Paradox of Choice

July 31, 2015 - by Lesley Hostetter

I recently received an appeal in the mail from an organization I support. The letter and case for support were strong, but when I got to the reply form, my head started to hurt. There were so many choices!

To begin with, I had to choose one of three different ways to give.

I could make:

  1. a one-time gift to the C4

  2. a one-time gift to the C3, or

  3. a monthly gift to (circle one) the C3 or C4 – another choice!

Each option had different suggested gift amounts, forcing me to think even harder about my choice. Should I really give a larger amount to the C3, as the ask string suggested, since my gift would be tax deductible? Wait a minute – what have I donated to in the past – the C3 or C4?

Hmm, I should probably figure that out before giving again.

At this point, I was starting to lose any motivation I had for donating. But, I continued to review the reply. And what did I find? More options!

I could:

  1. give by check to the C3,

  2. give by check to the C4, or

  3. give by credit card (circle one!) to C3 or C4.

Then, to make my choice even more difficult, on the bottom portion of the reply, I learned of four more ways to enhance my giving!

I could:

  1. give monthly

  2. get my employer to match my gift

  3. make a gift of stock, or

  4. make a legacy gift.

So, what choice did I make?

I chose to do nothing. I didn’t give because the choices overwhelmed me, and I got the sense that the organization didn’t know how they wanted me to give either.

While Americans love to have plenty of choices in virtually every aspect of their lives, in the world of direct response fundraising, we need to be careful about how many choices we offer donors. When presented with choices – especially too many choices – most people will act like I did, and simply do nothing.

Does this mean that we should only ever offer one way to donate? Not necessarily.

Several non-profits we work with have found great success with appeals that ask donors to give in one of two ways: with a one-time gift or by giving monthly. This choice is explained in the letter and then reiterated on the reply form (using the back of the form for payment information, keeping the front “clean” and simple).

Not only do these organizations have success converting donors to sustainers, they also see an uptick in one-time response rate. Why?

We can never know for sure, but my hypothesis is that donors see the monthly giving option and, while they may recognize that this is helpful to the organization, they don’t want to commit to it. So they end up feeling guilty, and choose to make a one-time gift instead. In this situation, having two choices actually improves fundraising!

It reminds me of a story I recently read about Williams-Sonoma. They used to only sell one breadmaker for $279, but no one ever bought it. What did they do to increase sales? They introduced a second breadmaker for $429. When shoppers saw the more expensive model, it moved them to buy the less expensive one. All of a sudden, sales for the original breadmaker surged.

Having too many choices can paralyze us, but so can having too few choices.

So, what’s a direct response fundraiser to do? It’s critical that we test. Test the offer, test the number of giving options, test the placement of these options on the reply form, test the ask amounts. The testing options are virtually limitless.

Alongside testing, use your intuition. Look over your reply forms and ask strategies before you mail. Are they straightforward? Is it clear what the “best” option is? Make sure that your offer is clearly phrased and compelling, aligned with the letter copy, prominent on the reply form, and easy to say “Yes!” to.

Put yourself in the donor’s shoes and look at everything from his or her perspective. Above all, don’t make them think too hard!


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