Salvation Army BucketA few years after college, I took a position as a sales engineer. After one customer visit with no result, my boss queried, “Did you ask for the order?” In fact, just about every sales coaching book reminds new salespeople of the importance of asking for the order when the time is right. Similarly, solicitors for non-profits know how important it is to ask for the donation rather than simply providing the opportunity for the donor to do the right thing. A large study used the familiar Salvation Army fundraisers who solicit donations outside supermarkets to show how important the “ask” is. The study compared passive bell-ringing (the standard practice) to asking passers-by for a donation with these words,

“Hi, how are you? Merry Christmas. Please give today.”

Adding that simple verbal request increased contributions by 75%.

Avoiding the Ask

There was a downside to the more aggressive solicitation, though. The experimenters tested a variety of configurations at the supermarket entrance to see if people would change their behavior when solicited. They found that a third of the shoppers avoided the verbal solicitation when an alternate door was easy to access. And when the researchers placed their solictors in a way that shoppers using both main doors would encounter an “ask,” a quarter of the people detoured to a less convenient side entrance. Asking for a donation may work, but not everyone likes it.

Non-profit Strategies

The original paper, Avoiding The Ask: A Field Experiment on Altruism, Empathy, and Charitable Giving, goes into the concepts of motivation and altruism in great detail. The main tactical takeaway for non-profits, though, is that an in-person “ask” is a powerful tool; for these small contributions, simply speaking a few words to the potential donor boosted contributions by 75%. There was no additional information provided, no commentary on how the funds would be used, etc. The sole difference in solicitations was a passive solicitor vs. one who used a simple, nine-word greeting and request for donation.

The aggressive avoidance of being asked for a donation by some shoppers shows that providing an easy alternative to an ask will result in fewer people being solicited. It seems, though, that these individuals were less likely to contribute and hence the total collection was impacted less than one might expect. While charities can’t force people to listen to their pitch, it would be a good strategy to avoid situations where the potential donor can avoid the solicitor entirely. It seems that a good part of the increased giving for verbal solicitations is the mild social pressure it creates, which is why the less-willing donors strive to avoid any contact. Perhaps they fear either being exposed as cheapskates or socially blackmailed into making a contribution.

Online Asking

While most charities offer a way to donate online, usually it’s in the form of a “Donate Now” or similar button. That’s fine, but would performance be improved by a live chat option? In other words, would interacting with a human online produce the same kind of social effect as seen in the supermarket study?

Offering live interaction on a busy site would, of course, be costly in money and/or volunteer hours. A less expensive way to try to create a “personal” nudge might be to simulate human interaction with an animated person (e.g., this or this), or even a popup with a photo of a person asking for a contribution.

While the only way to determine whether any of these would work is by actual testing, my intuition is that simulated human interaction would have a greatly reduced effect when compared with a real person. At the same time, non-human effects shouldn’t be entirely discounted; various experiments have shown that behavior can be changed by mirrors, pictures, and other inanimate objects.

Business Tactics

Although asking shoppers for pocket change is very different than trying to close a major sale, the lesson still applies. Like the donors who bypassed the silent Salvation Army solicitors, buyers will often find ways to avoid or postpone making a commitment. Asking for an order has multiple benefits – often, doing so will expose customer questions or objections that were previously not evident and which can be dealt with immediately. Most importantly, nudging customers toward a decision with a specific “ask” won’t convert them all, but the social difficulty of saying “no” will get at least a few off the fence.