Research | Nudge theory and charitable giving

publication date: Jun 21, 2018
author/source: Teresa Marques, Liz Hardy

Nudge theory has really come into prominence in the last few years. Thanks to the Nobel Prize in behavioural economics, there is an increased interest in applying new approaches to all kinds of areas.

Nudge theory is a good application of a behavioural science approach to encourage giving. By using behavioural insights, charities really can increase donations. In fact, Rideau Hall and Behavioural Insights have teamed up on some recent research showing the impact of this approach, which will be released soon.

Our lives are filled with things we want to improve - dieting, exercise, smoking. All of these are areas that we want to change. We know that one of the areas people want to change is giving more. Yet why is it hard to make these changes?

By using an evidence-based approach to decision making, you can shape actions in a positive way. This is because people are imperfectly rational. If you were perfect rational, you would have undivided attention, unwavering willpower, full information, and unlimited computational capacity. People have imperfect rationality because we have limited attention, wavering willpower, partial information, and limited computation capacity. 



Behavioural Insights offers a new tool in the toolkit. One of the best parts about BI is that it provides effective solutions that often cost very little to nothing to test or implement. It also involves evidence-based results using scientific methodology and statistical evaluation.

There are some key tools you can apply in your work using behavioural insights. Many of them will be familiar to you based on your experience but it is helpful to use them as a checklist.

1. Make it Easy – Remove even small barriers.
2. Get Personal – People respond better to personalized messages and personal appeals.
3. Use Vivid and Concrete Information – We are motivated to act on what is novel and seems relevant to us.
4. Highlight Positive Behaviours of the Crowd – We’re strongly influenced by what we think others are doing.
5. Use Commitment Devices for Future Action – We want to be consistent with the promises we have made, especially if they are public.
6. Think About the Messenger – How we react to a message is influenced by who the messenger is.
7. Frame Consequences as Losses – We feel losses much more strongly than gains of the same size.
8. Use Defaults – We don’t like change and will “go with the flow” of pre-set options.


For example, when applying BI to your work, think about platforms if you want to try a new concept to grow interest in your charity. Test the same concept for same idea for different platforms to help you identify which idea works the best. Bear in mind that things that are personal to the reader have high impact. 

BI also relies on thinking clearly about all aspects of a program. For example, there was recently a test campaign in Ontario for Organ donors. Research showed that 85% of people want to be organ donors but under 25% of Ontarians are organ donors.  In reviewing the process for recruiting donors, the researchers found that the consent form was coming at the end of a long transaction and the information was only on a screen.

By making the new form much shorter and giving it to people when they walked in the door, the new system gave people time to think. Potential donors could consider their decision while they waited for their appointment. Furthermore, the new form was printed on card stock so it is easier to fill in. Finally, the researchers tested four statements to find which one motivated donors the most to sign up.

We still have lots to learn about behavioural science but the opportunities are great. Anything that can help us do our work better, with minimal cost, is a valuable discovery.

Teresa Marques, CFRE Director, Strategic Partnerships Rideau Hall Foundation Teresa Marques is the Director of Strategic Partnerships of the Rideau Hall Foundation, an independent and charity established to amplify the Office of the Governor General, and established during the mandate of His Excellency, the Honourable David Johnston. She is an instructor at Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees and has pursued post-graduate studies at Dalhousie University’s School of Continuing Education, with a focus on non-profit governance. Teresa is interested in how giving patterns in Canada are changing, and is seeking to drive social change through philanthropy while strengthening the non-profit sector and civil society more broadly. Follow Teresa on Twitter: @Termarques

Elizabeth Hardy Senior Lead, Behavioural Insights - Impact and Innovation Unit Privy Council Office, Government of Canada Elizabeth Hardy is Senior Lead, Behavioural Insights at the Impact and Innovation Unit, overseeing the application of behavioural science and design to public policy challenges. Prior to joining the Government of Canada, Elizabeth held several senior leadership positions, including leading the Behavioural Insights Unit in the Government of Ontario, where she was instrumental in creating and building Canada’s first behavioural science team in government. To date, Elizabeth has successfully completed trials dealing with public health, financial decision-making, tax collection, regulatory compliance, and service delivery. She is Co-Chair of the Behavioural Insights Community of Practice in the Government of Canada and Chairs the pan-Canadian Behavioural Insights Network (BIN). Her work with the Ontario Government on organ donor registration was awarded the prestigious Amethyst award for outstanding achievement.

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