Ogilvychange’s Renee Jaine on how not-for-profits can benefit from behavioural science

The country’s first Nudge Workshop for the non-profit sector was held last week in Wellington.

This collaborative event pulled together by Volunteering New Zealand, Volunteer Wellington and the behaviour-change consultancy #ogilvychange was attended by more than 40 attendees from some of New Zealand’s largest charities and NGOs, who heard how they could more effectively ‘nudge’ people into action, by introducing behavioural science insights into campaign strategies, communications and processes.

The timing of the workshop reflects growing interest in the field of behavioural science – as government agencies, corporates and non-profits all seek to better understand real-world behaviour, and the factors that influence how we choose.

So what did the Nudge Workshop attendees learn? How can non-profits nudge? 

Here are five key insights. 

1) Make contributions feel concrete

The insight: As a species, us humans really dislike uncertainty. It’s why the insurance industry exists – because even if a risk is very small, we want to know we are protected from it. Peace of mind is a valuable commodity.

The application: When we consider donating to charity, we want to be certain that our hard-earned cash is doing good. 

It’s one of the insights behind the hugely successful ‘Oxfam unwrapped’ campaign, which allows people to buy specific, concrete gifts for those in less developed countries. Because whether you’re purchasing a pair of chickens for $15, safe water for $45, or three little pigs for $111, it’s comforting to know exactly where your money is going.

Of course, it’s not always feasible to tell people precisely where their funds will be funneled. But if non-profits can outline how far a dollar goes, then givers may be motivated to give a little more. 

2) Leverage the endowment effect

The insight: When we feel that something is ‘ours’, we tend to value it more highly – a phenomenon known as the endowment effect. We also tend to be loss averse – with losses packing about twice the emotional ‘punch’ as equivalent gains. Taken together, this means we particularly dislike losing things that we feel we own. 

The application: These feelings can be tapped into, for the greater good. This was the case in the UK, where Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) was able to encourage tardy taxpayers into payment, by reminding people that without their contribution, some local services might be lost. (This was more effective than the threat of legal action.)

In a similar vein, the endowment effect could be powerful for NGOs providing a service that we’re all accustomed to receiving. Case in point – most of us expect the St Johns ambulance service to come to our aid, in the event of an emergency. But if we were reminded that we might lose the service unless it receives sufficient funding – we’d be triggered into action.

3) Use a spokesperson – not statistics 

The insight: Our brains are wired to respond to stories of people in need – much more than to statistics that highlight the extent of the problem. In fact, experimental studies have shown that adding statistics into stories of human suffering can cause donors to give less money overall. As academic Paul Slovic puts it, “the more people affected, the less we care”.

The application: To avoid this ‘psychic numbing’, non-profits should organise campaigns around a recognisable spokesperson and human stories. Of course, this is something that the most effective organisations already do. Think John Kirwan for the Like Minds campaign, or World Vision’s invitation to sponsor a specific child. But knowing that statistics actually diminish the giving response should give non-profits pause for thought.

4) Sweat the small stuff

The insight: Behavioural scientists know that we prioritise our short-term comfort over our long-term wellbeing, and we often opt for the path of least resistance. As such, even small barriers can stop us from taking action that we actually want to take. But the positive flip-side is that by removing seemingly small barriers, it’s possible to nudge people into action.   

The application: In the realm of education, a US study found that students from low-income families were 40 percent more likely to apply for financial aid to attend college, when parts of the application form were pre-populated, and when they received an average of eight minutes’ assistance to fill in the forms. (The students were also significantly more likely to enroll for college and still be there after two years.)

If you work in the non-profit sector, it’s worth taking a second look at your public-facing processes, to ensure these are as painless as possible. Whether you are enlisting volunteers or encouraging people to access a service – don’t ask non-mandatory questions, chunk up the process into simple steps, and make the calls to action very clear along the way.

5) Work with human quirks

The insight: One of the over-arching themes from behavioural science is that our choices are influenced by the context in which we choose. So by introducing subtle cues into people’s decision-making context, non-profits can ‘nudge’ people in particular directions.

The application: In a fascinating recent study, people were first asked to touch either rough or smooth surfaces whilst looking at emotive images, and then asked whether they’d be willing to donate to various charities. People who had touched the rough surfaces subsequently displayed more empathy, and more willingness to donate money to a small charity – perhaps because they had recently experienced ‘rough’ conditions – albeit in a minor way. The researchers suggested that charities try using rough-textured envelopes during their donation appeals in future. 

This is a left-field finding, for sure. But it’s the kind of quirky, science-backed intervention that just might get our attention – and help non-profits as they appeal to our better nature.  

  • Renee Jaine is a business director at #ogilvychange and a behavioural change specialist.

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