Nine Words Nearly Double Results


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.

  1. Devon Payton says

    Roger, just in case no one has told you lately, the information you share helps many of us become more effective in our businesses. Im sure you are also the reason why some sales associates are able to keep their jobs as well. Please know that we think your posts are extremely effective and relavent. Thanks.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks, Devon, I greatly appreciate the feedback! Both here and in my book Brainfluence I try to focus on very practical applications of neuroscience and behavior research, and it’s good to know some people find that helpful!


  3. Chester Butler says

    This was a timely article. Doctors Without Borders is a charity I have noticed that frequestly asks for the order after telling good story. They do indeed let you feel the pain.
    I am amazed that so many charities do not use the edthical sales techniques available and then hire a marketing firm that uses outdated telephone pressure tactics that turn off so many people.

  4. Tomek Jablonski says

    I used to sell cars and I remember picking up a sales book by Mark Tewart. It’s called “How to be a Sales Superstar, Break all the Rules and Succeed Doing it”. Have you ever read that book, Roger?

  5. Mark Simchock says

    Interesting, And it makes sense.

    Having done some fundraising that way myself, I’m not so sure it’s the ask per se. Yes, it helps but often it’s just the interaction, adding a human element (as you mentioned) and most of all showing some passion.

    I’ve seen people “fundraising” by just sitting at a table and reading a book. That’s not fundraising. That’s reading a book and killing time. Hardly an inspiration for me to stop, reach into my back pocket and part with some cash. The fact is, simply standing there with your hand out is lame. Who’s going to donate to lame?

    What would be interesting is to take it a step further and see if two people (one ringing and one asking) has any impact. Or what about age? Or gender? Or some combo of all of the above? Perhaps there’s a optimal set of attributes of the asker(s) that would maximize results?

    Good stuff. Thanks Roger.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good insights, Mark. It seems likely that the additional engagement by the solicitor cause both the increased giving levels and the detouring by those people who didn’t want to engage. The standard practice for Salvation Army solicitors, I think, is to ring the bell but not converse (though I’ve seen them do so). I totally agree that a solicitor who is totally disengaged (reading a book, texting, etc.) is a turn-off. I’ve seen similar behavior by workers manning trade show booths, and their disinterest is totally off-putting.


      1. Mark Simchock says

        Honestly, the biggest problem I’ve had asking (as well as giving myself) is the fact that less and less people carry cash.

        1. Roger Dooley says

          Excellent point, Mark. There’s a definite need for super-simple swipe technlogy for debit and credit cards. That’s a whole different dynamic, though, compared to pocket change. Still, I could see a board with reader slots for “$1” “$5” etc. Ideally, the donor would barely have to slow down.


  6. Randall Plitt says

    On a related topic, I’ve wondered if the persons engagement with giving (or the cause) is related to the activity they are engaged in when exposed to the ask? I recently heard a talk from Jennifer Aaker about the “Happiness of Giving” and the strength of that motivator over, say, guilt.

    For example, is it better for a charity to solicit “partner donations” (i.e. a percentage of sales) or put a coin box at the register? Is there a guilt (i.e. negative) connection to spending money on yourself then donating to the cause?

    Which would be most effective at raising funds: a percentage of sales, the opportunity to give an extra amount to a cause during your payment transaction, a coin box at the register, or a coin box further from the point of purchase?

  7. Willem Maas says

    Related to “online asking,” Wikipedia has tried to create a personal nudge with donation requests on the site that include a headshot photo. They began with Jimmy Wales, and have lately expanded to a variety of wikipedia contributors.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’ve seen that, Willem – the request for donations is certainly front & center! It’s a bit overbearing – I think if they replaced the static photo with, say, a full motion Jimmy Wales, it would be effective but perhaps too annoying for many users.


  8. Anthony says

    As you alluded to at the end of your article, asking is also very important because it can get you a “no” faster. Although you would like to sell to everyone, your offer is not going to be right some people. Better to get a no now so that you can move on to others who might be interested.

  9. cono_sur says

    Very interesting article, Roger! The topic is fascinating!

  10. Kayleen says

    It seems as though we can not escape charitable donation at check-out. You can’t swipe your card anywhere without a prompt for donation to breast cancer, autism, depression, homeless animals, or save a whale. I am desensitized to it all. I have decided to donate on purpose and not on impulse. Although asked, I decline.
    A movement for creative, inspiring reasons to give is needed. They are ALL worthy, but just as in business, why should I choose one over the other? Give me something to work with people!

  11. Jed Knudsen says

    Roger, I have been listening to your podcast for the last year and just noticed you did a link to my site in this article back in 2011.
    I was reading the article and it reminding me of an experience I recently had on a Ferry in the Bahamas. On the ride over to a neighboring island an energetic but poorly dress man gave us a lively and entertaining tour of the surroundings.. He would not be considered a professional speaker by US standards, but he was 100% committed in his delivery and performance. At the end of the ride he told us boldly that he was not an employee of the boat, but worked off of tips and that he would now come around and collect tips from us. He was clear and direct about what we were supposed to do and came around to everyone on the boat before it docked. He stood by people waiting as people looked through their wallets or purses to find bills to give him; He probably received about $80-$100 from the 20 or so people he had entertained in this 15 minute ride.
    In contrast, on the way back a young man about half his age attempted to entertain us, but his lack of commitment to the delivery of the stories and jokes became uncomfortable. And at the end he gave a lack luster speech about his non-affiliation with the boat. However, he was not clear about what he wanted us to do or confident in his request. He didn’t come around to each of us one by one. He just stood in the same place where he had ended his message. He probably received $30. He didn’t understand the importance of ASKING for the money and clear explaining how he wanted us to give it to him.
    But haven’t we all made this mistake before?. Maybe we “phone in” our pitch or we become self-conscious or feel awkward about asking for the money at the end. You have to give the people a great presentation and then clearly ask them for the money before the boat docks or they get off and you never see them again..

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