News and analysis
December 23, 2014

Fundraisers Who Use Academic Research Do Better, Study Finds

About half the nation’s nonprofits consult scientific studies on how best to approach donors, and those groups that do so are more likely to raise more money, a new report says.

Nearly 1,200 groups from the United States and Canada responded to the survey, which was designed to learn how groups use scientific findings and whether those that do had better results this year than last.

Organizations that reported an uptick in donations—29 percent of the total—were more likely to regularly evaluate their fundraising methods than those who didn’t. Those that at least sometimes performed evaluations that incorporated scientific findings also were more likely to report an increase in donations.

But the report offers evidence that about half of groups are not availing themselves of a growing body of scientific literature on fundraising.

A Spurt in Research

During the past decade, more and more university researchers have begun to study how the brain works when people donate, or how the behavior of others affects one’s decision about where and when to give, and how much.

The study, conducted by the Science of Philanthropy Institute, a research center that operates out of the University of Chicago with the help of grant money from the Templeton Foundation, and the Nonprofit Research Collaborative at the School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, found that one of every two organizations reported it lacked staff members who have studied research methods. (The Chronicle aided in the study by inviting groups on its mailing list to participate.)

Nonprofits with annual budgets of less than $250,000 were less likely than large ones to have someone on hand with some knowledge of the scientific method. Over all, only 7 percent of groups surveyed said they always consult research before making fundraising decisions, while 45 percent reported they sometimes do.

"While larger organizations are starting to look at science when they make their fundraising decisions, smaller ones have a long way to go," says Edith Dobrez, executive director of the Science of Philanthropy Institute.

Why Experiments Matter

She encourages groups of all sizes to not only use studies conducted by academic researchers, but to design their own experiments as well, perhaps by offering several types of fundraising approaches at the same time and then measuring the results of each.

"Our findings show the value of using the scientific method and of using randomized studies and control groups," Ms. Dobrez says.

Nearly half of the groups surveyed said they would consider using research methods to test new fundraising approaches.

"The encouraging thing is that more than 70 percent of all groups at least occasionally evaluate their fundraising methods," Ms. Dobrez adds. "Our hope is that they tap the available research more often as they move forward."