What’s the best way to get people to donate money or time to your cause?

It depends on whether you’re going for more donors or for bigger donations, according to Sungkyunkwan University of South Korea’s Minjung Koo, Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach, and Yonsei University’s Hye Kyung Park.

If the goal is to elicit broader participation, requests for people to “express support” or “show that you care” will be more effective, the researchers find in a series of five experiments. To generate bigger contributions, it’s better to frame a request in terms of making a difference, the research suggests.

Understanding what really works in fundraising is a make-or-break issue for the many charities around the world, especially given the volume of appeals that jam mailboxes. In 2019, US organizations backing educational, health-related, environmental, and other causes got Americans to cough up $450 billion, according to the researchers. The high stakes have inspired decades of research into what makes people give, they say, and that research has teased apart various motivations, including whether people give for selfish or selfless reasons—or, in this case, whether they give to signal their commitment to a cause or to make progress toward a goal.

In their experiments, they find that an appeal to “express support” made participants feel that a cause was important and they should contribute, even if only a small amount. An appeal to “make a difference” tapped into participants’ motivation to advance a goal, thereby getting them to make a bigger donation.

In one experiment, the researchers partnered with a large US university to design its annual fundraising campaign. Working with the campaign office, they created two versions of the solicitation letter, which asked alumni to either “express support” or “make a difference” for their school. More alumni who received “express support” letters donated, but those who got “make a difference” letters gave more money. On average, donors in the “make a difference” group contributed $371, while “express support” donors sent $249.

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The same pattern held in two studies at universities in South Korea when people were asked to donate either time or money for children in need—more of those asked to “express support” chose to donate, while those asked to “make a difference” gave more time or money.

Importantly, comparisons with neutral messages did not uncover evidence that “expressing support” campaigns suppressed how much people donated nor that “making a difference” letters reduced the number of people who chose to donate—only that an emphasis on the former increased the number of donors and an emphasis on the latter increased the average donation.

The research suggests that charities should think carefully about their messaging when soliciting donations. An organization that wants to increase its reach can use a message to “express support,” while an organization wanting to increase how much donors give can ask people to “make a difference.”

Why not do both? The researchers didn’t test this approach but caution against trying it. Citing several previous studies, they hypothesize that offering both messages could dilute each, potentially rendering both less effective.

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