3.41)
than a negatively framed message (M#2.18). Communication about goal attainment
significantly affected perceptions of goal attainment and the expectation that other
people would contribute to the goal (F[1,158]#26.67, pB.001, h
p
2
#.14 and
F[1,158]#188.80, pB.001, h
p
2
#.54, respectively). Messages that addressed goal
attainment positively affected perceptions that the charity goal could be reached
(M#3.09) and that others would contribute too (M#3.43), compared to messages
that did not (M#2.46 and M#2.34, respectively). Thus, all experimental
manipulations were successful.
Persuasion
A 2 (goal attainment)!2 (message framing)!2 (message evidence) MANOVA on
attitude towards the charity organization, attitude towards the message, and
perceived relevance of the charity’s work yielded a multivariate main effect of goal
attainment (F[3,150]#4.02, p#.014, h
p
2
#.09) and a marginally significant effect of
message evidence (F[3,150]#2.61, p#.053, h
p
2
#.05). Messages that addressed goal
attainment evoked more positive attitudes toward the message (M#2.66) than
messages that did not address goal attainment (M#2.30; F[1,152]#11.72, pB.001,
h
p
2
#.07). Attitude toward the message was also affected by message evidence:
participants reported more positive attitudes toward anecdotal messages (M#2.61)
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than toward abstract messages (M#2.35; F[1,152]#6.15, p#.014,
h
p
2
#.04).
The MANOVA also revealed the predicted multivariate message evidence!
message framing effect (F[4,149]#5.45, pB.001, h
p
2
#.10). The message
evidence!message framing interaction affected the perceived relevance of the
charity’s work (F[1,152]#14.53, p B.001, h
p
2
#.09). Simple effects analyses revealed
that, in the anecdotal evidence condition, the charity’s work was perceived as more
relevant when the message was framed positively (M #2.96) rather than negatively
(M#2.68; F[1,152]#9.03, p#.003, h
p
2
#.06). This effect was reversed in the
abstract evidence condition, where the charity’s work was perceived as more relevant
when the messaged was framed negatively (M#2.89) rather than positively (M#
2.67; F[1,152]#5.69, p#.018, h
p
2
#.04) (see Table 1). Thus, the perceived relevance
of the charity’s work is greater for messages that contain abstract evidence negatively
framed, or anecdotal evidence positively framed.
Next, to establish effects on the intention to donate and the mediating role of
attitude towards the charity organization, attitude towards the message, and
perceived relevance of the charity’s work, we conducted a series of regression
analyses. First, we regressed the intention to donate on goal attainment, message
framing, message evidence, and their interactions. Only goal attainment affected
intention to donate (b#.16, p#.048). Following Baron and Kenny (1986), we then
regressed intention to donate on the sole factor that constituted a potential
mediator*the attitude toward the message. Attitude toward the message affected
the intention to donate (b #.37, pB.001). In the last regression analysis, we
regressed intention to donate on goal attainment (Step 1) and then added attitude
toward the message (Step 2). In Step 2, the effect of goal attainment was reduced
(from b #.16, p#.048 to b #.07, p#.381). This reduction in the predictive power
of goal attainment was significant according to the Sobel test (z#2.69, p#.007; see
Preacher & Hayes, 2004).
In sum, the single factor to affect positively the intention to donate was the
presence of goal attainment information. This effect was mediated by attitude toward
the message. Attitudes toward the charity message, in turn, were affected by explicit
referral to goal attainment and by anecdotal (versus abstract) message evidence.
Table 1 Interactive Effects of Message Evidence and Message Framing on the Perceived
Relevance of the Charity’s Work
Message evidence
Message framing Abstract Anecdotal
Negative
M 2.89 2.68
SD 0.39 0.55
Positive
M 2.67 2.96
SD 0.44 0.23
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Finally, as predicted, the perceived relevance of the charity’s work (compared with the
work of other charities) increased as a result of either a positively framed and
anecdotal message, or a negatively framed and abstract message.
