How Food Banks Can Boost Year-Round Donations

By Paul Thomas Zenki

Three-step system to increase off-holiday food supplies …

In the summer of 1972, researchers from the Department of Psychology at New York University stole radios right in front of people on a beach. And by changing just one thing they did, they drastically raised the percent of observers who tried to stop them —  from 20% to 95%. Believe it or not, this same technique can prompt food bank donors to return and give more.

A team led by NYU’s Thomas Moriarty spent the summer of ’72 punking beachgoers by having one of the team lay down a beach blanket within five feet of another one, turn on a transistor radio, hang out for a couple minutes, then leave. Soon after, someone else would walk by, grab the radio and take off with it.

Before walking off, though, the accomplice with the radio would say one of two things to a target person on the neighboring blanket. To half of them they’d say (so the subject would know they had no companions with them):

“Excuse me, I’m here alone and have no matches. Do you have a light?”

To the other half, the accomplice instead said:

“Excuse me, I’m going up to the boardwalk for a few minutes, would you watch my things?

Getting an agreement to “watch [the] things” made the difference between the 80% of people in the first group who “typically watched the thief take the radio, and continued watching the thief until he was gone from view”, and the 95% of people in the second group who “typically [responded by] calling to the thief to stop (which he did not do), getting up and chasing the thief to stop him [and] demanding an explanation”, at which point the first person showed up to reveal what was going on. (Moriarty, 1975)

This is one among decades of studies, along with data from countless marketing and political campaigns, to demonstrate the power of agreements. There’s a way for food banks to reach agreements with donors that can help relieve the problem of low donations outside of “giving” holidays by generating a second annual donation at another date and reinforcing the idea of off-season giving within donors’ minds to stimulate even further donations.

To craft a program that will work, though, we’re going to need data-driven answers to a few questions:

  1. Who do we ask to commit to a donation during the year?
  2. When and how do we ask so that most people agree?
  3. How do we spread out donations evenly across the calendar?
  4. When and how do we follow up so most people give as agreed?
  5. Who do we need as partners to actually make this work?

Who to ask

As it happens, the NYU team followed up with a similar experiment at bus stops, this time either asking one person to watch a bag, or asking the group generally. Only asking specific individuals to commit caused a similar spike in compliance. The request to everybody made virtually no difference. (Moriarty 1975) People only feel responsible if they have made an individual commitment, “I will do this.” So the request has to be made to individuals, not by radio or billboards or magazine ads or social blasts or any such “shotgun” media.

Several people waiting at a bus stop
Asking everybody is the same as asking nobody (Photo by jplenio)

Anyone in direct-response marketing can tell you that your highest response rate will come from people who have taken a similar action recently. And the very highest response will come from those who’ve done so with your organization. So your current donors are the ones to ask.

You shouldn’t be afraid to ask for more from folks who have just helped you out. Case in point, a pair of Stanford experiments back in the ’60s became textbook standards when they documented the strength of prior agreements and acts by asking folks to do something they probably didn’t want to — either give a couple of strangers access to their entire house for a couple of hours to make a survey of cleaning products, or display an ugly sign on their lawn to promote safe driving or keeping their state beautiful.

Some of these folks were given the request “cold”. Others had been previously asked if they’d be willing to do something quick and easy, like take a survey on soaps, or use a small “drive safe” sticker, or sign a petition in favor of state beautification. Some were asked to actually do these things, others were told they were part of a survey and might be contacted later. Everyone was approached for the inconvenient request regardless of how they responded.

In the “first contact” groups, about 20% agreed to the inconvenient request in each of the studies. (The same compliance rate as the NYU “cold” subjects, as it happens.) Being asked if you’d help, without having to do so, hiked up the “yes” rate to 33%. Having been asked before to actually do something quick and easy brought compliance rates up to more than 45% if the task was different and/or it was for a different cause. If the cause was the same and the tasks were similar, compliance rose to more than half, in one study as high as 76%. (Freedman & Fraser, 1966) And that was for a difficult ask!

I’m currently involved in an annual fund drive for a non-profit and despite (or actually because of) the current pandemic situation, we raised our target by 1/3 over last year and raised our ask as well. We hit that target over Christmas, so we ratcheted up our goal by another 25% (and advertised that fact) and we made that over New Year. Our highest return on marketing spend, by far, has been from previous cash donors, especially current donors. Cold prospects, previous in-kind (non-cash) donors, and non-recent cash donors all predictably respond at much lower levels. Interestingly the repeat donors sent in about 70% of the contributions, but the most recent donors had the highest median donation, from 20% to 50% more than other groups.

When to ask

You want to ask for this extra commitment from your donors during the holiday giving booms, for a few reasons.

First, because that’s when they show up. You should get people on board when they are giving, not just because they’re there to be asked, but also because we tend to be more agreeable to doing something later when we are doing that same thing at that moment — in this case, when we are thinking of ourselves as “a person who donates to the food bank”. Also, people are in the right frame of mind during the holidays when generosity is being emphasized. As Robert Cialdini puts it, they are “pre-suaded” to be in an agreeable mindset, and to see the request as normal and appropriate.

