Importance of the Ask

Many studies have shown that individuals give at higher rates when the donation is solicited compared to when it is not. The power of the ask can be a powerful tool for both researchers and practitioners: if the majority of donations occur in response to solicitations, then systematically improving the solicitation message could have a significant impact on fundraising.

One open question in the literature is what is the optimal frequency of solicitations? Given the importance of the ask, sending too many solicitations can cause "donor fatigue" and decrease donations. There is no clear answer as to when donor fatigue occurs, as it is specific to both the context and individual donor characteristics.

Study 1 – La Rabida Children’s Hospital and the East Carolina Hazard Center (ECU) Fundraising

We usually assume that most people are altruistic – and if they are, they should be excited to be asked to give. But what if that’s not the case?

In 2012, researchers Stefano DellaVigna, John List, and Ulrike Malmendier conducted a study to see whether people have a tendency to avoid being asked to give. Stefano’s experiment focused on door-to-door fundraising campaigns in households surrounding the Chicago area.

The crucial aspect of this experimental design is to allow individuals to sort themselves into treatment categories: they could either seek or avoid the solicitor. In the first treatment, a flyer on the doorknob notifies individuals in advance about the one-hour time interval in which a solicitor will arrive at their homes the next day. In the second treatment, the flyer also includes a box to be checked if the household does not want to be disturbed. Stefano and co-authors compared these two conditions to a baseline treatment, in which solicitors approach households in the usual manner without a flyer.

The researchers found that the flyer reduced the share of households that opened the door by 9-25%. If the flyer allowed households to check a Do Not Disturb box, the donations were reduced by 28-42%. Of those who donated in the Do Not Disturb treatment, donations tended to be less than $10.

These findings suggest that social pressure is an important determinant of door-to-door giving. The difference in donation reductions between the opt-out, Do Not Disturb, treatment and the simple flyer treatment demonstrate that social pressure motivates giving for some donors. When the cost of avoiding the solicitor is lowered (a simple check on a box suffices), giving due to social pressure decreases. This interpretation is consistent with the observation that donations decreased almost exclusively among small donors, who are more likely to give due to social pressure. The social pressure interpretation also explains the low donation amounts typically received by fundraisers via mail or the internet where the cost of opting out is lower.

Stefano DellaVigna, John List, and Ulrike Malmendier, 2012. “Testing for altruism and social pressure in charitable giving,” Quarterly Journal of Economics

Study 2 –Salvation Army's annual fundraising campaign

A challenge of the asking method is that while it may increase the amount fundraised it can also decrease donor well-being. In another field experiment conducted in 2012, researchers James Andreoni, Justin Rao, and Hannah Trachtman found that people may avoid solicitors in a public fundraising campaign setting.

The study involved the Salvation Army's annual fundraising campaign. During the Christmas season, volunteers for the Salvation Army stand at entrances to stores and shopping malls, ringing a bell and seeking donations. Partnering with the Salvation Army, Jim established two conditions in which the solicitors either verbally asked for donations by saying “please give today” with eye contact, or remained silent and avoided eye contact.

Jim found that shoppers did little to avoid the bell ringers who did not verbally engage or make eye contact with them. Furthermore, only a small fraction of shoppers walked a few paces out of their way in order to donate to the solicitor. In contrast, the simple act of looking at shoppers and saying “please give today” caused over 30% of shoppers to change their route and avoid the solicitors’ ask. Interestingly, the power of asking still proved effective even with shoppers avoiding the solicitors: asking increased donations by 75% and increased the average donation per donor by 65% relative to donations accrued by silent solicitors. The behavior observed in this experiment shows that altruism is driven by many proximate social cues and psychological factors. Jim and co-authors argue that avoidance likely illustrates givers' sophisticated awareness of the empathy-altruism link, rather than pernicious social costs of fundraising. By stimulating the shoppers’ empathy through a direct and vocal ask, solicitors can create an impulse to be generous that is difficult for humans to resist.

James Andreoni, Justin Rao and Hannah Trachtman, 2012. “Avoiding The Ask: A Field Experiment on Altruism, Empathy, and Charitable Giving”

Practical Takeaways


  1. The power of the ask in fundraising has been effectively demonstrated in experimental studies. Asking not only increases the probability of donating, but also the amount that people donate.
  2. However, studies also show that solicitors should be cautious about how to structure and implement the ask. By increasing the social pressure to donate, solicitors will also see an increased avoidance rate in their target donor pool.


Contact us if you are interested in partnering on a research project utilizing asking techniques at your organization.

We thank Charis Li, Research Assistant at The University of Wisconsin-Madison for her contribution to this article.