Discussion
This research tested the effects of message characteristics*framing, evidence, and
goal attainment*on attitudes and intentions to donate to charity. It was argued that,
in the current competitive charity market, charity organizations should not only
persuade the public of the value of a charity goal, but also actively target the public’s
motivation to donate money. Accordingly, it was hypothesized that message framing
and evidence would increase the perceived value of a charity goal, but would not be
sufficient factors in increasing donation intentions. Drawing upon the social dilemma
literature, we argued that effective fundraising messages should include information
about the likelihood of charity goal attainment*that is, about donations being spent
wisely.
As expected, message framing and evidence worked together in affecting the
perceived value of the charity goal. Overall, anecdotal evidence was somewhat more
effective than statistical evidence in persuading receivers that the charity addressed a
worthy cause. In particular, anecdotal evidence had a more pronounced effect on
attitudes toward the charity message. However, this effect of message evidence was
qualified by message framing. Importantly, our findings showed that, compared with
the work of other charities, the relevance of the present charity was perceived to be
higher when the message combined abstract, statistical evidence with a negative
frame, or anecdotal, vivid evidence with a positive frame. As hypothesized, explicit
reference to the likelihood of goal attainment was most effective in motivating the
public to help: information regarding goal attainment positively affected attitudes
toward the message which, in turn, increased donation intentions.
These findings have several theoretical and practical implications. First, the
findings underscore the value of the social dilemma literature to research and practice
on fundraising for charity (Klandermans, 1992; Messick & Brewer, 1983). In a social
dilemma, an individual is typically faced with the choice between self-interest and the
interest of the collective. Donations to charity have characteristics that are similar to a
specific social dilemma: a social fence. The short-term negative consequences of
donating money may keep individuals from performing this act even though it would
entail long-term benefits for the collective, in this case attaining a charity goal. Thus,
unlike most types of consumer behavior that are mainly rooted in individual
concerns, donations to charity are of a more social nature and involve the behavior of
others. Accordingly, effective charity fundraising messages should explicitly address
these social factors by referring to the behavior of others and the likelihood that a
charity goal can be attained.
To date, research into fundraising messages has focused mainly on convincing the
public that the charity strives for a worthy and important cause (e.g., Burt &
Strongman, 2004; Kopfman et al., 1998). The present findings suggest that such
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fundraising messages may influence perceptions of need but may not be enough to
motivate donors actually to start helping. Consider, for instance, a charity
organization that aims to help a country that is in a state of war*a war that has
cost the lives of thousands of people, and in which the government controls all
incoming resources. It is clear that a charity that helps the victims of war is serving a
valuable and worthy cause. However, no matter how horrendous this war is and how
many victims it has had, potential donors might worry that financial contributions to
help these victims will fail simply because the corrupt government of this country
might make it impossible to get the right resources to the people in need. Explicit
referrals that a problem can, indeed, be solved seem paramount in complex
fundraising situations like these.
A second theoretical contribution of the present findings concerns the interactive
effects of framing and evidence on persuasion. Specifically, we found that anecdotal
evidence is most persuasive when combined with a positive frame, and that statistical
evidence is most persuasive when combined with a negative frame. These findings
highlight the importance of a fit between message evidence and framing. This fit is
likely to be contingent upon the processing mode that the receiver is made to follow
and the frame that is subsequently used. Our findings suggest that the overall,
presumably low, motivation to process information about charities and their causes
should not be treated as a given: fundraising messages may affect motivation to
elaborate upon message arguments by presenting statistical evidence. This is
reminiscent of research into advertising: some advertising strategies, most notably
comparative advertising (Pechmann & Esteban, 1994), succeed in making consumers
switch to a more systematic mode of information processing. By contrast, anecdotal
evidence has been shown to elicit reliance on peripheral cues (Kopfman et al., 1998).
Accordingly, the mere valence of a positive frame may serve as a heuristic and increase
persuasion (Maheswaran & Meyers-Levy, 1990).
