Telling donors they are generous

People often live up to others’ expectations of them. Some fundraisers have thought to use this by telling donors they are generous people, then asking them to behave generously by donating money. This is called “labeling” and has strong support from several research studies.

The first experiment on labeling potential donors as generous (Kraut 1973) involved two visits by door to door fundraisers to homes. During the first visit, the fundraiser asked for a gift to the American Heart Association. If the subject gave money, the fundraiser reacted in one of two ways, selected at random: half the time she just thanked the donor, and half the time she thanked her and told her “You are a generous person. I wish more of the people I met were as charitable as you.” She also gave the donor a health leaflet with a card attached that said “Charitable people give generously to help a good cause and those less fortunate than themselves. Are you one?”

If the subject did not give money, half the time the fundraiser just gave her a health leaflet, but the other half of the time the fundraiser said “Let me give you one of our health leaflets anyway. We’ve been giving them to everyone, even people like you who are uncharitable and don’t normally give to these causes.” Attached to the health leaflet was a card that said “Uncharitable people give excuses and refuse to help others. Are you one?”

Two weeks later, a second fundraiser came by the house asking for money for the Multiple Sclerosis campaign. They recorded whether the person made a donation and how much. The results showed that labeling a donor as generous after the first donation had a large positive effect on the second donation. Labeling a non-donor as uncharitable after the first donation had a small negative effect on their second donation.

ConditionAverage gift
Donated the first time, labeled as charitable$0.70
Donated the first time, not labeled$0.41
Did not donate the first time, labeled as uncharitable$0.23
Did not donate the first time, not labeled$0.33

Labeling donors as generous can be as simple as reminding them that they previously gave money. In a field experiment using direct mail (Kessler & Milkman, 2016 ), the American Red Cross sent mailings to 17,000 lapsed donors – people who had given previously but not in the last 24 months. The donors were randomly assigned to two conditions, in which the mailings were identical except that the control condition had a line just above the salutation that said “Previous Gift” and gave the date but not the amount of the gift. Just providing this information about a previous gift was enough to increase the response rate from 6.3% to 7.6%.


Telling donors that they are generous people works: it can get them to enact that generosity by giving you more money.

Telling donors that they are generous is simple – even just reminding lapsed donors of their previous donation can significantly raise response rates.


Kessler, J. B., & Milkman, K. L. (2016). Identity in Charitable Giving. Management Science.

Kraut, R. E. (1973). Effects of social labeling on giving to charity. Journal of experimental social psychology9(6), 551-562.