Donation Alchemy

One fertile area for creativity (and anything new is creativity says John Cleese) is in the area between zero and some. It’s in these places where something moves from free to costing that behaviors change. Oh, and it doesn’t have to be an actual cost. Mental accounting works too.

There’s a concept in charitable giving called overhead aversion.

“We know that donations tend to decrease when overheads increase. That makes sense. People want to feel confident they are having a tangible impact. Interestingly, this only applies when donors have to pay for the overhead themselves. In one study when donors are informed that an initial major donor has covered the overhead, donors are more likely to take an overhead free donation option than opt for a 1:1 matching scheme — even though the matching scheme will yield more for the charity.” – Maddie Croucher

This felt right. My reaction was, well if they muck up the overhead at least I know my money was well spent. This isn’t logical, but I’m not sure it is wrong. At my daughter’s school they collect canned food for a local food pantry. There’s a celebration for the class with the largest mound outside its classroom door.

Now, it would ‘do more’ to donate cash, rather than send food of unknown cost, calories, and willingness to eat, and again I’m not sure it’s wrong. It feels good to know my money was well spent and that the food we bought won’t go to waste.

This school’s canned food drive might be partially driven by the foot-in-the-door effect:

“I always thought that asking small, an ask you can’t refuse from the godfather, works best. If you’re giving three dollars a month it’s much easier to up that to eight or ten than it is to go from naught to fifteen.” – Rory Sutherland

It’s not like I have to find cash or write a check and put it in an envelope. The kidney beans and mac ‘n cheese are within arms reach. Not only that, my kids collect it.

Charitable donation best practices are new to me but I’d wager that what works is ease. Make things financially, intellectually, or socially easy and people will do more. If the overhead is covered that removes the question: will my money go to to those who need it? A small ask might mean that people find doing easier than considering whether or not to. Charities, schools, or businesses can all remove the hurdles for their customers.


One other idea with-regards-to the classroom donations is the social lesson. The food is tangible and the kids collect it. There’s also probably some social signaling pressure among parents to ‘show up’. So net-net is a canned food drive ‘better’?

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