Limitations and Future Research
This study was concerned with one charity organization that has elicited little media
attention (the Leprosy Foundation). Of course, the media can play a crucial role in
affecting the public’s attitudes toward charity organizations. For example, bad press
coverage about how donations are spent may ruin a charity’s reputation and have a
dramatic impact on donation intentions. An interesting avenue for future research
may be to assess the role of attitudes toward a charity in the persuasion process more
explicitly, for example by first asking respondents to read a newspaper clipping with
either good or bad news about a charity organization.
Second, the present study did not include processing measures. Accordingly, the
assumptions regarding the effects of framing and evidence on information processing
remain untested. Also, our participants were college students, who may be more
susceptible to the elaboration-enhancing effect of statistical information. Replication
of the findings using another population and more direct assessment of message
elaboration, such as cognitive responses to fundraising messages, will undoubtedly
Effective Fundraising Messages 171
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add to the generalizability of the findings and to a better understanding of persuasion
in the context of fundraising. Finally, although in this study message evidence,
framing, and goal attainment were successfully manipulated, the reliability of some
manipulation checks was rather low. Future studies may benefit from including
additional checks of these message factors.
In any case, the present findings point to a fruitful alternative approach to studying
message factors. Many previous studies have focused on testing the effectiveness of
positive and negative frames, or statistical and anecdotal evidence separately, thus
focusing on main effects of message characteristics on persuasion (e.g., Allen & Preis,
1997; Block & Keller, 1995). Our findings suggest that a fruitful alternative may be to
study the joint effects of framing and evidence in a more systematic fashion. Perhaps
such an approach will also help solve the controversies that have plagued research in
this area for decades.
Practical Applications
Fundraising is not an easy task, particularly in a crowded market where charities have
to compete for public attention. Although there are several strategies for charities to use
to gain public attention and increase donations, this study specifically focused on the
features of a persuasive message that may help increase donations. To date, research
into the effectiveness of fundraising messages has remained scarce. Our findings
provide several important guidelines for designing effective fundraising messages.
First, a persuasive message should communicate the importance of a charity goal.
There are several ways to achieve this aim; however, not all strategies will work equally
well. Specifically, personalized stories about the ill fate of one individual victim (e.g ., a
tsunami victim) will work best when combined with a positive frame that focuses on
ways to help better this fate and explicitly mentions how this will help. Thus, tragic,
personalized stories may help increase the perceived value of a charity goal, provided
that they are combined with a positively framed solution. The reverse is true for
persuasive messages that use numbers and statistics to underline the importance of a
charity goal. Such messages are most persuasive when combined with a negative frame
that, for example, describes what will happen if the problem is not solved.
Second, and most important perhaps, the present findings show that framing and
evidence are likely to influence the perceived value of a social problem, but may not
succeed in increasing donation intentions. To raise funds, a persuasive message should
include information regarding the benefits of donating money. In general, charity
donors cannot directly monitor the impact of their donation and have to trust charity
organizations to spend their money wisely. It should, therefore, come as no surprise
that increasing expectations that individual donations are not spent in vain will be
likely to affect donation intentions positively. In this sense, individuals are most likely
to behave altruistically when there is evidence that there is benefit in doing so.
Importantly, raising expectations about the benefits of donating money should be
done with care. If the members of the public believe that nobody else will help solve a
problem, they are unlikely to donate money to a charity because, without the help of
172 E. Das et al.
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others, the problem can never be solved. Conversely, if people think that many other
donors are already contributing to solve a problem, they are unlikely to donate
because the chances are great that the problem will be solved without their individual
contribution. Fundraising messages should, thus, underline the importance of each
individual contribution for reaching a charity goal and explicitly state that others are
already contributing (Klandermans, 1992).
Concluding Remarks
Contrary to popular belief, donations to charity are not merely motivated by
altruism. Like many other human decisions, donations to good causes are subject to
economic laws and ruled by concerns regarding the behavior of others. Accordingly,
donations may vary as a function of the perceived effectiveness of a donation.
Charities that incorporate these concerns are likely to stand a better chance in the
fundraising competition.
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