The Anchoring Effect

The good folks at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School do us a favour by defining the “anchoring effect.” The effect is a cognitive bias that describes our tendencies to rely heavily on the first piece of information offered when we make decisions[1]. We tend to use that initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments and decisions. In philanthropic giving, we can use this to guide how we treat our new donors.

A donor decides to give to a cause. What drove them?

  • Were they feeling inspired?
  • Guilty?
  • Were they chasing happiness?
  • Was there a personal connection for them?
  • Did they do research, carefully reviewing your annual report and last five years of financial documents on your website?

It is in our best interest to reinforce the anchor that determined their decision and the thing that will continue to influence their decisions going forward. This is a way we can use what we already know about psychology to inform our fundraising and stewardship. Your next communication should flow from whatever you can glean from your “sale” and/or the brand attributes you have validated through market research. If you score highly on “trust” as an organization and the signatory of the direct mail piece that got the donation was your CEO, why not anchor the donor’s decision with a text, email, or recorded message from the CEO to immediately thank them for their decision to donate.  

There is also the idea of sales reinforcement that good organizations know how to do, to cement the good feeling we get from buying something. You can earn yourself some positive retention resonance through your early donor or customer treatment.

The Steps

Make sure you are clear what you are trying to do:

Reinforce a shaky sales process OR build on the ‘good feelings’ momentum for example

Choose speed

Determine the quickest path to reinforce the brilliant decision the donor just took, from gift to first communication

Best content first

We are either concerned about monthly giving attrition or the velocity of one-time giving. Let’s take our best content and put it front and centre and early.

Ask about them

Find out what you can about them that fits the theme or elements of your communication. Note: no surveys about communication preferences this early. They don’t know you yet and don’t know what you’re serving for dinner.

Show off, a bit

If you have a strong social presence, include the links to your Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram or YouTube

These are things you can do right away to build on the psychological effects that are associated with giving. Anchor the great decision to support your cause and reinforce that message quickly. That is how you create fans of your efforts and impressions that last a lifetime.

[1] PON Staff (2019). “The Anchoring Effect and How it Can Impact your Negotiation.” Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation.