Even a Penny Will Help

A number of studies have looked at whether legitimizing a small donation with words like “even a penny will help” increases the number of donations. If saying “even a penny will help” encourages some people to give a small amount instead of nothing, it could also encourage  people who would have given a lot to give just a penny. What are the net effects?

The early experiments with “even a penny will help” involved door to door or street fundraising in which small amounts were all that was expected. The first such study, in 1976 (Cialdini & Schroeder 1976), involved door to door fundraisers for the American Cancer Society. After explaining who they were and what the American Cancer Society did, they asked, “Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?” In the experimental condition, they added “Even a penny will help.” Only 29% of those who were just asked for a donation gave one, but adding “even a penny will help” brought this up to 50%. There was no difference in the amount donated between the two groups, and the typical donation was a dollar.

An experiment that took place in Poland (Dolinski et al. 2005) with asking people on the street to give money also found that adding “even a penny will help” increased the donation rate from 50% to 68% and did not lower the total donation. However, the average amounts donated were very low, equivalent to less than 50 cents.

A recent experiment (Shearman & Yoo 2007) found that “even a penny will help” had both positive and negative effects in a fundraising drive for the American Heart Association in the food court of a mall. Adding “even a penny will help” raised the donation rate from 8% to 36%, but decreased the average amount given from $4.93 to $0.78. This is the first evidence that legitimizing small donations can actually drive donations downward, even in street solicitations where only small amounts of money are expected.

Finally, a fourth experiment (Brockner et al. 1981) tried to see if suggesting larger amounts than a penny would get people to donate, without bringing the average donation down as much as with the “even a penny will help” pitch. Experimenters sent solicitors to contact people door to door and over the phone to raise money for the National Reye’s Syndrome Foundation. They asked people for a pledge, sometimes adding nothing, sometimes adding “even a dollar will help, and sometimes adding “even five dollars will help.” Adding that even a dollar would help increased participation; adding that even five dollars would help increased both the likelihood of response and the average amount pledged.

ConditionPledgedAverage amount pledged
Control27%$3.75
Even $1 will help57%$3.68
Even $5 will help63%$5.59

Conclusion

  • Legitimizing a small donation with a phrase like “even a penny will help” makes it more likely that people will donate, but can decrease the amount given.
  • Raising this to “even a dollar will help” or “even five dollars will help” makes it more likely that people will donate and increases the amount given.
  • All experiments involve door to door, street, or mall fundraising to people who have never donated to the charity before. Nobody has tested legitimizing small donations on direct mail fundraising.

References:

Brockner, J., Guzzi, B., Kane, J., Levine, E., & Shaplen, K. (1984). Organizational fundraising: Further evidence on the effect of legitimizing small donations. Journal of Consumer Research, 11(1), 611-614.

Cialdini, R. B., & Schroeder, D. A. (1976). Increasing compliance by legitimizing paltry contributions: When even a penny helps. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,34(4), 599.

Dolinski, D., Grzyb, T., Olejnik, J., Prusakowski, S., & Urban, K. (2005). Let’s Dialogue About Penny: Effectiveness of Dialogue Involvement and Legitimizing Paltry Contribution Techniques1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35(6), 1150-1170.

Shearman, S. M., & Yoo, J. H. (2007). “Even a penny will help!”: Legitimization of paltry donation and social proof in soliciting donation to a charitable organization. Communication Research Reports, 24(4), 271-282.