Food banks tend to be very hectic places during the donation booms, so you’ll need to make the ask and the sign-up process very quick and easy. The logistics will depend on your set-up, but you might steal a move from Chick-fil-A and have volunteers work the lines as people come in. If you put the process outside on the way in or out (a la Girl Scout cookies or Salvation Army kettles) you’re going to miss people. But if it comes between queuing up and handing over the donation, if it’s baked into the process of giving, a request to do the same task for the same cause just once more should secure a very high agreement rate. Plus, people are more likely to agree if they’ve seen others around them signing up.

Of course, there’s still value in other channels. A holiday postal mailing to cash donors on your house list, both individual and corporate, who are recent givers, repeat givers, and high-value-lapsed givers should have a lower but significant response rate. The ask could be tacked on to an annual fund drive mailer. An email campaign will have an even lower response rate, but it’s still worth the effort if you have a house list of recent donors (preferably opted-in to your mailing list) and you use an email service that lets you personalize with individual names. (Never rent or buy email lists, by the way.) Targeted social media is another option, if you can dial-in your fans and followers, but only if you have a call-to-action that lets them sign up right then and there.

If possible, try to get a commitment to make a specific or minimum donation, such as a dollar amount or a quantity of food. The more specific the commitment, the more likely the donor is to honor it. Plus, it reduces the chances that someone gives you just five bucks or two cans of beans when their day rolls around.

When to call in the chips

All right, we know that we need to ask directly and individually, that we’re going to ask current donors, and that we’re going to get them on board during the holiday giving season. So, when are we going to call on them for the extra donation?

Well, there are two goals we have to meet: maximizing response and spreading the donations out evenly over the year. Birthdays score high on both counts. What you want is to reach an agreement with your current and recent donors that they will make one more donation, on their birthday (or some other significant day of their choosing, for example if their birthday is December 24th or they’re reluctant to give out their birthday), either of food or cash, depending on their preference. You can approach corporate donors with requests for founder’s day gifts.

The follow-up is essentially a birthday card.

Boy blowing out candles on a birthday cake
We feel more generous when others are doing things for us (Photo by Alain Audet)
That’s another advantage to birthdays  —  we’re expecting to be contacted about them, so the card doesn’t seem intrusive. Also, donors are more likely to remember having signed on if the agreement involves their own birthday, and therefore are more likely to follow through. Plus, people tend to give us things and do things for us on our birthdays.

That last point matters because having things done for us makes us much more likely to do things for others. One of my favorite experiments on that topic is a classic from 1976, in which a couple of professors from Brigham Young sent Christmas cards from fictitious people to nearly 600 real people. Twenty percent of folks who got the cards added the nonexistent senders to their own Christmas card list, and just 6 of them asked who these people were. Some sent letters and photos. (Kunz & Woolcott, 1976) Human beings just feel a basic urge to give when we get. Of course, that experiment was predicated on people actually having Christmas card lists. Brian Meier at Gettysburg College replicated the experiment in 2014, and the return rate was a piddling 2%. (Meier, 2016)

This mailer, whether postal or digital, should contain the following:

  1. A birthday / founder’s day / or other significant day greeting;
  2. A quick thank-you for what their previous donations have helped accomplish;
  3. A second thank-you for agreeing to make their additional donation, and a reminder of why it is important (what will it do that they can be proud of?);
  4. Instructions on how to respond by donating food or contributing cash, and the means to do so (click-through link to a donation page, phone number to reserve a time to come in, BRE and response card for check and credit donation, etc.);
  5. A polite PS saying that if you haven’t heard from them within a certain time, you’ll check back to see if perhaps they have moved or if they want to be dropped from the program.

If you have sufficient data on your donors, you can preface postal cards with an email reminder alerting the donor to be on the lookout for the mailer. Just one extra touch-point can really help to maximize your response rate. In the case of business donors, you can try a personal note from a board member thanking them in advance, followed up by the appropriate staff contact.

Who can help

The idea here is simple:

  1. During the holiday boom, ask current donors for a commitment to give one more donation a year, on a birthday or other significant day.
  2. Follow up through the donor’s preferred channel — postal mail, email, or text — and follow up with a phone call if possible or other repeat contact if no donation is received.
  3. Repeat, and keep track of your donors.

But in practice, all of that takes work and resources. And it’s not as though folks who work at food banks spend their days looking for things to do — your typical pantry is chronically understaffed. So it’s best if partners can be brought on up front who will commit to the following:

  • Signing folks up during holiday drives;
  • Creating and sending “birthday” cards;
  • Following up with non-responders.

For the labor, look to local civic and religious organizations, especially those who have retirees among their ranks who have the time to take off for the activity and who garner respect for their age. Local printing companies and franchises are ideal co-branded sponsors for the cards themselves and for on-site displays to alert in-person donors to the program before they are approached. It’s best to find partners who consider this program “their” project and take pride in its success.

If enough food banks do this, it could become a thing, and 50 years from now young people will assume that folks always gave away food on their birthdays.

Moriarty, T. (1975). Crime, commitment, and the responsive bystander: Two field experiments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(2), 370–376.

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(2), 195–202.

Kunz, P. R., & Woolcott, M. (1976). Season’s greetings: From my status to yours. Social Science Research, 5(3), 269–278.

Meier, B. (2016). Bah humbug: Unexpected Christmas cards and the reciprocity norm. Journal of Social Psychology, 156(4), 449–454.

Header image by US Navy, public domain

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.